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.