Introducing revolutionary concepts is a rare and difficult task, and it's not every day you get exposed to something that has the potential to truly alter your outlook, but Melanie Joy hits the nail square on the head in this psychological expose of our cultures deepest "invisible ideology".
"Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows", her second and most successful book, opens just like the video below, which introduces a concept that at least 95% of the population will live their entire life by, but never even realise exists.
That concept, or ideology, coined by Dr Joy, is called carnism. And once appropriately exposed to it, it will forever transform the way you look at and understand the world - especially at meal times.
If you're on a public bus or something and forgot your headphones, or you just don't want to watch a video, here is a quote from the author's website which summarises carnism beautifully:
Carnism is the invisible belief system, or ideology, that conditions people to eat certain animals. Carnism is essentially the opposite of veganism, as “carn” means “flesh” or “of the flesh” and “ism” refers to a belief system.
Because carnism is invisible, people rarely realize 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.
Feel your outlook changing already?
Even long-term vegans will be benefited from reading Joy's ideas, as she perfectly articulates concepts that have probably been bouncing around inside a lot of vegans heads for a long time - unnamed and unnoticed - until the light of Joy's awareness shines on them, forever illuminating them in plain sight.
This epiphany, for me - felt on my old couch in Perth, Australia while watching her one-hour speech at the McDougall Advanced Study Weekend - was like removing a thin veneer that had been hanging in front of my face my whole life, distorting my perception to the extent that I believed the distortion was the reality that lay behind it.
Vegetarianism has had a name since 1839, veganism was first labelled in 1944, and carnism was coined by Melanie Joy in 2001.
Joy continues on from this strong opening by laying out in plain English the details of some of the atrocities that occur daily inside factory farms, complete with (graphic) anonymous interviews with factory farm workers. The point here is not to try and scare the reader into eating less meat, eggs and dairy, but simply to let us lay witness to that which has been intentionally hidden from us: the repulsive, inhumane and downright dangerous process that animals go through before they reach our plates. The question Joy asks us is, if this filthy process were not so effectively hidden from us, how many of us would still continue to choose to eat these products?
Don't worry though she takes care here not to traumatise readers during this chapter's reports by treading carefully and not going overboard with the gory details of the factory farming process. The goal is to bear witness but still avoid "overexposure” or “burnout” as she calls it; the result of too much direct exposure to institutionalised animal cruelty (or any kind of disturbing imagery), normally in the name of “knowing the truth" that often results in a wounded psyche and haunting flashbacks, thereby having a negative influence instead of positive one.
As you would expect from a psychologist, who wrote her thesis on the very subject of this book, she uses a fair few - though not an offsetting amount - of words and terms throughout that had me using the dictionary mode on my Kindle more than usual. Damn, I love that thing. As well as using catchy and memorable phrases to explain this hidden belief system, and it's enablers, that permeate our culture so deeply.
The root of all this, it would appear, is ‘The Three N’s of Justification’: the idea that eating meat is normal, natural and necessary. She relates this back to Nazism (a comparison repeated throughout the book, along with feminism) to illustrate how the Third Reich used the Three N’s to justify their holocaust, and how the meat and dairy industries continue to use the Three N's in a strikingly similar way to justify their ongoing animal holocaust.
Following this are many further explanations of how the idea of carnism continues to be so wide spread, and yet so invisible to almost everyone in all sects of society.
Dr Joy writes:
Enter the Mythmakers. The mythmakers occupy every sector of society, ensuring that no matter where we turn, the information we are given reinforces the three N’s. The myth makers are the institutions that form the pillars of the system, and the people who represent them. When a system is entrenched [as carnism so clearly is], it is supported by every major institution in society, from medicine to education; chances are, your doctors and teachers didn’t encourage your to question whether meat is normal, natural and necessary. Nor did your parents, pastor or elected officials. Who better to influence us than the establishments and professionals in whom we have learned to place our trust? Who better to convince us than those in positions of authority?
Exposing these so clearly helps the reader to make a conscious choice about something that, it would seem, nearly everyone of influence in our culture wants to be kept subconscious. But of course, as Joy points out, these individuals themselves are not to blame, as they are helplessly part of the same system as we are.
Joy ends the latest edition of her book with something I’ve never encountered before: a group discussion section, complete with bullet point questions concerning the main points of each chapter of the book. This serves nicely as both supplemental material to spread Dr Joy's teachings out into the real world and as a summary of the books main points. Finally, there is a list of websites, books and films to get involved with to further help you transition away from carnism.
My only real disappointment with this important book was my own fault: I watched the video I mentioned above, was blown away by her revolutionary ideas and I expected her book to be 200 pages of this... which is quite unrealistic I now realise. Nevertheless, what follows the opening chapter support the main idea (naming, defining and exposing carnism) beautifully and will not be an issue for anyone who doesn't share my unrealistic expectations.
4.5 solid stars.
Easily readable, very informative, paradigm shifting and forever eye-opening.
Highly recommended for psychology students and all those wanting to deepen their understanding of the culture we live in. Hardcore vegans will not do without this book. As essential as Peter Singer's Animal Liberation.
Here are the highlights of my personal notes I took while reading…
(If some of these points don't really make sense, it's just because I've taken them out of context here. This whole book - especially regarding how deep most of the ideas it presents are - was surprisingly breezy to read.)
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.
Patriarchy existed for thousands of years before feminists named this ideology. So, too, has been the case with carnism.
“Vegetarian” accurately reflects that a core belief system is at work: the suffix “arian” denotes a person who advocates, supports, or practices a doctrine or set of principles. In contrast, the term “meat eater” isolates the practice of consuming meat, as though it were divorced from a person's beliefs and values. It implies that the person who eats meat is acting outside of a belief system. But is eating meat truly a behavior that exists independent of a belief system? Do we eat pigs and not dogs because we don't have a belief system when it comes to eating animals?
There are laws in all fifty states of the USA prohibiting cruelty to animals. The laws vary from state to state, but not in one respect: In every state, the legislation that prohibits cruelty to animals exempts animals destined for human consumption. In every single one of the 50 states, if you are raising an animal for meat, for milk, or for eggs, you can without restriction subject that animal to conditions which, if you did that to a dog or a cat, would land you in jail. The result is that we have a system of industrialized animal food production, a system of factory farming, that is under no legal compunction not to torture the animals in its “care.” from the introduction by John Robbins
The Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act of 2006—legislation that has been harshly criticized as unconstitutional—makes it illegal to engage in behavior that results in the economic disruption of an animal enterprise.
“Broiler” chickens and turkeys are raised for their meat, and though in natural conditions they live up to ten years, in CAFOs factory farms they have a life span of seven weeks or sixteen weeks, respectively—which means that, whenever we consume poultry, we are, in fact, eating baby birds. The birds' severely shortened life span is due to their being fed a diet so full of growth-promoting drugs that they grow at a rate that's the equivalent of a human reaching 349 pounds 158kg by the age of two.
It appears that in our nation's the USA meatpacking plants, contaminated meat is the rule, rather than the exception; researchers from the University of Minnesota found that in over a thousand food samples from numerous retail markets, 69 percent of the pork and beef and 92 percent of the poultry were contaminated with fecal matter that contained the potentially dangerous bacterium E. coli, and according to a recent study published in the Journal of Food Protection fecal contamination was found in 85 percent of fish fillets procured from retail markets and the Internet.
The reason empathy and disgust are so closely connected is because empathy is the foundation of our sense of morality, and disgust is a moral emotion. Typically, the more empathy we feel for an animal, the more immoral—and thus disgusted—we feel eating that animal.
Violent ideologies such as carnism require willing participants, and most Americans would not willingly harm animals. Thus, people must be coerced into supporting the system. However, coercion is effective only as long as it remains undetected. We must believe we are acting entirely of our own volition when we purchase and consume the bodies of animals; we must believe in the Myth of Free Will.
Milgram [creator of the now-famous "Milgrim Experiment"] believes that we act against our conscience because when a command comes from someone we perceive to be a legitimate authority, we don't see ourselves as fully responsible for our actions. And the closer in proximity this person is to us—whether it's a doctor giving us dietary advice or a celebrity on the television set in our living room telling us that “milk does a body good”—the more likely their authority will override our own. Until we learn to question external authority and acknowledge our own, internal authority, we will follow the decrees of those who maintain the status quo.
Think about it: 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 chose to bear witness and demanded that others bear witness as well. The goal of all justice movements is to activate collective witnessing so that social practices reflect social values.
Most of us are more outraged over having to pay five cents more for a gallon of gas than over the fact that billions of animals, millions of humans, and the entire ecosystem are systematically exploited by an industry that profits from such gratuitous violence. And most of us know more about what the stars wore to the Oscars than we do about the animals we eat.
The paradox is that the very reason we resist bearing witness to the truth of carnism is the same reason we desire to witness: because we care. This is the great truth that lies buried beneath the elaborate, labyrinthine mechanisms of the system. Because we care, we want to turn away. And because we care, we feel compelled to bear witness. The way to overcome this paradox is to integrate our witnessing: we must witness the truth of carnism while witnessing ourselves.
Bearing witness takes courage. It takes courage to open our hearts to the suffering of others and to acknowledge that, for better or worse, we are part of the system in which that suffering takes place.
As Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel points out, “Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”
Feminists have been successful in their attempts to challenge sexism not by arguing that everybody should become a feminist, but by highlighting the ideology of patriarchy—the ideology that enables sexism. Most people don't support sexism but also don't consider themselves feminists. How might those who wish to challenge carnism use a similar frame?