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Carnism: Why Eating Animals Is a Social Justice Issue

Carnism: Why Eating Animals Is a Social Justice Issue

I don’t eat lamb…You feel guilty. It just feels kind of like…they are very gentle. Well, cows are [gentle, too, but] we eat them. I don’t know how to describe it….It seems like everybody eats cow. It’s affordable and there are so many of them but lambs are just different….Seems like it’s okay to eat a cow but it’s not okay to eat a lamb…the difference is weird.

Interview subject: 43-year-old meat eater

I don’t [think of animals raised for meat as individuals]. I wouldn’t be able to do my job if I got that personal with them. When you say “individuals,” you mean as a unique person, as a unique thing with its own name and its own characteristics, its own little games it plays? Yeah? Yeah, I’d really rather not know that. I’m sure it has it, but I’d rather not know it.

Interview subject: 31-year-old meat cutter

Consider the above statements. A meat cutter wouldn’t be able to carry on with his work if he thought about what he was doing. A meat eater is affectionate toward one species but eats another and has no idea why. Before being asked to reflect on their behaviors, neither of these individuals thought there was anything odd about the way they relate to the animals that become their food, and after such reflection their awareness quickly “wore off.” So the meat cutter kept the unpleasant reality of his job at bay and continued to process animals, while the meat eater suppressed his mental paradox and continued to eat them.

What is perhaps most extraordinary about the sentiments above is that to most of us—including those of us who are committed to critically examining our beliefs and behaviors, and the impact of our choices on others—they are not extraordinary. All of us who are born into a dominant, meat-eating culture have inherited this paradoxical mentality: We know the animals we eat are individuals, yet we’d rather not know it. We’d feel guilty eating certain animals, yet we take pleasure consuming others. We cringe when faced with images of animals suffering, yet we dine on their bodies multiple times a day. We love dogs and eat pigs and yet we don’t know why.

Widespread ambivalent, illogical attitudes toward a group of others are almost always a hallmark of an oppressive ideology. Oppressive ideologies require rational, humane people to participate in irrational, inhumane practices and to remain unaware of such contradictions. And they frame the choices of those who refuse to participate in the ideology as “personal preferences” rather than conscientious objections.

It is essential that those of us who espouse progressive values and thus support social justice initiatives recognize the paradoxical mentality of meat. Because although this mentality is pervasive, it is not inherent in our species—it is the product of an oppressive ideology so entrenched that it is invisible, its tenets appearing to be universal truths rather than ideologically driven assumptions. This ideology shapes and is shaped by the same type of mentality that enables other oppressions, and it is therefore essential to address if we hope to create a more just social order. Eating animals is not simply a matter of personal ethics; it is the inevitable end result of a deeply entrenched, oppressive ism. Eating animals is a social justice issue.

Carnism: The Ideology of Meat

Carnism is the invisible belief system, or ideology, that conditions us to eat certain animals. Carnism is the opposite of veganism; we tend to think it is only vegans (and vegetarians) who bring their beliefs to the dinner table. But when eating animals is not a necessity for survival, as is the case in much of the world today, it is a choice—and choices always stem from beliefs. Most of us do not, for instance, eat pigs but not dogs because we don’t have a belief system when it comes to eating animals.

Yet most of us have no idea that when we eat animals we are in fact making a choice. When we are growing up, forming our identity and values, nobody asks us whether we want to eat animals, how we feel about eating animals, whether we believe in eating animals. We are never asked to reflect upon this daily practice that has such profound ethical dimensions and personal implications. Eating animals is just a given; it’s just the way things are. Because carnism operates outside of our awareness, it robs us of our ability to make our choices freely—because without awareness, there is no free choice.

Carnism, like other oppressive, or violent, ideologies whose tenets run counter to core human values, must use a set of social and psychological defense mechanisms that disconnect us, psychologically and emotionally, from the truth of our experience. In so doing, carnism enables us to support unnecessary violence toward others without the moral discomfort we would otherwise feel. In short, because we naturally feel empathy toward animals and don’t want them to suffer, and yet we nonetheless eat animals, carnism must provide us with a set of tools to override our conscience so that we support an oppressive system that we would likely otherwise oppose.

Denial: See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil

The primary defense of carnism is denial: if we deny there is a problem in the first place, then we don’t have to do anything about it. And denial is expressed through invisibility; carnism remains invisible by remaining unnamed so that eating animals is seen as a given rather than a choice, an impartial act rather than an ideological practice. Moreover, the victims of the system are kept out of sight and thus conveniently out of public consciousness. Animal victims are, for instance, routinely and legally forcibly impregnated and castrated, and their beaks, horns, and tails are cut off—all without any pain relief. They spend their entire lives confined in windowless sheds, in crates so small they can barely move, and it is not uncommon for them to have their throats slit while conscious or to be boiled alive. The dismembered bodies of slaughtered beings are everywhere we turn, and yet we virtually never see these animals alive.

Justification: Conservatism in the Guise of Progressivism

The secondary defense of carnism is justification; when invisibility inevitably falters, we must be provided with a good reason for continuing to eat other beings. Carnism teaches us to justify eating animals by teaching us to believe that the myths of meat are the facts of meat. There is a vast mythology surrounding meat, but all myths fall in one way or another under the Three Ns of Justification: eating meat is normal, natural, and necessary. And these same myths have been used to justify violent behaviors and beliefs throughout human history, from war to slavery to all forms of bigotry against humans (e.g., misogyny, homophobia, etc.).

The Three Ns are antithetical to progressive values. Progressives by definition are those who challenge entrenched social norms, question dominant definitions of human nature and history, and seek to transform an oppressive status quo. And historically, the Ns have been used to discredit progressive movements, framing the ideologies these movements promote as abnormal, unnatural, and unnecessary. (Consider, for instance, the reaction to the suffragists: it was widely believed that if women were to vote it would defy the natural order and destroy the nation.) Yet most well intentioned progressives have unwittingly embraced the Three Ns of carnism, either by ignoring the issue of farmed animal exploitation altogether or at best by supporting the increasingly popular “humane” and “sustainable” meat movements, movements which reflect the same conservative traditionalism that has always been used to justify ideologies which exploit a disempowered group of others.

Eating Meat is Normal: Violence in Moderation

What we call normal is simply the beliefs and behaviors of the dominant culture. It is the carnistic norm. And carnism as a social norm is so entrenched that it blinds us to the fact that “humane meat” is a contradiction in terms. Most of us would, for instance, never condone killing a perfectly healthy six-month-old golden retriever who “had a good life” simply because we like the way her thighs taste, and yet carnism prevents us from seeing the immorality of doing the exact same thing to cows, pigs, chickens, and other farmed animals. Any moral difference between animal species that carnistic culture teaches us to believe in is a pure rationalization.

Eating Meat is Natural: Violence as a Tradition

What we call natural is simply the dominant culture’s interpretation of history. It reflects not human history, but carnistic history; it references not our fruit-eating ancestors but their flesh-eating descendants. And more importantly, infanticide, murder, and rape are at least as longstanding as eating animals and are therefore arguably as natural—yet we don’t invoke the longevity of these practices as a justification for them. In the words of author Colleen Patrick-Goudreau, do we really want to use the behavior of the Neanderthals as the yardstick by which to measure our current moral choices?

The argument that eating meat is natural is a key premise of the sustainability movement. Many proponents of this movement claim that the reason we buy our meat from grocery stores rather than hunt and kill animals ourselves is because modern food production methods have removed us from the (natural) process of killing so that we have become overly sensitized to harming animals. Such an argument is reminiscent of the portrayal of slavery abolitionists as “sentimental.” The “sustainable meat” argument is founded on a traditionalist worldview which frames the progressive values of empathy, compassion, and reciprocity (doing unto others) as qualities to be transcended rather than cultivated.

“But They Eat ____ in ____!”: Cultural Carnism

Carnism is a global phenomenon. In meat-eating cultures around the world, people tend to feel comfortable eating only those species they learned to classify as edible; all the rest they perceive as inedible and often as disgusting (e.g., pigs in the Middle East) or even unethical (e.g., dogs and cats in the U.S., cattle in India) to consume. And all cultures tend to see their own classification of edible animals as rational and judge the classifications of other cultures as disgusting and/or offensive. So, while the type of species consumed changes from culture to culture, people’s experience eating animals remains remarkably consistent.

Most people assume that because eating animals is universal, it is not ideological. The wide variation of species consumed across cultures—rather than being seen as evidence of carnism—often leads to the assumption that eating animals is a morally relative (and thus morally neutral) practice. Yet, just as, for instance, the marrying off of 12-year-old girls in Sudan is no reason for us to consider sexual relations with children morally neutral, the eating of dogs in Korea is no reason for us to consider eating pigs (or other animals) morally neutral. If the mere existence of analogous practices in other cultures ethically justified our own behaviors, we would have no reason to question the ethics of even the most heinous of crimes. While we of course should not condemn the traditions of other cultures as immoral, we can, as thoughtful observers, examine our own culture’s attempts to justify eating certain animals against this broader cultural backdrop.

Eating Meat is Necessary: Violence is a Given

What we call necessary is simply what is necessary to maintain the dominant culture. Today, the evidence that a diet without animal products is nutritionally sound (and likely even healthier than a carnistic diet) is overwhelming. For those of us who are economically and geographically able to choose what we eat, eating meat is necessary only to sustain the carnistic status quo.

Framing eating animals as a biological necessity de-moralizes what is a fundamentally moral issue. In other words, if we believe that eating animals is unavoidable then we also believe that it is amoral, and we are alleviated of the responsibility of reflecting on the ethics of our choices.

Institutionalized Carnism: Systemic Oppression

The reason so many progressives have not rejected the Three Ns of carnism is because carnism is structural; it is built into the very structure of society and is therefore a form of institutionalized oppression. And when an ideology is institutionalized, it is also internalized. In other words, those of us who are progressive often don’t challenge the Three Ns because we don’t see them for what they are, as we have learned to look at the world through the lens of carnism.

Cognitive Distortions: Internalized Carnism

Carnism, like other violent ideologies, uses a set of cognitive defenses that distort our perceptions of those on the receiving end of our choices. These defenses act as psychological and emotional distancing mechanisms. For instance, carnism teaches us to see certain animals as objects, so that we refer to the turkey on our Thanksgiving platter as something rather than someone. Carnism also teaches us to see animals as abstractions, as lacking in any individuality or personality and instead simply as members of an abstract group about which we’ve made generalized assumptions: a pig is a pig and all pigs are the same. And as with other victims of violent ideologies, we give them numbers rather than names. And carnism teaches us to place animals in rigid categories in our minds so that we can harbor very different feelings and carry out very different behaviors toward different species: dogs and cats are family and chickens and cows are food.

From Absurdities to Atrocities: The Mentality of Oppression

When we look at the world through the lens of carnism, we fail to see the absurdities of the system. So we see, for instance, an advertisement of a pig holding a butcher knife and gleefully dancing over the fire pit in which she is to be cooked (“asking” to be killed and consumed) and we take no notice, rather than take offense. Or we are told by the corporate conglomerates who profit from the bodies of those whose eggs and milk we consume that the animals in their well concealed factories are free from harm, and we unquestioningly accept such a claim—despite the fact that it is illegal for civilians to obtain access to these buildings or even to photograph them from a distance.

As Voltaire aptly said, if we believe absurdities, we shall commit atrocities. Carnism is but one of the many atrocities, one of the many violent ideologies, that are an unfortunate part of the human legacy. And although the experience of each group of victims will always be somewhat unique, the ideologies themselves are structurally similar. The mentality that enables such violence is the same.

It is the mentality of domination and subjugation, of privilege and oppression. It is the mentality that causes us to turn someone into something, to reduce a life to a unit of production, to erase someone’s being. It is the might-makes-right mentality, which makes us feel entitled to wield complete control over the lives and deaths of those with less power—just because we can. And to feel justified in our actions, because they’re only…. savages, women, animals. It is the mentality of meat.

Injustice begets Injustice: Carnism as an Interlocking Ism

Many progressives appreciate Martin Luther King, Jr.’s declaration that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere, because we appreciate that oppressions are interlocking, reinforcing one another. Progressive social change thus requires not simply liberating specific groups, but challenging the foundations of oppression itself. For if we fail to pick out the common threads that are woven through all violent ideologies, we will be doomed to create atrocities in new forms, to merely trade one form of oppression for another. To create a truly humane and just society, then, we must include carnism in our analysis.

Including carnism in progressive analyses requires a paradigm shift: we must recognize the systemic nature of eating animals. We must appreciate that, just as feminists who challenge patriarchy, for instance, are not simply “imposing their personal views” on society, those who challenge carnism are not simply “imposing their personal choices” on others. Eating animals cannot be reduced to simply a matter of personal ethics any more than can the refusal to allow people of color to enter one’s privately owned establishment.

Justice begets Justice: Toward an Inclusive Social Analysis

The flip side of MLK’s aforementioned quote is that justice anywhere is a threat to injustice everywhere. The oppressive-powers-that-be depend on a divide-and-conquer mentality that pits oppressed groups against one another, as though oppressions were rungs on a hierarchical ladder rather than spokes on a wheel. And while it is impossible for anyone to take on all causes, we can and should value any cause which seeks to create a more just and compassionate society. As ethicist Peter Singer muses, “I cannot help wondering what exactly it is that [people working for human welfare] are doing for human beings that compels them to continue to support the…exploitation of farm[ed] animals.”

Progressive social change is not merely about changing policies, but about changing hearts and minds. Genuine and lasting change requires a paradigm shift, a transformation of the mentality that propped up the old order. We must knock out the foundations of oppression and cultivate the values that form the foundation of justice, values such as compassion, integrity, and reciprocity. And to challenge injustice everywhere, we must practice justice everywhere: on streets, in the courtroom—and on our plates.