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


Thanksgiving: What’s to Celebrate?

November 24, 2011

NTNG!

It’s difficult to find the right words for a day like today. This is especially true when you’re surrounded by drunk and overfed relatives who, quite frankly, don’t want you spoiling their day off with another tirade on whales or Bosnians or whatever the hell it is today. But, god bless ’em, you’re going to do it anyway. Years from now, your younger cousins will thank you for showing them that critical engagement with social issues is a far more effective ways to piss off adults than the entire Slipknot back catalogue. Congratulations, you’re a role model.

Having a day off work is great, but it’s important to be aware of what today represents to the indigenous people of the Americas. Many have called for a National Day of Mourning to commemorate the victims of a genocide that is yet ongoing. The systematic extermination of the original inhabitants of this continent defies comprehension in its scale and brutality. According to whose figures you accept, the native human population of the Americas was reduced by between 80 and 99 percent in the 400 years between Columbus’ arrival and the massacre at Wounded Knee. We’re talking about up to one hundred million people. More people than you could have met in ten lifetimes. More people than the top eight most populated cities in the world combined. A little more than one out of every one hundred people currently alive today. Behind every “self made” millionaire is this history of primitive accumulation.

Humans were not the only victims of these policies of extermination and the violent conversion of the common fruits of the Earth into discretely bound units of private property. In just a hundred years, the North American bison population dropped from about 60 million to one or two million. [1] During the mid nineteenth century, passenger pigeons thrived to such a degree that “there would be days and days when the air was alive with them, hardly a break occurring in the flocks for half a day at a time. Flocks stretched as far as a person could see, one tier above another.” [2] Today, they are completely extinct.

Area of primary forests in the United States (lower 48)
Deforestation Leads to Exinction

The ecosystems of North America were once burgeoning with an integrated diversity of species: salmon, wolves, mink, ermine, badgers, beavers, otters, bears, cougars, bobcats, cranes, eagles, turkeys and so on. Yet one by one, these creatures were displaced and nearly or completely eradicated because of the same philosophy that legitimized the genocide of American Indians, the same philosophy that legitimized the exploitation of European peasants and the same philosophy that legitimizes global capitalism today: manifest destiny. That what is is good because god wills it; because it is “natural.” The genocidal imperative.

Ward Churchill has made the argument that we ought not be surprised when the United States government engages in wars of aggression overseas or domestic repression at home. After all, it was the genocidal imperative that founded this country and, from near the outset, wealth began to be centralized among those who were willing to commit the most heinous atrocities. We have arrived at a point now where our society rests on a foundation of normalized violence. Our economy depends on war all the time to function. The bodies of the body politic literally run on the product of extreme systemic violence: 50 billion nonhuman animals killed every year for a nutritional need that does not exist. The aforementioned staggering death tolls pale in numerical comparison to this figure, yet it occurs annually and with little fanfare.

We are not listing these examples to try to present some sort of equivalency between the suffering endured by humans and the suffering endured by nonhumans. Quantifying and comparing one person’s suffering or oppression to another’s is absurd and incoherent. The purpose is to identify common modes of oppression and the cultural logics which justify them. The purpose is to honor and mourn those who are gone and to fight with those who still remain. The purpose is to understand the history of how we got came to live in arguably the most violent society in all history and to ask why that seems normal to so many of us.

If we are aware of the histories that precede us, then we can begin to construct functional and peaceful alternatives to the cultural logic of genocide. Confronting manifest destiny is a necessary part of this process even if (and maybe especially if) it makes your relatives uncomfortable.

Notes:

“As an indigenous person, the fur trade represents so much more to me than just animal abuse. It represents cultural genocide. They were the footsoldiers of an invasion and conquest of the new world. They were ones who introduced disease and alcoholism. They were the ones who introduced gunpowder and many many things that lead to our decimation.”–Rod Coronado

If you plan on eating turkey this thanskgiving, this is required viewing. Please don’t fool yourself into thinking that “humanely raised” or “free range” turkeys live and die in appreciably different conditions. Raising animals for food means rape, castration and murder 100% of the time.

1. The Eternal Frontier, Tim Flannery, Atlantic Monthly Press, 2001, pg 321-322

2. A Green History of the World, Clive Ponting, Penguin Books, 1992, pg 168-170


Being Peaceful ≠ Passive (Or: The Occupy Wall Street Post)

October 10, 2011

We still owe you a follow-up to our post on strategies for effective vegan activism beyond the boycott. Don’t worry, we haven’t forgotten and we’ll be getting it to you soon. That said, there’s no way we can sleep on the Occupy Wall Street story which, owing to the pleasantly surprising tenacity of its participants, has clawed its way from blowing up Facebook feeds to achieving “no longer ignorable” status with the mainstream media outlets.

Occupy Wall Street is a phenomenon that is at once incredibly complicated and incredibly clear cut. While its persistence has forced the aforementioned major news networks (owned one and all by “One Percenters”) to finally begin covering it, you will notice a common dismissive tone in their stories. “These demonstrators,” they assure you, “have no clear idea of what they want or why they are here.” Of course, this is completely inaccurate. It would be more accurate to state that the participants in Occupy Wall Street (and the hundreds of solidarity occupations and protests around the country) are refusing to reduce their diverse grievances with capitalism to a single, one-size-fits-all message.

A Middle Class Occupation?

The significant presence of middle class participants in Occupy Wall Street entices both media coverage and media derision for, of all things, privilege on the part of the participants. (One wonders where these network experts on oppression and identity politics were when Troy Davis was murdered.) It is important to recognize the middle class influence on Occupy Wall Street without doing the corporate journalists’ work for them and undermining solidarity.

If a significant portion of the United States’ middle class is beginning to realize that capitalism is not a stable system of human organization, then that is a very good thing. It is also relevant to point out that the involvement of many people has been spurred by the fact that capitalism has finally begun to imperil their privilege. Some of us are surprised that they’re surprised. After all, the far majority of the world’s human population has been living in abject poverty for generations as a direct result of these very same policies that shore up the One Percent.

The past 500 years of history display an ever-accelerating rate of resource extraction and wealth centralization. First the colonial empires pillaged the new world, then the dueling capitalist and communist power blocs robbed free trades zones and annexed bloc territories, then the corporatist middle and upper classes plundered the working class de-industrialized zones, and finally the top one percent is poised to take the very last drop from what remains of the middle class. So are we justifiably a little frustrated with someone only showing up last month to a five hundred year fight for the survival of all life on Earth? Sure. But I’m still glad to see them.

Maximizing Potential: From Protest to Resistance

At this stage, Occupy Wall Street is two things: a symbolic protest and a public conversation on systemic inequality. It continues to gain momentum by drawing disparate groups together who recognize the indignity of living under capitalism. By refusing to issue demands or craft political platforms, the participants have in effect created a “big tent” under which any party aggrieved by the economic order can share space, ideas and resources. Basic solidarity and mutual aid on this level have long been in short supply in the United States. We can hope that these become most enduring legacies of Occupy Wall Street.

What Occupy Wall Street is not, however, is an occupation. Allow me to repeat that. Occupy Wall Street is not an occupation unless by that you are referring to its part in the ongoing occupation of Lenape tribal lands. The participants have set up a permitted encampment that is surrounded on all sides uniformed cops and heavily infiltrated by undercover cops. They are subject to selective enforcement of noise and assembly ordinances as well as arbitrary and violent arrests. As Malcolm Harris pointed out in his sympathetic critique of the demonstration, “this is what’s behind every picture you’ve seen of Zucotti Park.”

It was a momentous step for tens thousands of us to get out from in front of our TVs and computers and into the streets, and for us to force this conversation into the mainstream. However, let no one delude themselves into believing that being surrounded by heavily armed riot cops is negotiating from a position of power. It is a dangerous misconception that following directions from police (who are apparently not the enemy, they just accept money to protect the enemy from accountability) will keep us safe from harm. It is a dangerous misconception to believe that we can effect lasting systemic change by simply speaking truth to power. Those in power–be it corporate, government, military or police–are very aware of the economic conditions that allow them disproportionate control over politics and daily life. They will not concede their positions voluntarily, most especially not because someone convinces them that it’s unfair.

Every major social justice movement in the history of this country, from labor organizing to the women’s suffrage to the Civil Rights movement, depended on direct action to achieve lasting gains. This is the process of moving beyond a petition for the redress of grievances and moving toward a community oriented address of grievances without the consent of the politicians, CEOs, generals or cops. Being peaceful is not the same thing as being passive.

Occupy Together as Radicals

There is always more to say and even more to do. For whatever it’s worth, we support Occupy Wall Street completely. We also know that it will be dead in the water by New Year’s unless it continues to evolve. Radicals can seize this moment and be a driving force in that evolution. We can do this by continuing to take part in honest discussions with others and, more importantly, demonstrating the effectiveness of our tactics. This doesn’t have to involve the participation of everyone at an “occupation” and, in fact, it probably shouldn’t. A series of coordinated, well-planned affinity group actions specifically designed to avoid a violent police crackdown (inasmuch as this is possible and acknowledging also that police are responsible for police violence) would be a tremendous boon to Occupy Wall Street.

Here are just a few examples of things people could try:

•Using radio scanners to monitor police communications and liveblogging that information.

•Researching specific One Percenters, making public their nefarious deeds, and then organizing SHAC-style demonstrations at their homes and offices.

•Offering trainings on elementary street tactics (which could have potentially helped hundreds evade arrest last week on the Brooklyn bridge).

•Staging real occupations, lockdowns and disruptions of corporate offices.

•Organizing bank runs.

•And many more that we cannot legally advocate!

In Short…

Occupy Wall Street could be the start of real revolutionary change or it could just be the death throes of the middle class. Which one depends entirely on how disciplined we can be in the pursuit of a post-capitalist society. We do not need a share in their plundered wealth. We do not need to be another complacent generation, standing by as the world burns and knowing that things will be worse for our children. It is time to stop asking. It is time to start making and taking.


Will Veganism Be Relevant for Another 70 Years?

September 22, 2011

When Donald Watson, Sally Shrigley and 23 of their friends founded the Vegan Society on November 1st, 1944, the world was a very different place. It was no accident that veganism, a term coined by Watson, was gaining traction during the waning months of World War II. As the sun set on the old seafaring empires, many Europeans looked around at the devastation wrought by industrial warfare and knew there had to be another way. Unfortunately, Truman, Stalin and Churchill had other ideas. The politicians, industrialists and assorted war profiteers who had done quite well for themselves during war years wasted little time in consolidating their power. While the United States and Soviet empires rose, anarchists and the political left did their best to recover from the repression of the war years. Egalitarian visionaries like Watson sought to pioneer new ways of living that could leave the violence of war and slaughter in the past. So why didn’t we?

The history of strategic boycotts is storied and, in the years leading up to the birth of Donald Watson’s Vegan Society, they had been used to varying degrees of success. From the National Negro League’s boycott of goods produced by slave labor in 1830 to Gandhian Swadeshi during the struggle for Indian independence to the Jewish-organized boycott of the Ford Motor Company over its ties to the Third Reich, there was ample historical precedent to suggest that coordinated denial of popular economic support could result in at least a degree systemic reform.

Much has changed in the years intervening 1944 and 2011. While veganism as a simple boycott may have seemed a sufficient strategy 67 years ago in a pre-global marketplace, we can no longer expect to shop our way to the revolution. Ultimately, efforts at action that do not address the root causes of systemic exploitation will result in the recuperation of veganism by institutional power. As we discussed in an earlier post, global capitalism depends upon an ever-increasing margin of profit maximization through resource extraction. Even if we are naive enough to believe that we can minimize the effects of this extraction through the reform of its most brutal aspects, the capitalist logic always seeks a greater rate of extractive efficiency. The only equilibrium sought by this system is that of a dead planet on which every last resource has been exploited to the point of inutility. This is incompatible with the ethics of veganism and, as such, any serious vegan needs to be as serious about organizing against global capitalism as they are about boycotting meat and dairy products.

A visit to your (gentrified) neighborhood Whole Foods Market showcases how even an ethos as sound as veganism can be transformed into a class wedge. Paying major corporations to transform society for us is not a viable political strategy. When we engage with veganism exclusively as consumers, we are falling prey to the same marketing tricks that legitimize humane meat (sic): that a guilt free lifestyle only costs a few extra dollars per week. This lack of strategy ensures that veganism will die a quiet death in a subcultural, middle class ghetto of our own creation. The ecological devastation and murdering of biodiversity brought about by industrial soy plantations is how capitalism interprets veganism. If veganism is not anti-capitalist, then it is useless, except perhaps to let us witness a mass extinction in slower motion.

None of this is to say that the boycott aspect of veganism lacks relevance, only that we cannot expect to make social progress by engaging in the ethic of veganism solely as consumers. Boycotts have been used in the past as powerful organizing tools. They are embodied demonstrations of strength, solidarity, discipline and unity. They are beacons to others who care but feel disempowered or isolated. We are here, we are poised and every person who comes with us adds to the historical inertia of our movement.

The boycott may only be our first step as a movement but it’s not the only one we’ve made in 70 years. The Hunt Saboteurs Association, the Band of Mercy, the Animal Liberation Front, the Liberation Leagues, SHAC and the Animal Defense Leagues all represent strategic advancements in the struggle for animal liberation. Whether or not one agrees with any particular tactic utilized by these groups, it is important to study their history. If you are someone for whom veganism is a political act, then it is your history. In order for this movement to maintain relevance for another 70 years, we need to be unafraid of its evolution from reaction to anti-capitalist organizing tool to post-capitalist social foundation.

In an upcoming post, we will discuss practical strategies for vegan anti-capitalist organizing beyond the boycott.

Some recommended reading:

Against All Odds–A concise, strategic look at the pre-SHAC campaigning era in England.

From Dusk Til Dawn–This book is absolutely sprawling. It’s not the kind of thing you want to sit down and read cover to cover. That said, it chronicles 40 years of movement history in the words of somebody who was there to witness and participate in it.

Green is the New Red–Picks up where Keith Mann leaves off on the other side of the Atlantic. Will Potter’s incisive take on the post-9/11 crackdown on civil liberties with a focus on the animal liberation and radical environmental movements.