Fighting for animal liberation and an end to speciesism
For many vegetarians, living in a meat-eating world is a daily challenge. Vegetarians are minorities in the dominant, meat-eating
culture and are surrounded by images, behaviors, and attitudes that
often offend their deepest sensibilities. They are incessantly forced
to witness the profoundly disturbing consequences of our culture of
meat, from the body parts of dead beings lining the aisles of the
grocery store to speciesist slurs that degrade farmed animals (e.g.,
"disgusting pig" or "fat cow"). And their strong emotional reactions,
such as grief, despair, anger, and horror--which are normal,
appropriate responses to witnessing violence and exploitation--are
often dismissed or ridiculed, as they may be labeled "sentimentalists"
or "tree huggers."
Yet what is most painful for many vegetarians is the fact that seemingly decent human beings continue to participate in the very culture that causes such suffering. It is difficult at best to
reconcile how a "good" person can support such cruel practices, and it
is all too easy for vegetarians to view meat eaters as selfish,
inhumane, and, ultimately, "bad" people. This view is the primary
reason vegetarians have such an emotional charge towards meat eaters,
especially the meat eaters they're closest to and toward whom they may
have powerfully conflicting emotions: love/resentment,
respect/disregard, trust/anger, etc. Though understandable, such
emotional reactivity is ultimately counterproductive: it generally
causes vegetarians great distress and offends meat eaters, reducing the
chances that the meat eater will reconsider her or his dietary choices.
So in the end we all lose--vegetarians, meat eaters, and the animals.
Becoming aware of the psychology of meat can help vegetarians transform their frustration to understanding, and make them more effective advocates. Also, it can help meat eaters--who are at once
participants in and targets of a violent system--to better understand
their own relationship with meat eating, a relationship that ultimately
is not in their own best interest.
I have argued that there is an invisible belief system, or ideology, that informs the dominant culture's relationship with meat. I call this ideology carnism. Carnism is the opposite of vegetarianism;
it is the belief system in which it's considered ethical and
appropriate to eat (certain) animals. As long as meat isn't necessary
for survival, meat eating is a choice, and choices always stem from
beliefs. (The terms omnivore and carnivore reflect a
biological predisposition, rather than an ideological
orientation--carnists don't eat meat because they are biologically
omnivorous, just as vegetarians are, but because they choose to.)
Carnism has tremendous power to shape people's perceptions of animals and the meat they eat, guiding their choices like an invisible hand. Like other dominant systems, carnism is entrenched--it is embraced by all major institutions from the family to government--and it is also internalized,
constructing our perception of the animals we learn to eat before we're
old enough to say our own names. They myths that eating animals is
normal, natural, and necessary are so ingrained in our consciousness
that meat eating is seen as a given, rather than a choice. Carnism is a
violent, exploitive system that is dependent on the participation of
the populate for its continuation. And because most people do, in fact,
care about animals and don't want them to suffer, carnism is structured
to enable humane people to participate in inhumane practices without
fully realizing what they're doing. The system is maintained by a
specific set of defenses, both external (social) and internal
(psychological) that block one's ability to take in the reality of
meat; they transform one's natural empathy into apathy and so meat is
experienced as appetizing rather than disgusting. These defenses are
also the reason many carnists react negatively to vegetarians or
Carnistic defenses are extensive and intensive, and they aren't dismantled easily. Most vegetarians were once carnists, and were aware, on some level, that animals had to die for their plate. When confronted
with resistant carnists, it's easy to forget one's own history of
carnism, and that asking carnists to stop eating meat is not simply
asking for a behavioral change, but for a change in identity--a
fundamental shift in how they relate to animals, their food, and
Understanding carnism can help vegetarians separate a carnist's behavior (e.g., eating meat) from her or his character, to have patience with and compassion for carnists, and therefore to communicate
their message more effectively.* And the more compassion vegetarians
bring to their interactions with carnists, the more compassion they can
help cultivate in the carnists--and in the end, everyone benefits,
including the animals.
* In Strategic Action for Animals I dedicate a chapter to the principles of effective communication as well as specific tools to use when conversing with carnists.
Melanie Joy, Ph.D., Ed.M. is the author of Strategic Action for Animals: A Handbook on Strategic Movement Building, Organization, and Activism for Animal Liberation (Lantern Books, 2008) and the forthcoming Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows: An Introduction to Carnism (Conari Press). Dr. Joy is a psychologist, activist, life coach, and professor of sociology and psychology at the University of
Massachusetts, Boston. For more information see www.melaniejoy.org.
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