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

Advertisements

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.


Chapter 2: What about inter-dependency?

July 17, 2010

What about inter-dependency?

Keith writes in chapter two: “I’ve had it backward all these years. I’m not exploiting them. They’re happy, safe, warm, and fed. I’m the one who’s miserable. Chickens won’t even walk in snow, let alone haul supplies to me. That wet drip sliding down my spine was like a cold jab of reality. Chickens have gotten humans to work for them. In exchange, they take care of us, but not by bringing us water. By providing food—meat and eggs—and a whole constellation of other activities useful for farms.” The ideas here are quite seductively presented, indeed. Stylistically, Keith is a very good writer. But this is another example of Keith making impossible claims. I feel I need to offer another, just as valid, way to frame the above example:

You’ve domesticated chickens and took them as “your own”, without their consent. You are the party with the privilege, weapons, technology, and power to do this. You and this chicken have not had equal hands in creating this. Probably, like most chickens, they were bred for the purpose of being instruments for humans ends. They didn’t ask you for help—you domesticated and took them, which inherently implies use of power—and they didn’t offer help in return. In fact you have no idea what they are or aren’t “asking” because you are not in their world. This is about as anthropomorphic as something can get– yet you reel against anthropomorphism again and again throughout this chapter. The chickens almost certainly, though, didn’t “ask” you to be killed for food; women don’t ask to be raped, slaves don’t ask to be “taken care of” by slave owners, and the fact that slave owners have decided they need slaves doesn’t mean they’ve all of a sudden become a slave too, the moment their slaves need to eat. The dominated party has no power. This above is a dominator-created, self-justifying narrative.

I understand I’m using language here that might be triggering. But if we are really being honest with outselves, I’d say this re-framing is just as valid, if not moreso, than Keith’s– valid enough to honestly consider. Remember, comparisons are not equations; no individual experience of violence can be equated to another, but I believe, if we are to have an egalitarian world, people need to consider the similarities that underlie most types of violence. Keith writes, “Domestication is not human domination.” She is wrong. Why? Because she leaves out “human privilege” here– the fact that a) we have a conscious ability to choose that does not, by any evidence, compare to the conscious abilities of other animals, and b) that we have developed unprecedented methods of power over all life, human and nonhuman– these methods have defined animal farming and agriculture in general. Humanity’s ability to dominate– domesticate– nature is the foundation of all agriculture, and it is a complete deviation from the rest of nature’s relationship to itself. The relationship between nonhumans and humans represents an unprecidented level of inequality and “power over”. We cannot conveniently pretend that we relate to nohuman animals and plants in the same manner that animal in plants in “nature” relate to each other–as Kieth goes on to speak of in the rest of the chapter. Her reasoning here is frightengly analogous to justifications of inter-human domination: Men and women need each other, and their heteronormative gender roles, to survive. Men need women to cook and clean, and women need men to earn the money. Slave owners end up depending on slaves to get the work done. Slaves depend on slave owners for food, shelter, and hopefully, they will not get beaten or killed. The capitalist depends on his workers to produce, the workers depend on the capitalist for a livelihood. Would we, especially those of us who define as radicals, accept this logic in any other situation? Would we insist that these relationships are just and reciporical, instead of calling them out for clearly exploitative and dominator-defined relationships that they are?

This all plays on the myth of the 3 Ns: Natural, Normal, and Necessary. All power-over ideologies have used this myth to justify violence. Slaves and Jews have smaller brains than whites. It’s the white man’s burden- we have to take care of them. Women have smaller brains than men, so they aren’t as smart, and smaller bodies that are not fit for sports and exertion. They’re naturally ruled by their emotions and it’s normal for them to get hysterical, that’s just who they are. Indigenous people are naturally simple and aren’t able to build civilizations. Aryans are naturally a dominant race and are meant to rule the world. Humans are natural hunters. Men have a natural propensity for violence because of their testosterone; it’s normal. They can’t control themselves when they see a woman in a short skirt who is asking for it. It’s just not natural for two men to marry! It’s not natural for people to get sex changes– it’s just not normal! It’s a mental illness! It’s against god’s will! It’s necessary for men and women to be together so they can pro-create. It’s necessary to have cops and armies to protect us. Humans have always been at war with each other, it’s unfortunate but it’s a part of who we are. Domination is just a natural part of life. It’s normal to drive my car everywhere and have a big house… this is just how we all live. Man is naturally higher than all species and is meant to dominate the earth. It’s necessary to eat meat to survive. Cows were meant to be eaten. It’s normal to eat meat, everyone’s always done it. It’s natural to eat meat, our ancestors did it. Look at all the charts we have to prove it. If you’re a vegan, you are a deviation from what’s normal, necessary, and natural– you must have psychological problems, you must be so unhealthy, you must have an eating disorder.

The 3Ns allow us to erase the complicatedness of violence and oppression. They let us off the hook. They’re a quick fix to the existential problem of having choices, agency, and critical thinking capacities. In short, they maintain and protect the status quo, enable it to remain unquestioned.


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.