Fighting for animal liberation and an end to speciesism
I don’t eat lamb…You feel guilty. It just feels kind of like…they are very gentle. Well, cows are [gentle, too, but] we eat them. I don’t know how to describe it….It seems like everybody eats cow. It’s affordable and there are so many of them but lambs are just different….Seems like it’s okay to eat a cow but it’s not okay to eat a lamb…the difference is weird.
Interview subject: 43-year-old meat eater
I don’t [think of animals raised for meat as individuals]. I wouldn’t be able to do my job if I got that personal with them. When you say “individuals,” you mean as a unique person, as a unique thing with its own name and its own characteristics, its own little games it plays? Yeah? Yeah, I’d really rather not know that. I’m sure it has it, but I’d rather not know it.
Interview subject: 31-year-old meat cutter
Consider the above statements. A meat cutter wouldn’t be able to carry on with his work if he thought about what he was doing. A meat eater is affectionate toward one species but eats another and has no idea why. Before being asked to reflect on their behaviors, neither of these individuals thought there was anything odd about the way they relate to the animals that become their food, and after such reflection their awareness quickly “wore off.” So the meat cutter kept the unpleasant reality of his job at bay and continued to process animals, while the meat eater suppressed his mental paradox and continued to eat them.
What is perhaps most extraordinary about the sentiments above is that to most of us—including those of us who are committed to critically examining our beliefs and behaviors, and the impact of our choices on others—they arenot extraordinary. All of us who are born into a dominant, meat-eating culture have inherited this paradoxical mentality: We know the animals we eat are individuals, yet we’d rather not know it. We’d feel guilty eating certain animals, yet we take pleasure consuming others. We cringe when faced with images of animals suffering, yet we dine on their bodies multiple times a day. We love dogs and eat pigs and yet we don’t know why.
Widespread ambivalent, illogical attitudes toward a group of others are almost always a hallmark of an oppressive ideology. Oppressive ideologies require rational, humane people to participate in irrational, inhumane practices and to remain unaware of such contradictions. And they frame the choices of those who refuse to participate in the ideology as “personal preferences” rather than conscientious objections.
It is essential that those of us who espouse progressive values and thus support social justice initiatives recognize the paradoxical mentality of meat. Because although this mentality is pervasive, it is not inherent in our species—it is the product of an oppressive ideology so entrenched that it is invisible, its tenets appearing to be universal truths rather than ideologically driven assumptions. This ideology shapes and is shaped by the same type of mentality that enables other oppressions, and it is therefore essential to address if we hope to create a more just social order. Eating animals is not simply a matter of personal ethics; it is the inevitable end result of a deeply entrenched, oppressive ism. Eating animals is a social justice issue.
Carnism: The Ideology of Meat
Carnism is the invisible belief system, or ideology, that conditions us to eat certain animals. Carnism is the opposite of veganism; we tend to think it is only vegans (and vegetarians) who bring their beliefs to the dinner table. But when eating animals is not a necessity for survival, as is the case in much of the world today, it is achoice—and choices always stem from beliefs. Most of us do not, for instance, eat pigs but not dogs because we don’t have a belief system when it comes to eating animals.
Yet most of us have no idea that when we eat animals we are in fact making a choice. When we are growing up, forming our identity and values, nobody asks us whether we want to eat animals, how we feel about eating animals, whether we believe in eating animals. We are never asked to reflect upon this daily practice that has such profound ethical dimensions and personal implications. Eating animals is just a given; it’s just the way things are. Because carnism operates outside of our awareness, it robs us of our ability to make our choices freely—because without awareness, there is no free choice.
Carnism, like other oppressive, or violent, ideologies whose tenets run counter to core human values, must use a set of social and psychological defense mechanisms that disconnect us, psychologically and emotionally, from the truth of our experience. In so doing, carnism enables us to support unnecessary violence toward others without the moral discomfort we would otherwise feel. In short, because we naturally feel empathy toward animals and don’t want them to suffer, and yet we nonetheless eat animals, carnism must provide us with a set of tools to override our conscience so that we support an oppressive system that we would likely otherwise oppose.
Denial: See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil
The primary defense of carnism is denial: if we deny there is a problem in the first place, then we don’t have to do anything about it. And denial is expressed through invisibility; carnism remains invisible by remaining unnamed so that eating animals is seen as a given rather than a choice, an impartial act rather than an ideological practice. Moreover, the victims of the system are kept out of sight and thus conveniently out of public consciousness.Animal victims are, for instance, routinely and legally forcibly impregnated and castrated, and their beaks, horns, and tails are cut off—all without any pain relief. They spend their entire lives confined in windowless sheds, in crates so small they can barely move, and it is not uncommon for them to have their throats slit while conscious or to be boiled alive. The dismembered bodies of slaughtered beings are everywhere we turn, and yet we virtually never see these animals alive.
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