The Mentality of Meat: An Exclusive Interview with Dr. Melanie Joy

Melanie+Joy.jpgMelanie Joy, Ph.D, Ed.M, is a social psychologist and author of the book, Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows, which explores the ideology behind eating meat and why some animals are considered loving companions, while others are considered food. Dr. Joy is a professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts, Boston and has studied the psychology of speciesism for a number of years. Mercy For Animals was lucky enough to have a chance to speak with Dr. Joy about her book, and here is what she had to say:

In Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows , you use the term “carnism” in your discussion of why our society thinks cows, pigs and chickens make for good eating, while rats, puppies and parrots make us queasy. Can you explain what you mean by “carnism”?

Carnism is the name I use for the invisible belief system, or ideology, that teaches us, from the moment we’re weaned, not to feel disgusted when it comes to eating the animals our culture has classified as “edible.” Carnism is essentially the opposite of veganism or vegetarianism.* Accordingly, I use the term “carnist” to describe those who eat animals.

Often, we refer to carnists as “omnivores,” “carnivores,” or “meat eaters.” But these labels are inaccurate and likely detrimental to animal rights; they reinforce the assumptions that eating animals is natural and normal, two of the most entrenched and compelling myths used to justify carnism.

The terms “omnivore” and “carnivore” describe one’s physiological disposition, rather than one’s ideological choice: an omnivore is an animal, human or nonhuman, which can ingest both plant and animal matter and a carnivore is an animal that needs to ingest flesh in order to survive. And the phrase “meat eater” focuses on the behavior of eating meat, as though one is acting outside of a belief system when she or he consumes animals. (Consider how we don’t call veg*ns “plant eaters.”)

In short, when eating animals isn’t a necessity, it’s a choice – and choices always stem from beliefs. The invisibility of carnism, however, makes eating animals appear instead to be a given, as though it’s only veg*ns who bring our beliefs to the dinner table.

Carnism+bookcover.jpgIn Why We Love Dogs…, you describe the defense mechanisms that carnists use to remain comfortable with eating animals. Can you tell us more about these defense mechanisms?

Most people care about animals and don’t want them to suffer. And yet most people eat animals. Carnism must block people’s awareness of this discrepancy between their values and practices, and it does this by using a set of defense mechanisms that operate on both social and psychological levels.

The primary defense of the system is invisibility and the primary way the system stays invisible is by remaining unnamed: if we don’t see it, we can’t talk about it, and if we can’t talk about it, we can’t question or challenge it. Another defense mechanism is justification; in my book I describe what I call the Three Ns of Justification: eating animals is normal, natural, and necessary. Not surprisingly, these same arguments have been used to support many other violent ideologies. The Three Ns lose much of their power when they are exposed as defensive arguments rather than the absolute truths carnistic culture presents them as.

What were your reasons for writing Why We Love Dogs…?

I wrote Why We Love Dogs… for both carnists and veg*ns. I wrote the book for carnists to help them understand not simply why they shouldn’t eat animals, but why they do eat animals, and to help them feel invited into the conversation, rather than preached at. I wrote the book for veg*ns to help them feel more grounded in, and better able to articulate, their choices; to understand the carnists in their lives so they could communicate more effectively; and to understand the system they’re working to transform.

What kind of research did you do in preparation for writing Why We Love Dogs…?

Why We Love Dogs… is based on my doctoral research on the psychology of eating meat, for which I interviewed meat cutters, butchers, vegans, vegetarians, and carnists. I also spent a number of years after receiving my Ph.D researching systems of oppression and strategic social change.

If such elaborate defense mechanisms are needed for people to remain comfortable with eating other animals, why don’t more people just become vegetarian?

When we understand the depth and breadth of carnism, we can appreciate that asking someone to stop eating animals is not simply asking for a change of behavior, but for a shift of consciousness. This kind of shift will not occur until a person feels psychologically safe enough to step outside of the carnistic system and look at the world through a very different set of eyes.

Why do you think it is important for the animal rights movement to incorporate the concept of carnism into its vegan advocacy?

pigs_3.jpgI think it’s vital that the animal rights movement make carnism a central focus of its advocacy for several key reasons.

First, since outreach to carnists is fundamental to vegan advocacy, we have got to understand the people we’re trying to reach. So often, for instance, we assume the facts will sell the ideology (“If only you knew the truth about meat, egg, and dairy production, you’d never eat animal products again.”), and we fail to appreciate that there is a complex psychology that enables carnists to dismiss such facts.

Moreover, carnism has a specific structure and if we don’t understand that structure we’re at great disadvantage; we’re fighting blindfolded against an unseen entity. Indeed, the goal of the vegan movement is not simply the abolition of the production of animal products, but the transformation of carnism – the system that makes such production possible in the first place.

Finally, by understanding eating animals as not simply a matter of personal ethics, but as the inevitable end result of a deeply entrenched belief system, we will radically change the way we think and talk about the issue.

*I use veg*n to refer to both vegetarians and vegans.