Carnism is the invisible belief system, or ideology, that conditions people to eat certain animals. This concept was first described in the book Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows by author Melanie Joy.
People naturally care about animals and don’t want them to suffer. So a significant amount of mental gymnastics is necessary in order for someone to feel comfortable consuming them. To alleviate this inconsistency between our own deeply held values and our behaviors, Joy describes our three options:
- We can change our values to match our behaviors
- We can change our behaviors to match our values
- We can change our perception of our behaviors so they appear to match our values
It’s the belief system that hides the inconsistency between our actions and our values that Joy calls “carnism.” Because carnism is invisible, people rarely realise that eating animals is a choice, rather than a given. In meat-eating cultures around the world, people typically don’t think about why they eat certain animals but not others, or why they eat any animals at all. But when eating animals is not a necessity, which is the case for many people in the world today, then it is a choice – and choices always stem from beliefs. As long as we remain unaware of how carnism impacts us, we will be unable to make our food choices freely – because without awareness, there is no free choice.
Joy describes the Cognitive Trio that prevents us from identifying or empathising with the animals we eat enabling us to avoid feeling disgusted when we eat them:
- Objectification: “By viewing animals as objects, we can treat them violently without the moral discomfort we might otherwise feel.” This is why farmed or hunted animals are “it,” but our pets are “he” or “she“
- Deindividualisation: “Recognizing the individuality of others interrupts the process of deindividualisation, making it more difficult to maintain the psychological and emotional distance necessary to harm them.” This insistance on seeing the animals we commodify as pieces of a whole rather than individuals allows us to distance ourselves from their plights. “If I look at the mass,” Mother Teresa said, “I will never act.”
- Dichotomisation: “The two main categories we have for animals are edible and inedible.” The belief in this dichotomy allows us to deceive ourselves into believing that our behaviour reflects our deepest values.
Joy also refers to the “Three N’s of Justification”: that meat is natural, normal and necessary. These widely-accepted myths discourage the critical thinking necessary to pierce through the veil of our personal and cultural self-delusion.
So why all the mental gymnastics?
“The answer is simple. Because we care about animals, and we care about the truth. And the system depends on our not caring, and the system is built on deception.” Joy explains, “Most people care about animals and don’t want them to be harmed. And yet most people eat animals – animals who, like dogs and cats, have feelings and lives that matter to them.” Carnism distorts our perceptions and causes us to disconnect from our natural empathy toward the animals we have learned to think of as edible, so that we don’t feel the disgust and outrage we otherwise would. We see cat flesh as a dead animal but cow flesh as food, though there is no rational basis for this distinction. People need to move out of their normal ‘carnistic’ way of thinking, so they can think about the ethics of eating animals more rationally, and ultimately make food choices that reflect what they authentically think and feel, rather than what they have been taught to think and feel.”
Why has carnism not been named until now? The main reason is that carnism is a dominant belief system: it is so widespread that its principles and practices are considered common sense, “the way things are,” rather than a set of widely-held opinions. And carnism is also a violent belief system: it is organised around intensive, extensive, and unnecessary violence toward animals. In short, carnism is a system of oppression. It is enabled by an unjust exercise of power that causes unnecessary harm to billions of individuals.
“Virtually every atrocity in the history of humankind was enabled by a populace that turned away from a reality that seemed too painful to face, while virtually every revolution for peace and justice has been made possible by a group of people who choose to bear witness and demand that others bear witness as well,” writes Joy.
If you would like to find out more about Carnism the best place to start is this introductory animated video by Melanie Joy, The Secret Reason We Eat Meat. You can also go much deeper into this important topic by reading the excellent book Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs and Wear Cows.