In 2001, the American social psychologist and vegan activist Melanie Joy coined the term “carnism.” Its fundamental meaning emerges in the opening of her 2009 book, “Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows”:
“Imagine, for a moment, the following scenario: You are a guest at an elegant dinner party. You’re seated with the other guests at an ornately set table. The room is warm, candlelight flickers across crystal wineglasses, and the conversation is flowing freely. Mouth-watering smells of rich foods emanate from the kitchen. You haven’t eaten all day, and your stomach is growling.
“At last, after what feels like hours, your friend who is hosting the party emerges from the kitchen with a streaming pot of savory stew. The aromas of meat, seasoning and vegetables fill the room. You serve yourself a generous portion, and after eating several mouthfuls of tender meat, you ask your friend for the recipe.
“‘I’d be happy to tell you,’ she replies. ‘You begin with five pounds of golden retriever meat, well marinated, and then.’ Golden retriever? You probably freeze mid-bite as you consider her words: the meat in your mouth is from a dog.”
Implicit here is the paradox of the human ability to eat chicken flesh avidly but to flinch at the notion of eating dog meat (at least in the Western part of the world). According to Joy, it’s not an individual thing but a collective one. Thanks to a sophisticated system of beliefs, most of them subconscious, cultural conditioning classifies certain species of animals as acceptable for eating, or for consumption in other ways (clothing, footwear, objects of entertainment), and others as unacceptable. Culture makes it possible for us to be compassionate to some creatures and love them, but to turn off the compassion button for others.
Joy coined the term “carnism” to describe this phenomenon while working on her doctoral degree at Saybrook University in California. She reworked the findings of her research into a catchy, easy-to-understand psychological theory. It was all crystallized in her book, which became a best seller in the U.S., and has been translated into 13 languages so far.
The title of the recently published Hebrew version translates as, “The Cow in the Room: The Psychology of Eating Meat”: For the book to make cultural aliyah, it was necessary to shoo the pigs out of the original title. According to Joy, one idea was to replace “pigs” with “birds” or “chickens.” But the translator, Debbie Eylon, and the editors decided that it would be awkward and that a different title would be preferable. “Seeing that I don’t speak Hebrew or know the Israeli culture, I decided to trust them,” Joy told me during her recent visit to Israel to promote the book.
Melanie Joy, 51, is one of the best known and most beloved voices in the world vegan movement. In contrast to Gary Yourofsky, with his militant style, the tall and striking Joy is elegant and sociable – and even joyful, as per her name – and even those who are not proponents of veganism find her likable. One trait that helps her get her message across even to meat eaters is her outlook: She doesn’t divide the world dichotomously into meat eaters and vegans, nor does she think that people who eat meat are “the problem,” whereas those who abstain from meat and dairy products are “the solution.” Instead, she considers carnists to be “vegan allies.”
When we met at a café (vegan, of course) in Tel Aviv, Joy noted that she has encountered many people who believe in veganism but aren’t yet ready to become full-fledged vegans themselves. “I’ve visited 38 countries on six continents,” she continues, “and in every one, most of the journalists who interviewed me are meat eaters, but still choose to talk to me about the subject and transmit the message. Some donors to our organization” – called Beyond Carnism – “are also not vegans, but the goal is so important to them that they are willing to donate to it. The time has come for vegans to open the ranks and make room for the allies among the meat eaters.”
In Israel, vegans are often considered preachy and self-righteous, even violent – and in some cases there’s a degree of truth in that criticism.
“Vegans are diverse people, just as non-vegans differ from one another. People in every culture represent the norm of that culture, so if in Israel there’s a culture that’s direct and not politically correct, it follows that a subculture group will also be like that. On top of which, many people have a vested interest in focusing exclusively on the radicals among the vegans, and showing through them that ‘those vegans are violent.’ By the way, in every country I’ve visited, vegans always ask me whether I’ve been to Israel already. Israel is considered the beacon of the vegan movement in the world, and many people wonder whether it will become the world’s first vegan country, with more vegans than carnivores.”
For that to happen, it will be necessary to remove a few layers of a dismissive attitude toward vegans in Israel. You must have encountered the notion in academe, as I have in the media, that veganism is not a subject worth dealing with, or that the occupation with it has become totally disproportionate.
“I feel that there has been a change for the better in academe. It’s accepted to engage in [the subject of] human-animal relations, and veganism is part of that. But in general, carnism works like any other oppressive method, by encouraging people to hold in contempt whatever challenges the hegemony. In many places, vegans are said to be ‘sentimentalists,’ which is another way of saying irrational. And if you’re not rational, your message is not valid. That’s of course a way to leave the system as it is. We saw the same thing with feminism and slavery.”
To a degree, the term “carnism,” novel as it may be, is based on well-founded studies and terminology. The most telling of these is the sociological concept of “dominant culture,” referring to the strongest, most widespread and most influential culture within a particular human group. The dominant culture derives its clout by means of control (by coercion or by democratic methods) over such institutions as the media, education, art and so forth. Another term that can facilitate an understanding of carnism, one that Joy herself frequently recruits for her explanations, is “hegemony,” referring to the dominance of a custom that is not felt at the everyday level, because of its extensive and natural presence in many aspects of life.
Does the fact that there’s now a name for mechanism that allows people to eat meat without pangs of conscience contribute to anything?
“Giving a psychological mechanism a name makes it possible for people to step out of the system for a moment, to put aside the question of personal responsibility and look at themselves and their culture from the side. That explains how good-hearted people can take part in a cruel practice, and it makes them feel more comfortable. They’re not bad people, they’re part of the mechanism: ‘It’s not me, it’s society.’ It’s important for vegans to understand that different people remain carnists for different reasons, and that people change only when they’re ready to change.”
Memories of the abattoir
Joy was born and raised in California. She was a carnist in every respect until, at the age of 23, while she was working on her master’s degree at Harvard University, she fell ill with a serious intestinal disease, after eating a hamburger tainted with campylobacter bacteria. It was one of the worst experiences of her life, and when she recovered, she decided to become a vegetarian – something that allowed her to take a hard look at the truth behind the meat industry. From there it was only a short step to understanding that equal degrees of cruelty exist, in terms of exploitation of animals, in the dairy, egg and fashion industries.
Joy became a vegan and grew interested in the psychological mechanism of meat eating, which in turn led to her Ph.D. research.
Three years ago – five years after Joy had embraced veganism – her mother followed suit, at the age of 70. “She and her husband decided to become vegans together,” Joy says, “and now she publishes nonstop petitions on Facebook in favor of animals, and various posts on the subject. If my mother and her husband could do it at 70, then, really, anyone can.”
After obtaining her doctoral degree, Joy became a lecturer in psychology and sociology at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, before moving to Berlin a few years ago in the wake of her German partner, Sebastian. The two were married last year. On their wedding day, Sebastian surprised her and the guests by announcing that he had changed his surname to that of his wife – he is now known as Sebastian Joy. He heads one of the most ambitious of the vegan organizations currently operating, ProVeg, whose aim is to reduce global meat consumption by 50 percent by 2040. To that end, the organization encourages vegan nutrition from a positive, joyful approach as opposed to an aggressive, militant one.
Melanie Joy, for her part, co-founded Beyond Carnism in 2010 with Tobias Leenaert, who is also German. That organization, which has offices in Massachusetts and in Berlin, has as its goal “to heighten awareness of carnism, challenge the carnist defenses and empower vegans,” she explains.
Why is it important to empower vegans?
“For many vegans, it’s a challenge to be in an environment in which meat eating is the dominant culture. That can be hard, when you know the terrible things that are done to animals and you see people around you, some of them very close, eating meat and taking part in the mechanism. Psychologically, it exacts a price. It’s true that being vegan is itself empowering, but not everybody sees it that way.
“The psychology of meat eating – carnism – is a mechanism that’s built for long-term preservation, therefore one of the ways to achieve that is to teach us to believe the bad stereotypes about vegans. Sometimes vegans don’t have to do anything, only to mention that they’re vegans, for a whole series of assumptions to be made about them. People think it’s legitimate to laugh at them, criticize them, badmouth them for their beliefs – things that aren’t acceptable when it comes to other minority groups. They’re told that they are ruining the meal, that they’re hippies, self-righteous, moralistic, violent.
“In our workshops, we explain to vegans how to communicate their veganism in a way that will lower defenses and resistance, and also how to handle themselves, because many of them have post-traumatic symptoms in the wake of what they’ve seen, be it in slaughterhouses or in videos about them.”
It’s the first time I’ve heard that such harsh sights can cause post-traumatic symptoms.
“Clearly. There is a high post-traumatic rate among vegans because of what they’ve seen. Almost everyone has a hard time watching the abuse of animals, and that’s certainly the case with people who are able to bridge the gap between the basic compassion that we are imbued with, and the dominant practice of eating meat.”
A contemplation of carnism raises intriguing questions. Why do so many religions have prohibitions and other rules related to meat eating? is meat one of the things most frequently prohibited in most religions? How is it that in a certain culture, it’s the norm to eat meat with blood, while in others it’s not? Why is eating dogs considered normal on one side of the world but taboo on the other side? Who decided that cat meat is not as much of a delicacy as lamb? And, why do the French eat snails but not crickets? And so on and so forth.
According to Joy, there is no connection between the objective characteristics of an animal species and the cultural custom of eating it or not. It is, she says, a purely cultural conception. When a particular culture allows animals to be eaten, the animals are perceived to be devoid of individual traits and personalities, or as unable to feel suffering, at least not of the emotional, social or parental kind. In contrast, qualities of stupidity, herd behavior and indifference are usually associated with animals that have become consumer products. Think of the image that chickens have, and then think again: Are chickens really that dumb? Who knows.
For animals, the good news is that in every study that has examined compassion toward animals, the respondents are always empathetic to one degree or another. In every experiment in which people were shown images of animals suffering, they displayed physiological indices (perspiration, movement of facial muscles, brain activity) that attest to empathy. The bad news for animals is that this basic instinct of empathy and compassion is overlaid by a thick, deeply embedded and resource-rich mental system that essentially works to bury that empathy deeply when it comes to eating animals or wearing products made from them.
That massive layering is composed, Joy explains, of what she calls in her book “the Three Ns of Justification”: namely, the idea that eating meat is “normal, natural and necessary.” The most acute and most interesting N is “normal”; the existing order is perceived as so normal that it cannot really be called into question. So “normal” that many people in Western society believe that the values in question are universal, not cultural (i.e., according to universal thinking, animals feel suffering less than people). The “natural” component reflects the notion that it is in our nature to consume animals, and the “necessary” element summons up the rationales of health (vitamin B12 deficiency, the horror of anemia, the protein myth and so on), utilitarianism (it’s hard to change a way of life) and culture (our forefathers ate meat, etc.).
In her book, Joy points out that these N-words “have been invoked to justify all exploitative systems, from African slavery to the Nazi Holocaust.” She adds, “When an ideology is in its prime, these myths rarely come under scrutiny.”
Ignorance is also a factor. Many people are unaware that pigs are as intelligent and sociable as dogs, or that the production of a glass of milk entails a cruel practice of systematically tearing calves away from their mothers, or that even in free-range egg production, male chicks, for which there is no commercial use, are ground to death in big machines. Joy’s theory does not deal with knowledge and its absence, but only with psychological mechanisms.
Says Joy: “In his book ‘The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide,’ the American psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton wondered how it had possibly come about that physicians – who had taken the Hippocratic Oath – constituted the engine of the Holocaust. Moreover, the Holocaust was based on information that is supposedly medical – and here you have the ‘universal’ component of justifying a dominant culture. Lifton interviewed Nazi doctors in order to understand their psychology. His findings speak of ‘paralysis of the mind,’ a situation in which it was possible to stop feeling empathy for individuals. He also found a mechanism of ‘middle knowledge – something one knows and does not know.’ At one level of consciousness, they knew they were doing wrong, that they were taking part and even validating a problematic mechanism, but at a different level of consciousness they forced themselves not to know. “Applying this to carnism, we can say that today, most people know that industrial agriculture is problematic, that animals have feelings and that they suffer. Everyone now understands that meat necessarily involves the killing of an animal, but at a different level of consciousness, they don’t want to know all that.”
Carnism and Nazism
The connection between carnism and Nazism has often been made, but recently we’re hearing about a new connection – between veganism and feminism. How are the two movements related?
“Feminism is out to eradicate the patriarchal, which is a male ideology of domination, control and power. It’s the same with veganism. The domestication of animals is like the domestication of women: Both serve male interests. In the case of chauvinism, they are truly male interests, and in the case of veganism they are interests that are identified as being male in character, but which are of course not only the preserve of men. Overall, it can be said that in both you find an approach to other beings as a means. On top of this, female animals in the food industry are the most wretched of all. They are forced to breed. In the case of cows, their offspring are taken away; in the case of chickens, they provide eggs under cruel conditions. To eat animals is to a certain degree an anti-feminist choice. Feminism seeks a more compassionate world, and carnism is not a compassionate practice.
“It’s important for us to understand that eating animals is not only a matter of personal ethics but a final result of a dominant system. At the deepest level, everyone who is acting for social change is effectively aiming at a change of consciousness. In the case of carnism, too, we are interested in encouraging people to reconnect to their empathy, no matter who the victim is. As such, it’s a positive movement not only toward animals but in general. Social-justice movements don’t replace one another, but reinforce each other. I’ve studied and observed many social movements from the psychological aspect, and it’s clear to me that the direction veganism is taking is similar to that of the war against sexism and chauvinism.
“Veganism will soon be the dominant ideology, and it’s carnism that will decline,” Joy declares. “We will mark products with the letter C, meaning they contain carnist elements, and not with V for vegan. It’s just a matter of time. It’s amazing to see what has taken place just in the last decade. Veganism has become one of the largest social-justice movements in the world. Veganism is not supplanting other social-justice movements, such as feminism or anti-racism, it is standing proudly alongside them.”