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January 8, 2016

Carnism and Melanie Joy

by Anne Paddock

We don’t see meat eating as we do vegetarianism – as a choice, based on a set of assumptions about animals, our world, and ourselves. Rather, we see it as a given, the “natural” thing to do, the way things have always been and the way things will always be. We eat animals without thinking about what we are doing and why, because the belief system that underlies this behavior is invisible. This invisible belief system is what I call carnism.    ~Melanie Joy

Melanie Joy, Ph.D., Ed.M. is a Harvard-educated psychologist, professor of psychology and sociology at the University of Massachusetts Boston, celebrated speaker, and author of the of the award-winning book Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows.  The word “carnism” was coined by Dr. Joy to describe the ideology that supports the use of animals for food, clothing, or other consumer products.Dr._Melanie_Joy

There are several important aspects to carnism that relate to ideology and paradox:

Carnism is a dominant belief system supported by a society through unchallenged assumptions, defense mechanisms, and the unwritten code of  “don’t ask, don’t tell.”

Unchallenged assumptions include the belief that humans need meat for protein, that animals are here for us to eat, and that animals don’t have feelings or attributes that we wrongly believe are unique to humans.

Defense mechanisms operate on a social and psychological level to numb our feelings because most of us would not harm an animal. According to Joy, we tell ourselves that eating meat and drinking milk is “normal, natural, and necessary.”

The “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy is perhaps the most fundamental damaging unwritten code of our meat-eating society. We all know that the neatly packaged steaks, burgers, veal, pork chops, bacon, and chicken breasts are animal parts garnered from a slaughtered animal but we don’t ask how these animals are treated and if we do, we are usually shut down or given some marketing term like “humane” or “free-range” to make consumers feel better about their choices. Best not to think about those things is the unwritten code.

When was the last time you heard someone talk about how pigs/hogs are more intelligent than dogs? Probably never because people don’t want to know that the piece of bacon on their plate came from an animal that recognizes people, is capable of knowing its name, plays with toys and other animals, gives affection, protects its young, and grieves.

Or, when was the last time you heard someone ask how pigs/hogs are raised? Again, probably never because most pigs/hogs are raised in containment crates that prohibit an animal from moving around. Literally, thousands of containment crates are lined up next to each other in these factory farms. To further insulate the industry many states have ag-gag laws which prohibit whistleblowers from exposing the cruel and awful abuse going on in these facilities. And, yet containment crates are considered humane by the industry.

The idea that most people care about animals but follow diets that involve harming them is called the meat paradox, according to Dr.Joy People rationalize this behavior by distancing themselves from the animals they eat, assigning them to a lower rung of the animal social caste system and associating negative words like “dirty,” “messy” and “smelly” to these animals to diminish their worth. The hog industry does not want consumers to ask the tough questions, learn the answers, or know the intellect of these animals because if they did, people would eat less pork.

Organic milk cartons show pictures of pastures where cows happily graze when in fact, dairy cows are artificially inseminated and carry their calf for 9 months. When born, the calf is taken from the mother so she can produce milk and other dairy products for humans to consume.The calf (female) is either raised as a breeder or dairy cow or if a male, put into a veal crate for 14-16 weeks and then slaughtered or raised as a slaughter cow in which case, he will live for about 14-16 months before being slaughtered for meat. The dairy cow is artificially inseminated again and again and again until she is about 4-5 years old when she is sent to slaughter, never having had the chance to raise her calves.

The acceptance of eating animals is central to the ideology of carnism but the classification of one species of animal as food (i.e. cow, pig, or chicken in the US ) would be rejected if applied to another species (i.e. dog, cat, or bird in the US).  The classification is relative though because cows may be eaten in the US but not in India where they are considered sacred (although India is a huge exporter of beef). The culture and learned behavior is what makes the difference. In China, dogs are eaten and yet Americans view this behavior as cruel. How is it any less cruel to eat a cow, a pig, or a chicken than a dog?

Humans are the most powerful animals on earth and they exercise that power in cruel ways to enjoy their lives. When we can nourish ourselves without causing harm, why wouldn’t we? Because we have learned to eat animal products from our parents and caregivers. While some people would argue that eating meat is “normal,” Dr. Joy and many others would argue that eating animal products is a learned and accepted behavior which brings forth two issues: choice and compassion. We were denied the freedom of choice when given animal products and while children are often denied the freedom of choice for their safety and because they are not capable of making good decisions, rarely do these decisions involve the cruel treatment and death of another sentient being – except when the decision involves animal products.

To avoid this issue, we hide the truth because the truth is too painful to acknowledge. If we all knew what was going on, we would have to question our belief system which is where compassion comes in. Lest you doubt this, tell any child – a 4-year old, a 6-year old, an 11 year-old – the truth about that hamburger, ice cream cone, or glass of milk and most children would not eat or drink that product because they would rarely support the slaughter of an animal for the pleasure of food, when equally delicious alternative foods are available.

We are not born meat eaters. At our most basic, we are fed our mother’s milk (which is often replaced with formula or another animal’s milk) and soft foods as our teeth emerge. Solid foods are then introduced by our caregivers which we freely accept as “normal.” We didn’t make the choice to eat animal products; someone else made the choice for us and we accepted this practice as normal. We need to reclaim our choice and exercise compassion while nourishing ourselves with nutritional plant-based foods.

To read more about carnism, go to the official site:

To hear Dr. Joy’s Ted Talk on carnism, click here.

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