The basic must-knows of carnism and neocarnism

March 7, 2012

Melanie Joy’s celebrated presentation on carnism and the psychology of meat-eating is finally online in its entirety. If I could have people watch or read one thing about animal rights, it would probably be this. It’s about an hour long and truly worth engaging with if you’ve got some free time. Melanie Joy is an extremely articulate and brilliant animal, and I believe her work is at the forefront of animal liberation philosophy and practice.

I think it’s important to note that in some societies meat-eating is not a choice, but truly a matter of survival. We have to discuss this carefully. Many people are frankly offensive when they talk about what “survival” does and doesn’t mean in terms of food. In my experience, many folks use the word “survival” not to connote actual, literal life-and-death situations, but to justify chosen behaviors. The classic carnistic protein myth–that one needs protein to survive and that meat is the only good source of protein–is a perfect example of this. One simply needs protein to survive and, save extremely rare physiological conditions that you almost definitely don’t have, one can get all of the protein they need from plants. Another good example of the faulty invocation of food-related survival is when we use words like “omnivory”, a necessary practice, to refer to what is actually carnism, a set of choices and beliefs. We’re calling upon the naturalist fallacy here to justify chosen behaviors and beliefs. Biologically speaking, we are not obligate omnivores. We will not die or get sick without meat. Therefore it is more accurate to refer to meat-eating as an ism or ideology, just as we do with veganism.

So when I say that some peoples use meat for survival, I don’t mean folks debating whether human teeth were “made” for slicing and chomping meat and deciding in the affirmative; I don’t mean the oft-spouted fallacy that we must eat meat to get all of our essential nutrients and amino acids; I don’t mean various vague, often new-age, often inexplicable “intuitions” that it just feels better to eat meat and that this is the only information one should need to make ethical decisions. By “survival”, I mean that a person has no other choices. Some Inuit peoples might represent an example of this: in most Arctic climates plants cannot grow, and for some traditional Inuits, it is virtually impossible to even get to locations where there is access to a larger variety of foods. Unfortunately, and absurdly, many meat-eaters use this extremely harsh survival situation to justify their first-world meat-eating. I’ll draw another example from current personal experience: right now, I am a teacher for Burmese refugees and political exiles who, at times, have had to escape into the forest for long stretches with no food at all. If they come upon meat and eat it, that is survival. Survival is pre-moral because survival is not a choice and is therefore not based on beliefs and ideology.

So, to talk about both carnism and veganism, we must recognize the differences between survival and the luxury of choice.

These survival scenarios couldn’t be more different from a person– like most of us reading this blog– in the “developed” world who has some level of informed choice over what they eat.

These scenarios couldn’t be more different from somebody who chooses to have chickens in their front yard in Brooklyn or Boulder instead of growing a vegetable garden.

These scenarios couldn’t be more different than a farmer making the choice to farm animals instead of plants.

These scenarios couldn’t be more different from somebody who chooses to buy flesh or eggs instead of legumes and vegetables at the grocery store or farmer’s market.

These scenarios couldn’t be more different from somebody who chooses to eat locally slaughtered pigs instead of locally grown vegetable products.

I have a bias: I feel flustered and offended that such situations are framed as survival to so many meat-eaters, when there are about a billion people in the world who have no food at all, and the mass existence of non-necessary, first-world carnism is so destructive to the world and everyone’s food supply at large. Let alone the fact that with the luxury of choices comes the incredible ability to enable the survival of others by not eating them.

The point is this: Basic survival is not a matter of ethics. Chosen behaviors, including most meat-eating, are. They have their roots in complex ideology. For most people, meat-eating is based on carefully-constructed, mutually-reinforcing cognitions and actions. And since most people are good people who don’t want to cause unnecessary suffering, to unnecessarily eat meat requires complicated feats of cognitive dissonance. Simply put, the core identity as a nonviolent person, on one hand, and the behaviors, on the other, of most carnists don’t match up. Not even the kindest person in the world can eat meat without engaging in violence. Carnists must use complicated defense mechanisms to navigate this disconnect. Those defense mechanisms become the basis of an entire ideology structured around meat-eating. This ideology, like all ideologies of the dominant culture– patriarchy, white supremacy, ecocide, capitalism, heterosexism– remains largely invisible and taken for granted.

This is, in my eyes, the core of Melanie’s research and teachings: that almost all people identify, consciously or not, as non-violent people. They would generally never harm another human except in perceived self-defense; they wouldn’t harm the vast majority of most nonhumans, either. They only harm those seven or eight species–out of hundreds of thousands–who fall into the tiny, culturally-constructed group of “edible animals” (in US culture, this groups consists basically of cows, pigs, lambs, a couple types of bird, and a couple fish and crustacean species. The “edible animals” group changes from culture to culture but always remains tiny.) We are compassionate, empathetic, and creative creatures, yet we make choices several times a day–some people, every time they eat–that have unnecessary suffering and death at their core; we are gentle and full of love, yet for some of us, the only contact we ever have with fellow creatures is literally as so many dead body parts on a plate. We use the ideology of carnism and its attendant defense mechanisms to maintain this disconnect. We shut down, we justify, we deny, we intellectualize, we look away, we naturalize, we objectify, precisely because we care and are good people.

Since Melanie talks about this in much more detail and with much more eloquence, you should watch the video to learn more about the intricacies of how we, as cultures and individuals, banish the realities of meat from our awareness so successfully. I think both carnists and vegans and everyone in-between will get a lot out of it.

Melanie has also recently published an illuminating article that touches on many of the issues in this blog, entitled Understanding Neocarnism: How Vegan Advocates Can Appreciate and Respond to “Happy Meat”, Locovorism, and “Paleo Dieting”.  She breaks down the psychology, cognitive dissonance, and defensiveness behind three issues central to neocarnist ideology: compassionate carnism (humane meat), ecocarnism (carnism for ecology’s sake), and biocarnism (carnism as biological imperative). She frames neocarnism as a backlash against veganism– which, in some respects, we should take as a positive sign that veganism is working as a movement. Unsuccessful movements do not inspire backlash.

Watch it. Read it. Love you.

C


“Food Miles and the Relative Climate Impact of Food Choices in the United States”

April 20, 2011

This study is a must-read for anyone concerned with food politics. It’s one of the only studies done on the issue. Abstract and full text are available here: Food Miles and the Relative Climate Impact of Food Choices in the United States

For those not into the technical language of scientific articles, here are the basic findings:

1) Food miles are not an accurate way to measure a food’s ecological footprint. Transportation of food accounts for only about 15 percent of its ecological footprint.

2)Production, storage, whether a food is animal or plant, non-carbon greenhouse gas emissions, scale, and other factors account for about 83 percent.

3) An accurate picture of a food’s environmental impact needs to include all those aspects and that can be done much more throroughly with a life cycle assessment (LCA). Movements for ecological sustainability would fare much better if they used the LCA instead of the food miles model.

4) It is impossible to do an all-encompassing study on the climate impact of food. This study is based on the “average” US household. Unmeasurable factors might play a role in many situations. Despite, these findings point to critical issues regarding diet and ecology.

5.) For the average household, eating vegan food one day a week achieves more of a reduction in environmental degredation than eating local animal products every day. Or, more precisely: “The results of this analysis show that for the average American household, ‘buying local’ could achieve, at maximum, around a 4−5% reduction in GHG emissions due to large sources of both CO2 and non-CO2 emissions in the production of food. Shifting less than 1 day per week’s (i.e., 1/7 of total calories) consumption of red meat and/or dairy to other protein sources or a vegetable-based diet could have the same climate impact as buying all household food from local providers.”

I look forward to more work being done on this, and more conversation being had.


Lierre Keith, trans-hatred, veganism, feminism, liberation: a start

January 7, 2011

I want to thank the Transmeditations Blog for bringing this information to our attention in a post that elucidates Lierre Keith’s really unsettling (to say the least) and quite explicit hatred, sterotyping, and writing off of trans/gender queer folk. Please read it.

I repost this not in an attempt to take a shallow dig at Lierre Keith, though it is challenging for me not to take that dig. Indeed, this post, Keith’s simplistic and offensive comparisons between various complicated social identities, her lack of willingness to see the vast, matrix-like complicatedness of gender, sexuality, bodies, and minds, her use of assumption and stereotype, and her rehashing of old theories/writings from a particular group of notoriously trans-hating “radical”, white, US second-wave feminists — this all gave me a sick feeling in my stomach and made me feel deep anger and sadness. However, I’m reposting it because I want to question the whole idea that one can be effectively involved in radical food politics without a substantiated, nuanced, creative, and non-reactionary (a.k.a. fear based, backwards-looking) exploration of gender.

Another radical vegan explores Lierre Keith’s rabid trans-hatred here.

For now, let me say this: In this blog, we seek to challenge not only Lierre Keith (honestly, she doesn’t matter all that much in the grand scheme, not even really in the semi-grand scheme) but to challenge ideas being put forth by generally well-intentioned but reactionary critiques of veganism. Often these ideas leave out veganism’s critical and real connections to ecology, capitalism, gender, racism, and human rights in general. Lierre Keith represents just one of a group of thinkers who disconnect these issues explicitly and implicitly (usually implicitly). Indeed, hardly any of her core ideas are original. It is the picture she paints, the picture she supposedly lives, which lends itself to a larger analysis that goes far beyond her.

We are not only vegans, but human rights advocates. We see human and non-human liberation as intricately intertwined. We see connections between gender and veganism that go on for miles. These issues go beyond, even, ecology and environmentalism, leading us to questions like: What of domination, cages, jails, in general? What of questioning the very existence of breeding animals to be captive farming instruments/objects? What of our rabid defensiveness around this issue, our unwillingness to even entertain the  idea of a world without hundreds of billions of animal objects? What of the fact that animal agriculture represents the most large-scale, violent manipulation of reproductive systems, others’ sex, and bodies-in-general that has ever existed? What of challenging the deep-seated construction of the human/animal dichotomy that so mirrors the false dichotomies of human identities (black/white, man/woman, et al.?) I want to write a larger post on this issue at some point… a post about vegan feminism, about human and animal liberation, about so many ways in which veganism must be considered as a radical, liberatory philosophy and practice directly related to, and intertwined with, human liberation. I’ll write that post soon. For now, good night, and don’t forget to revolt.


Introducing the Carnism Awareness and Action Network

December 4, 2010

We are excited that CAAN: Carnism Awareness and Action Network has kickstarted. This is a great resource for vegan advocates and meat eaters alike, dedicated to naming the invisible paradigm that allows well-meaning people–people who have other choices–to choose to eat some animals and not others.

CAAN’s mission statement:

CAAN’s mission is to expose and transform carnism, the invisible belief system that conditions people to eat certain animals. CAAN empowers vegetarian and vegan advocates and concerned citizens through education and activism.

Accordingly, CAAN espouses the following beliefs and principles:

  • The production and consumption of animal products is the leading cause of animal exploitation and environmental degradation and a major contributor to human disease, human rights violations, and unjust taxation via animal agriculture subsidies. We therefore believe that carnism poses a direct threat to both animal and public welfare and must be addressed with urgency.
  • We believe that most people care about animals and do not want to cause them unnecessary harm; therefore, when people choose to eat animals they act against their own interests, as they must violate their core values.
  • Because it is impossible to objectively discuss the issue of eating animals as long as we are operating from within the system – unaware of the structure and effects of carnism – we believe that it is necessary to expose carnism in order to have a valid public dialogue about the legitimacy of animal agriculture.
  • Because carnism is organized around violence and deception, we believe that transforming the system is essential for creating a just, sustainable, and democratic society.
  • Carnism is a system of victimization that exploits carnists and pits carnists and vegetarians against one another. We believe that carnists and vegetarians must unite in order to transform the system.
  • We recognize that many people, such as those who are economically disadvantaged or geographically dependent on eating animals, do not have the luxury of reflecting on their food choices.
  • We acknowledge that carnism is one of many systems of interlocking oppressions and that social transformation requires a broad social analysis.
  • We are committed to total nonviolence, in action and attitude. CAAN does not endorse physical violence or degrading language.
  • We believe that the time is ripe to challenge carnism and that with enough public support we can, and will, transform the system.

Carolyn’s thoughts post-book

August 22, 2010

There’s still a lot more coming, and apparently we can’t get our butts together enough to be linear! Keep coming back!!!

For now, I, Carolyn Z, offer my thoughts after a few weeks off to contemplate this book:

1. The mere existence of thriving, healthy vegans and widely successful vegan permaculture undermines all of Lierre Keith’s major theses in The Vegetarian Myth. The rest of my conclusions/afterthoughts are secondary to this.

2. When all’s said and done, this book is a veritable infomercial for “paleo” and anti-carb diets. It leaves no room for questions about dietary racism and classism; the problems of urban food accessibility and peak oil; the problems of overpopulation (she mentions it briefly at the end but offers no useful analysis and doesn’t problematize her theories in relation to it, which would upset everything she’s said); and tons of other problems that complicate what is ultimately a utopian vision, impossible to implement at the large-scale without a massive reduction in the human population– and that’s a whole other can of worms involving first world privilege, capitalism, racism, mass exploitation, and on and on.

3. This book isn’t about vegetarians. The title is disengenuous. The Vegetarian Myth is about vegans. It is unclear why Lierre Keith chose to focus her self-righteous passion on vegans, since we are about 0.5 percent of the US population, and the vast majority of people in the US are meat-eaters who subsist on cornstuffs and other products that Lierre Keith despises. Furthermore, upwards of 80 percent of the corn produced in the United States is used to feed cows for animal agriculture.

4. This book is not even really about vegans; it’s about Lierre Keith’s hatred of vegans. Excuse me for the following, but I’m a psychology nerd and I’ve held off ’til now: The Vegetarian Myth reads as a tortured letter that Keith has projected from her subconscious, as if she can only deal with her flaws (self-righteousness, ignorance, childishness, etc.– everything she charges vegans with) when she sees them in others. It seems Lierre Keith is deeply confused about her life and her own stance towards politics, and seems pathologically anxious/obsessive about her relationship to food-in-general, in a manner that goes far beyond politics. I would consider that much of her projected, seemingly debilitating anxiety about food might point to the fact that she has an eating disorder herself (something else she obsessively projects onto vegans), but I don’t think this is the right forum to get into that loaded discussion. Suffice to say, if it is true, then I implore Lierre Keith to get help for that serious issue, and not misguide the energy of it into valid, crucial food politics. Keith seems to have a really hard time with nuance, with not perceiving the world in reactive extremes– this, literally, developmentally, is what scared children do when they feel traumatized or unprotected. None of this makes her bad– at all. It just makes her human. I don’t hate Lierre Keith; I’ve never met her (though we do live in the same town. Say hi, Lierre, if you see me–I promise not to poo on you. I’m tall and white with a semi-conscious propensity for dressing like Oliver Twist, and I have really bad depth perception and am always walking into things– sometimes I’m hard to miss in that sense.) I just want her to admit that she’s human and that she has disseminated faulty information about issues that literally have to do with life and death. In short, a grounded, integrated person with a realistic relationship to their inevitably flawed human-ness and the difficult realities of a flailing, complicated planet, would not need to write in the manner Lierre Keith does. In fact, it seems they would try to be as accessible and non-judgmental as possible so as not to alienate and insult their intended audience.

5. A critical conversation about the destruction that’s been cause by human civilization and agriculture is necessary. A convenient, paleofantasy-based nostalgia for a perfect time that never truly existed is not. Not only does this paleofantasy reek of biological determinism, which should always be questioned, but it takes us away from present reality, which includes carnism and human privilege. There are significant reasons to believe that these things are a) hugely responsible for much destruction of the planet and b) one more violent, instrumentalist ideology analogous to sexism, racism, etc. Even if you disagree with theories about speciesism and carnism, totally leaving them out makes for a dishonest analysis.

6. Don’t listen to me. Read this book if you want. But no matter what your diet, take this book with a grain of salt. There is, objectively, a lot of misinformation in it. Do your own research. Get some perspective by considering this and other critiques, and by looking into the many complicated vegan analyses that Lierre Keith pays no attention to. We all know not to believe everything we see on TV… the same goes for books.


A note about carnism from Chris and Carolyn

July 15, 2010

CARNISM

Hi. We use the words “carnism” and “carnist” in this blog, which some people may not be familiar with, so we should explain them. First we should note our bias regarding carnism. Carnism in a concept named by social psychologist and professor Melanie Joy, who is one of our dear friends. She is the leading researcher on the psychology of meat-eating, and has done highly original and extensive academic– and inevitably controversial– research on the issue. Both of us have worked with her in various capacities as research assistants and manuscript readers.

Carnism can be described as “the belief system, or ideology, that allows us to selectively choose which animals become our meat, and it is sustained by complex psychological and social mechanisms.” This is essentially a naming of something– meat-eating– that is passed off, like many other ideologies, as “natural, normal, and necessary”, when in actuality it is a complicated system of constucted beliefs, biases, assumptions, and practices. It can be considered a sub-set of speciesism, and in some ways it’s the ideological “opposite” of veganism. Many vegans, and a lot of carnists, have intuited this idea on some level for a long time.

One of the mechanisms of carnism is that people tend to split animals into various constructed mental categories. In the USA, some animals are in a category that involves some version of unconditional love and friendship, like cats, dogs, other “pets”, and sometimes, well-regarded animals like horses. Some animals are in the mental category of “wild” and/or “exotic” animals, like lions, tigers, giraffes, and bears– many of the woodland creatures in North America and many of the the animals of the African deserts and South American rainforests. Other animals, like rodents, insects, and snakes, often end up in the “dirty” or “untouchable” animal category. Another category is “intelligent” animals like primates, dolphins, and many sea mammals.

But even though most animals are edible, there are very few animals who end up in the “food” category. For most carnists in the US, this category is basically narrowed down to six or seven animals– cows, chickens, turkeys, pigs, fish, and more marginal “food” animals like lambs, young cattle (veal), goats, and ducks. In industrial societies, the “food” category animals differ somewhat from culture to culture, but out of the millions and millions of animal species, this category almost never ends up including more than ten or so animals. To say the least, we are very, very selective about those who end up in this category. Because most humans have a self-identity of non-violence, coupled in many minds with a love of animals or at least an understanding of their right to existence, Dr. Joy argues that the “food” category is carefully contained and maintained by a complicated and deeply embedded structure of psychological numbing, defenses, and cognitive dissonance. This carefully researched analysis is in part informed by highly-regarded theories of psychologists like Robert Lifton (author of the groundbreaking book, The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide) and others who have studied the mechanisms of violence, bias, and oppression.

We invite you to explore the questions: Why do such a miniscule amount of species, out of millions and millions, end up in the “food” cateogory? What kind of psychology does this involve? What kind of ideology? How have these animals ended up in this category? What are the similarities between the mechanisms of carnism and ecocide, inter-human oppression, and all other instrumentalist ideologies? What are the defenses that come up when we compare these mechanisms? Can we have a healthy earth if our food system, and our minds, are permeated with ideas about “meat”, which most of us understand in some way as the ultimate objectification (for instance, feminists don’t want to be treated like it. At least subconsciously, feminists understand the implications of “meat” when applied to themselves.)

Furthermore, would Lierre Keith or her followers eat cats or dogs? Many carnists dismiss this as an unreasonable question, but it’s not– they’re edible, breedable, and abundant. They’re probably more, if not just as, accessible for food-related purposes as the “food” animals. What about horses? Lions? Parrots? Cardinals? Chimpanzees? Beetles? Racoons? Any of the animals not placed, presumably against their will and for human ends, in the “food” category? Our opinion is that generally they would not, especially if not in an acute survival situation (like truly having no other options, or being stranded on an island.) We would believe it only if we saw it. Even then, we don’t believe it would happen without an intensity of disgust, conscious mental conflict, and/or emotional reaction that is incomparable to the minute, or total lack, of reaction that most people have when they eat “food” animals.  This discrepancy is not based in biology, or anything objective–it is based in very carefully constructed human perceptions. We believe this is a critical part of the conversation, because it involves violence, bias, cognitive dissonance, and an enormity of emotional, logical, practical, and spiritual inconsistency. We believe there’s a lot of important information there, in those inconsistencies.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 62 other followers