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By Lisa Gillespie
April 13, 2010

In her new book, Dr. Melanie Joy links sexism, racism, and—very probably—your diet. Are you a carnist?

I was 12 years old and with my grandparents on a road trip. All day they’d been hyping up their favorite restaurant, an old place in the upper peninsula of Michigan and I was excited—to eat, to share their experience, to feel closer to them and things they liked.

Upon entering the restaurant, however, I was immediately repulsed. There were animal heads on every square inch of the walls—cows, deer, moose, goats, and any other creature you’d serve on a plate. Every entree on the menu had meat in it. I ordered a hamburger, but I couldn’t eat it. The site of the heads in conjunction with my burger patty was too much too handle, and I ended up vomiting in the bathroom.

This memory surfaced while reading Dr. Melanie Joy’s Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs and Wear Cows: An Introduction to Carnism, a psychological exploration of why Americans eat some animals and not others, the language we use to distance ourselves from our food (i.e. beef vs. cow meat), and the ties between violence and meat consumption.

In a phone interview, Joy explains my reaction in the restaurant that night by noting the jarring juxtaposition of taxidermied animals and my browned hunk of ground beef. “Not that long ago, ads used a large red steak. Now, there are no longer those ads,” she says. “It’s a browned steak that is far way from the image of the animal it came from.”

Joy says carnism, the system by which people eat select animals without considering why, is instilled in Americans from birth. We are raised eating Gerber’s lamb and rice baby food and McDonald’s Happy Meals. All the while, few consider the origins of their hamburger. “The people who love us have brought us up to think eating meat is natural,” says Joy. “Are my parents monsters? No, they are—and were—under the influence of carnsim and were not aware it.”

Joy stumbled upon this connection after college. Despite being an active feminist for years, she’d never heard anyone discuss the link between human and animal flesh. “It wasn’t even an issue discussed,” she says. “It is a reflection of how entrenched carnism is: it’s taken two decades to actually name to it.” (Joy coined the term in 2001, while writing her doctorate thesis.) Because it’s something humans are taught, not born knowing, Joy views carnism like sexism or racism, a negative byproduct of a broken system. For instance, as with sexism, Joy sees an adverse relationship between feminism and carnism; the need to dominate permeates both. “When we don’t need them [animals] to survive, but eat them for how they taste, we are saying, ‘We can do what we want with your body,’” she says. “This is the mentality, that might makes right.”

Joy ate meat until she was 23 and waited another nine years to transition into veganism. Besides a call to action for omnivores, Joy wants her research to foster understanding. By explaining that carnism is a system forced on children the way religion might be, Joy says she hopes to eliminate some vegetarians’ “judgmental edge.” “[Vegetarians and vegans] have a hard time relating to meat-eaters,” she says. “They look at people and think they are putting culinary preferences over someone’s life.”

Naturally, Joy says she receives criticism saying that because she is removed from the visceral experience of raising and killing animals, she has no right to condemn those who eat meat. Her response is that, with 90 percent of U.S. meat originating in factory farms, for most American omnivores, the firsthand experience of killing food is a thing of the past.

“People are becoming more sensitized to animal suffering and we’re having more conversations. Because of this we are more sensitive, but we are more removed from the food we eat,” Joy says. “This has distanced the consumer with the producer.”

Nevertheless, even for those people who track, kill, and skin their meat, carnism is still in play, according to Joy. She points out that most hunters would not be comfortable shooting and eating a cat or a dog. This is another aspect of carnism: the societal norms and values that make it acceptable to eat some animals but not others.

“Despite the fact that taste is largely acquired through culture, people around the world tend to view their preferences as rational and any deviation as offensive and disgusting,” says Joy, thus the discomfort when thinking of eating a pet collie.

Other critics say Joy discounts people for whom it is cheaper to eat meat than soy and tofu. But Joy says she wrote Carnism not for everyone, but specifically people who have the luxury of choosing to not eat meat. “Some of the poorest countries do not eat meat because it’s too expensive” she says. “However, in some impoverished areas, it’s cheaper to walk down to the McDonald’s. When you don’t have a choice, it’s a whole other issue.”

Because Joy understands that eating meat is a major part of the American experience, she’s also fully aware that her book won’t make everyone vegetarian overnight. “I didn’t want readers to finish reading the book feeling that if they don’t stop eating all animal products tomorrow, what’s the point trying? Carnism is deeply ingrained with meaning beyond what kind of meal someone has, but connects with families and traditions.”

Ultimately—and this is coming from a lifelong meat-eater—Carnism leaves the reader feeling aware, but not overwhelmed, which Joy says was her goal.

“Without awareness, there is no free choice,” she says. “You are on autopilot. It looks like free choice, but when you grow up in a coercive system, you’re not thinking freely, you’ve been thinking in a way you’ve been taught to think. If you are aware of carnism, you have more free choice.”

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