Why we love dogs, eat pigs & wear cows is down to carnism
- Published: 15 May 2010
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Eating one animal and not another is based on our perception of and emotional response to them, and eating ‘meat’ is part of a violent yet invisible ideology that author Melanie Joy has named ‘carnism’.
Imagine, for a moment, the following scenario: You are a guest at an elegant dinner party. You’re seated with the other guests at an ornately set table. The room is warm, candlelight flickers across crystal wineglasses, and the conversation is flowing freely. Mouthwatering smells of rich foods emanate from the kitchen. You haven’t eaten all day, and your stomach is growling.
At last, after what feels like hours, your friend who is hosting the party emerges from the kitchen with a steaming pot of savory stew. The aromas of meat, seasonings, and vegetables fill the room. You serve yourself a generous portion, and after eating several mouthfuls of tender meat, you ask your friend for the recipe.
“I’d be happy to tell you,” she replies. “You begin with five pounds of golden retriever meat, well marinated, and then . . .” Golden retriever? You probably freeze midbite as you consider her words: the meat in your mouth is from a dog.
What now? Do you continue eating? Or are you revolted by the fact that there’s golden retriever on your plate, and you’ve just eaten some? Do you pick out the meat and eat the vegetables around it?
If you are like most Americans, when you hear that you’ve been eating dog, your feelings would automatically change from pleasure to some degree of revulsion. You might also become turned off by the vegetables in the stew, as if they were somehow tainted by the meat.
But let’s suppose that your friend laughs and says she was playing a practical joke. The meat isn’t golden retriever, after all, but beef. How do you feel about your food now? Is your appetite fully restored? Do you resume eating with the same enthusiasm you had when you first began your meal?
Chances are, even though you know that the stew on your plate is exactly the same food you were savoring just moments earlier, you would have some residual emotional discomfort, discomfort that might continue to affect you the next time you sit down to beef stew.
What’s going on here? Why is it that certain typed of food cause such emotional reactions? How can a food, given one label, be considered highly palatable and that same food, given another, become virtually inedible?
The stew’s main ingredient—meat—didn’t really change at all. It was animal flesh to begin with, and it remained that way. It just became— or seemed to, for a moment—meat from a different animal. Why is it that we have such radically different reactions to beef and dog meat?
The answer to these questions can be summed up by a single word: perception. We react differently to different types of meat not because there is a physical difference between them, but because our perception of them is different.
The problem with eating dogs
Such a shift in perception can feel like a shift in lanes on a two-lane road: crossing the yellow line radically alters our experience. The reason we can have such a powerful response to a shift in perception is because our perceptions determine, in large part, our reality; how we perceive a situation—the meaning we make of it—determines what we think and how we feel about it.
In turn, our thoughts and feelings often determine how we will act. Most Americans perceive dog meat very differently than they do beef; therefore, dog meat evokes very different mental, emotional, and behavioral responses.
One reason we have such different perceptions of beef and dog meat is because we view cows and dogs very differently. The most frequent—and often the only—contact we have with cows is when we eat (or wear) them.
But for a large number of Americans, our relationship with dogs is, in many ways, not terribly different from our relationship with people: We call them by their names. We say goodbye when we leave and greet them when we return. We share our beds with them. We play with them. We buy them gifts. We carry their pictures in our wallets. We take them to the doctor when they’re sick and may spend thousands of dollars on their treatment. We bury them when they pass away. They make us laugh; they make us cry. They are our helpers, our friends, our family. We love them.
We love dogs and eat cows not because dogs and cows are fundamentally different—cows, like dogs, have feelings, preferences, and consciousness—but because our perception of them is different. And, consequently, our perception of their meat is different as well.
Not only do our perceptions of meat vary based on the species of animal it came from, but different humans may also perceive the same meat differently. For example, a Hindu might have the same response to beef as an American Christian would to dog meat.
These variations in our perceptions are due to our schema. A schema is a psychological framework that shapes—and is shaped by—our beliefs, ideas, perceptions, and experiences, and it automatically organizes and interprets incoming information.
For example, when you hear the word “nurse,” you probably envision a woman who wears a medical uniform and works in a hospital. Even though a number of nurses are male, dress nontraditionally, or work outside of a hospital, unless you are frequently exposed to nurses in a variety of settings, your schema will maintain this generalized image.
Generalizations are the result of schemas doing what they’re supposed to: sorting through and interpreting the vast amount of stimuli we’re constantly exposed to and then putting it into general categories. Schemas act as mental classification systems.
We have a schema for every subject, including animals. An animal can be classified, for instance, as prey, predator, pest, pet, or food. How we classify an animal, in turn, determines how we relate to it—whether we hunt it, flee from it, exterminate it, love it, or eat it.
Some overlap can occur between categories (an animal can be prey and food), but when it comes to meat, most animals are either food, or not food. In other words, we have a schema that classifies animals as edible or inedible.
And something interesting happens when we are confronted with the meat from an animal we’ve classified as inedible: we automatically picture the living animal from which it came, and we tend to feel disgusted at the notion of eating it.
Let’s go back to our imagined dinner party, when you were told you were eating golden retriever. Has such a situation actually occurred, you would have smelled the same smells and tasted the same flavors as you had just moments before.
But now your mind probably would have formed a picture of a golden retriever, perhaps bounding across a yard chasing a ball, curled up next to a fire, or running alongside a jogger. And with these images would likely come emotions such as empathy or concern for the dog that had been killed and thus disgust at the thought of eating that animal.
In contrast, if you are like most people, when you sit down to eat beef you don’t envision the animal from which the meat was derived. Instead, you simply see “food,” and you focus on its flavor, aroma, and texture.
When confronted with beef, we generally skip the part of the perceptual process that makes the mental connection between meat and the living animal. Sure, we all know that beef comes from an animal, but when we eat it, we tend to avoid thinking about this fact.
Literally thousands of people with whom I have spoken, both through my professional work and personally, have admitted that if they actually thought about a living cow while eating beef they would feel uneasy—and sometimes even unable to eat it.
This is why many people avoid eating meat that resembles the animal from which it was procured; rarely is our meat served with the head or other body parts intact.
In one interesting study, for instance, Danish researchers found that people were uncomfortable eating meat that resembled its animal source, preferring to eat minced meat rather than whole cuts of meat. Yet even if we do make the conscious connection between beef and cows, we still feel less disturbed eating beef than we would eating golden retriever, since typically in American culture, dogs are not meant to be eaten.
How we feel about an animal and how we treat it, it turns out, has much less to do with what kind of animal it is than about what our perception of it is. We believe it’s appropriate to eat cows but not dogs, so we perceive cows as edible and dogs as inedible and act accordingly.
And this process is cyclical; not only do our beliefs ultimately lead to our actions, but our actions also reinforce our beliefs. The more we don’t eat dogs and do eat cows, the more we reinforce the belief that dogs are inedible and cows are edible.
We all know what a vegetarian is—a person who doesn’t eat meat. Though some people may choose to become vegetarian to improve their health, many vegetarians stop eating meat because they don’t believe it’s ethical to eat animals.
Most of us realize that vegetarianism is an expression of one’s ethical orientation, so when we think of a vegetarian, we don’t simply think of a person who’s just like everyone else except that he or she doesn’t eat meat. We think of a person who has a certain philosophical outlook, whose choice not to eat meat is a reflection of a deeper belief system in which killing animals for human ends is considered unethical.
We understand that vegetarianism reflects not merely a dietary orientation, but a way of life. This is why, for instance, when there’s a vegetarian character in a movie, he or she is depicted not simply as a person who avoids meat, but as someone who has a certain set of qualities that we associate with vegetarians, such as being a nature lover or having unconventional values.
If a vegetarian is someone who believes that it’s unethical to eat meat, what, then, do we call a person who believes that it’s ethical to eat meat? If a vegetarian is a person who chooses not to eat meat, what is a person who chooses to eat meat?
Currently, we use the term “meat eater” to describe anyone who is not vegetarian. But how accurate is this? As we established, a vegetarian is not simply a “plant eater.” Eating plants is a behavior that stems from a belief system. “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?
In much of the industrialized world, we eat meat not because we have to; we eat meat because we choose to. We don’t need meat to survive or even to be healthy; millions of healthy and long-lived vegetarians have proven this point. We eat animals simply because it’s what we’ve always done, and because we like the way they taste. Most of us eat animals because it’s just the way things are.
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.
Carnism is the belief system in which eating certain animals is considered ethical and appropriate. Carnists—people who eat meat—are not the same as carnivores. Carnivores are animals that are dependent on meat to survive.
Carnists are also not merely omnivores. An omnivore is an animal—human or nonhuman—that has the physiological ability to ingest both plants and meat. But, like “carnivore,” “omnivore” is a term that describes one’s biological constitution, not one’s philosophical choice.
Carnists eat meat not because they need to, but because they choose to, and choices always stem from beliefs.
Carnism’s invisibility accounts for why choices appear not to be choices at all. But why has carnism remained invisible in the first place? Why haven’t we named it? There’s a very good reason for this. It’s because carnism is a particular type of belief system, an ideology, and it’s also a particular type of ideology, one that is especially resistant to scrutiny. Let’s look at each of these features of carnism in turn.
Carnism, Ideology, and the Status Quo
An ideology is a shared set of beliefs, as well as the practices that reflect these beliefs. For instance, feminism is an ideology. Feminists are men and women who believe that women deserve to be viewed and treated as equals to men. Because men make up the dominant social group—the group that holds power in society—feminists challenge male dominance on every front, from the home to the political arena. Feminist ideology forms the basis of feminist beliefs and practices.
It’s fairly easy to recognize feminism as an ideology, just as it’s easy to understand that vegetarianism isn’t simply about not eating meat. Both “feminist” and “vegetarian” conjure up images of a person who has a certain set of beliefs, someone who isn’t just like everybody else.
So what about “everyone else”? What about he majority, the mainstream, all the “normal” people? Where do their beliefs come from?
We tend to view the mainstream way of life as a reflection of universal values. Yet what we consider normal is, in fact, nothing more than the beliefs and behaviors of the majority. Before the scientific revolution, for example, mainstream European beliefs held that the sky was made up of heavenly spheres that revolved around the earth, that the earth was the exalted center of the universe.
This belief was so ingrained that to proclaim otherwise, as did Copernicus, and later Galileo, was to risk death. So what we refer to as mainstream is simply another way to describe an ideology that is so widespread—so entrenched—that its assumptions and practices are seen as simply common sense. It is considered fact rather than opinion, its practices a given rather than a choice.
It’s the norm. It’s the way things are. And it’s the reason carnism has not been named until now.
When an ideology is entrenched, it is essentially invisible. An example of an invisible ideology is patriarchy, the ideology in which masculinity is valued over femininity and where men therefore have more social power than women.
Consider, for instance, which of the following qualities are most likely to make someone socially and financially successful: assertiveness, passivity, competitiveness, sharing, control, authority, power, rationality, emotionality, independence, dependence, nurturance, vulnerability.
Chances are you chose the qualities that are masculine, and you didn’t realize that your choices reflect patriarchal values; most of us don’t see patriarchy as an ideology that teaches us to think and act a certain way. Men and women alike simply accept that it’s better to be, for example, more rational and less emotional, even though both of these qualities are equally necessary for our well-being.
Patriarchy existed for thousands of years before feminists named this ideology. So, too, has been the case with carnism.
Interestingly, the ideology of vegetarianism was named more than 2,500 years ago; those who chose not to eat meat were called “Pythagoreans,” because they followed the dietary philosophy of the ancient Greek philosopher and mathematician, Pythagorous. Later, in the nineteenth century, the term “vegetarian” was coined.
But only now, centuries after labeling those who don’t eat meat, has the ideology of meat eating been named.
In some ways it only makes sense that vegetarianism was named •side the mainstream. But there is another, more important, reason that vegetarianism has been labeled while carnism has not. The primary way entrenched ideologies stay entrenched is by remaining •named. If we don’t name it, we can’t talk about it, and if we can’t talk about it, we can’t question it.
Carnism, Ideology, and Violence
While it is difficult, if not impossible, to question an ideology that we don’t even know exists, it’s even more difficult when that ideology actively works to keep itself hidden.
This is the case with ideologies such as carnism. I refer to this particular type of ideology as a violent ideology, because it is literally organized around physical violence. In other words, if we were to remove the violence from the system—to stop killing animals—the system would cease to exist. Meat cannot be procured without slaughter.
Contemporary carnism is organized around extensive violence. This level of violence is necessary in order to slaughter enough animals for the meat industry to maintain its current profit margin.
The violence of carnism is such that most people are unwilling to witness it, and those who do can become seriously distraught. In my classes, when I show a film on meat production, I have to take a number of measures to ensure that the psychological environment is safe enough to expose students to footage that inevitably causes them distress.
And I have personally worked with numerous vegetarian advocates who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as the result of prolonged exposure to the slaughter process; they have intrusive thoughts, nightmares, flashbacks, difficulty concentrating, anxiety, insomnia, and a host of other symptoms.
In close to two decades of speaking about meat production, I have yet to see a person who doesn’t cringe when faced with images of slaughter. People generally hate to see animals suffer.
Why do we hate to see animals in pain? Because we feel for other sentient beings. Most of us, even those who are not “animal lovers” per se, don’t want to cause anyone—human or animal—to suffer, especially if that suffering is intensive and unnecessary.
It is for this reason that violent ideologies have a special set of defenses that enable humane people to support inhumane practices and to not even realize what they’re doing.
Once we genuinely think about the meat we eat, once we realize that there is much more to our culinary tastes than our own natural, unadulterated preferences, then ‘it’s just the way things are’ is simply not a good enough explanation for why we eat pigs but not dogs.
Melanie Joy is a psychologist, professor, author, and personal/relationship coach. She is the author of Strategic Action for Animals and has also written numerous articles on psychology, animal advocacy, and social justice, which have been published in academic and popular journals and magazines. A professor at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, Melanie teaches sociology and psychology. She also spent two years on the faculty of the Institute for Humane Education, the first institute in the United States to offer a master’s degree with a concentration in humane education.
Her academic areas of specialization include: human-animal relations, the psycho-sociology of violence and nonviolence, psychological trauma, family dynamics, ecopsychology, addictions, and strategic social change. Melanie is also the leading researcher on the ideology of meat production and consumption—a phenomenon she’s termed carnism—and she has presented her research at national and international academic and grassroots conferences.
Melanie holds a PhD in psychology from Saybrook Graduate School, a master’s degree (EdM) in teaching and curriculum from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and a BA from the Harvard University Extension School.