To say that Dr. Melanie Joy is a key influencer in the animal rights movement would be a massive understatement. Known for coining the term carnism, she is a psychologist, speaker and author of three best-selling books including Strategic Action for Animals (2009), Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows: An Introduction to Carnism (2011), and her most recent, Beyond Beliefs: A Guide to Improving Relationships and Communication for Vegans, Vegetarians, and Meat Eaters (2017). In addition to this, she is the founding president of Beyond Carnism, an organisation which aims to expose the destructive nature of carnism and empower vegan advocates through education and activism. Equally as impressive, she is one of the co-founders of ProVeg International, an organisation which has as its goal to reduce the global consumption of animals by 50% by the year 2040.
In this interview, Dr. Joy, who herself made the switch to veganism at the age of 23, unpacks the meaning behind carnism and shares her thoughts on whether addressing carnism can and should be a priority for the Church.
You’ve seen the term sprinkled liberally throughout the introduction already, but what exactly does carnism mean? Dr. Joy describes it as
the invisible belief system that conditions humans to eat meat. It is essentially the opposite of veganism.
Without doubt, the practice of meat eating is violent and oppressive; it is a dominant system that is invisible precisely because it is so embedded into our society and has largely gone unquestioned throughout history. Yet, as Dr. Joy emphasises, it is also a system that
runs counter to human values of compassion because it distorts and disconnects us from our natural feelings of empathy’.
To further delve into the way that carnism operates, Dr. Joy explains how the same defence mechanisms that we use for harming animals are the same that we use when harming fellow humans, for to harm another being is to distance ourselves from compassion. In any oppressive system, she expounds, the experience of the victims is always unique but the fundamental mentality is the same. When it comes to carnism, the first layer of defence is that eating certain animals is natural and necessary – the same thought process, Dr. Joy reminds us, that is used to justify other harmful ideologies, including sexism, racism, classism, etc. The second defence we use is seeing animals as abstractions (i.e. burgers, sausages, nuggets, drumsticks, etc) and not as individual beings. Carnism essentially conditions us to look at a piece of meat not as it is but as what we have been conditioned to see. Dr. Joy brings this point to life by drawing on an illustration that also appears in her book Why We Eat Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows: imagine that a group of friends sit down to enjoy a pot of meaty, savoury stew. After a few mouthfuls, guests ask the host what is in the pot that tastes so good. With glee, the host replies that the stew contains five pounds of marinated golden retriever. Immediately, the guests freeze and the general feeling switches instantly from pleasure to revulsion. Meat is meat at the end of the day, but the reason we have such strong emotional reactions to some types of meat and no emotional reaction to others is purely down to perception and our conditioning.
Reconsidering Our Perceptions
In no uncertain terms, Dr. Joy believes that
it is important to become aware of the realities of animal agriculture and carnism in order to identify the mentality for what it is. Awareness then leads to free choice.’
And if in doubt about what the oppressive system of carnism entails, Dr. Joy reiterates some important facts: animal agriculture is responsible for the unnecessary slaughter of 77 billion animals worldwide per year, contributing not only to environmental degradation but to human rights violations and the spread of disease.
For those who are already on board with veganism, Dr. Joy explains that it is also vital to encourage others to be vegan allies, for the more we all learn together, the more we are able to move towards a fairer and more compassionate world.
Carnism and Faith
Values of compassion, justice and honesty are ones we all share, and are at the core of Christian values too.’
Such is the start of a thought-provoking response from Dr. Joy when I ask whether the Church needs to play a part in engaging with carnism.
Religious institutions are what people turn to for moral guidance. We are living through an atrocity and it is unnecessary for any of us to participate in it. Religious institutions are also meant to uphold core human values and should therefore help followers explore the pressing social, ecological and spiritual issues that arise from carnism.’
In short, Dr. Joy maintains that it would be in alignment with the values of the Church in insisting that we need to bring integrity to our food choices; that we need to operate in a state of mindfulness and gratefulness every time we sit down to eat.
Based on personal experience and encounters with others, Dr. Joy points out that while many vegans agree that switching to a vegan lifestyle initially seems like an empowering experience, this is too often followed by a feeling of shock and horror when they internalise the fact that the people around them do not share their ideals or understand where they are coming from or worse still, react defensively. Dr. Joy’s latest publication Beyond Beliefs which she describes as a book for people who are already aware of their choices but are looking for ways to communicate effectively, provides tools and practical examples on how to do just that. If conversation is the content (what we talk about), then the process is the way we talk about it, and Dr. Joy maintains that the process is always more important than the content:
A healthy process has as its goal to connect individuals and build mutual respect and understanding.’
Far from mere advocacy and crazed methods of persuasion, it is about understanding the truth of each other’s experiences. A healthy process also involves open hearts and open minds, and this, Dr. Joy insists, is exactly where progress happens.
Bringing the focus back to religion briefly, Dr. Joy extends this thoughtful method of communication when it comes to dealing with people of faith. Coming from a diverse family that includes followers of the Jewish, Christian and Quaker traditions, Dr. Joy insists that she is yet to speak with a person of faith who disagrees with the importance of compassion, and her approach is always simple: to address people as people first before trying to get at the heart of other aspects of their lives, including religion. For vegans of faith who wish to communicate effectively with others in their circle, she champions active listening, healthy and respectful exchange, and leaving space for people to see how the vegan practice can fit into their lifestyles. Dr. Joy concludes:
When they are ready, they will find that it fits easily with their religious leanings.’
A win-win situation when we truly think about it, as living more compassionately in turn strengthens and uplifts the believer through their faith journey.
Visit Carnism.org for more information on how you can make a difference and become a more empowered vegan advocate. Beyond Beliefs: A Guide to Improving Relationships and Communication for Vegans, Vegetarians, and Meat Eaters is now available to buy online.