The Biotic Woman: A Conversation About Carnism with Melanie Joy (Pt. 1)
People often think about vegetarianism or veganism as an ethical framework or intentional life choice, but in her new book, Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows: An Introduction to Carnism, Dr. Melanie Joy posits that eating meat comes from the same type of belief system. The only difference, of course, is that consuming animal products is an invisible belief system continually reinforced by the many Western societies and “carnism”—the nearly unconscious practice of eating meat—is not part of our vocabulary the way “vegetarianism” is. The choice to eat meat is not named in our culture and therefore largely taken for granted and unquestioned. Her book is of particular interest because it explains not just why we shouldn’t eat meat, but why we do it in the first place.
Though Dr. Joy has previously written about animal rights in journals and books like Strategic Action for Animals, this is the first book-length examination of carnism as a belief system. A professor and psychologist who works to promote empowering relationships between humans, animals, and the earth, she recently spoke with me at length, and our talk is split into two parts here this week.
How do you define carnism as different from (or the same as) speciesism?
Speciesism is the ideology in which it’s considered appropriate to value some animals over others (with humans at the top of the hierarchy), while carnism is the ideology in which it’s considered appropriate to eat some of the non-human species on the lower rungs of the speciesist hierarchy. Carnism is a “subideology” of speciesism, just as anti-Semitism, for example, is a subideology of racism; it’s a specific expression of a broader ideology. Speciesism is the ethos, or cultural backdrop, that makes carnism possible.
In many ways, the structure of these two ideologies is similar, but the content—what they’re focused on—differs. In other words, speciesism and carnism (actually, all exploitative “isms”) use similar social and psychological defense mechanisms to maintain themselves. These defenses condition us to numb ourselves, mentally and emotionally, to the experience of nonhuman beings. Yet while speciesism is a broad, sweeping ideology carnism is focused specifically on eating animals.
Some have argued that since eating animals is a speciesist practice, there’s no point in identifying carnism as a distinct ideology, and that focusing on carnism is actually a distraction from the deeper issue of speciesism. But though speciesism informs carnism, these ideologies are not identical. Consider, for instance, how patriarchy informs heterosexism, and yet heterosexism has specific features that make it a unique expression of patriarchy. And since meat consumption causes more animal suffering than all other forms of animal exploitation combined, it only makes sense that we focus on carnism as a separate, yet connected, ideology from speciesism.
One key difference between speciesism and carnism is that carnism is a highly “personal” expression of speciesism; incorporating nonhuman animals into one’s body is often the most intimate and frequent contact humans have with other species. Eating animals, therefore, very much determines how we think of and relate to other beings—how can we even begin to imagine any sort of equality among species if we continue to eat animals simply because we like the way they taste?
There is criticism about equating the suffering of humans (e.g. in slavery, in the Holocaust, in women’s suffrage) with the suffering of animals, even if there are striking comparisons. What are some of the critical similarities, and why is comparing human and non-human animal suffering important?
Despite the striking similarities among violent ideologies, those who compare the suffering of nonhuman victims with the suffering of human victims have been harshly criticized. Such criticism is in part due to a lack of awareness of the structure of violent ideologies and of the true horrors of animal exploitation. But it is also the result of the speciesist mentality we’ve all inherited. Though we know that all animals, human and nonhuman, are equally capable of feeling pain and have lives that matter to them, we nevertheless proceed as though humans are the only species that possess sentience and self-interest. Moreover, as with all forms of privilege, human privilege is deeply ingrained, largely invisible, and staunchly defended, so there’s a vested interest in maintaining the view of nonhuman beings as inferior “others” whose suffering is fundamentally different from human suffering. Of course, no two groups are ever exploited in precisely the same way, so comparisons must always be made carefully.
We need to see that all forms of exploitation are enabled by the same mechanisms and they therefore reinforce one another. The mentality that puts female humans’ reproductive systems up for legislative grabs and has shaped a “rape culture” where misogynists such as Eminem are celebrated is not terribly different from the mentality that legitimizes confining millions of female pigs in “rape racks” where they’re forcibly impregnated throughout the course of their lives simply so their children can, for instance, provide the topping for a pepperoni pizza.
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