Introduction to Carnism

Melanie Joy

Seldom are we lucky enough to encounter a book with the potential to really change the way we view the world, but Melanie Joy's groundbreaking work on carnism, Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs and Wear Cows: An Introduction to Carnism, is just such a book. Dr. Joy recently took some time with LoveToKnow to answer a few questions on the psychology behind the decision to eat meat and other animal products.

Introduction to Carnism

LoveToKnow (LTK): By looking closely at the psychology of carnism, you uncover some uncomfortable realities about how our culture shapes our dietary choices. Can you tell us a bit about carnism and how it influences us?

MJ: Carnism is the term I use to describe the widespread, invisible belief system, or ideology, that conditions people to eat (certain) animals. Carnism is the opposite of vegetarianism or veganism; "carn" means "flesh" or "of the flesh" and "ism" denotes a belief system. Because carnism is invisible, most people who are not vegetarian or vegan have no idea their food choices are formed by a deeper belief system; they simply see eating animals as a given, rather than a choice. But when eating animals isn't a necessity for survival, as is the case in the majority of the world today, it is a choice-and choices always stem from beliefs.

We do, however, recognize that not eating animals is a choice-vegetarianism was named centuries ago. So why hasn't carnism been named until now? One reason is because it's easier to recognize those ideologies that fall outside the norm. But there's another, more important, reason that carnism has remained unnamed: carnism is both a dominant ideology-an ideology so pervasive its tenets are simply considered "common sense" rather than a set of widely held opinions-and a violent ideology. It is literally organized around violence toward others. Ideologies such as carnism require the participation of people who would not willingly support such unnecessary violence toward other sentient beings; the tenets of carnism run counter to most people's core values. So carnism, like other violent ideologies, must use a set of social and psychological defense mechanisms to enable humane people to participate in inhumane practices without realizing what they're doing. These defenses mask the contradictions between our values and behaviors, enabling us to make exceptions to what we would normally consider ethical.

LTK: What are some of the defense mechanisms that enable moral people to support a system that violates their personal ethics?

MJ: The primary defense of carnism is invisibility and the primary way the system stays invisible is by remaining unnamed: if we don't name it, we won't see it, and if we don't see it, we can't talk about it or question it. And not only is the ideology invisible, so, too, are its victims: the trillions of farmed animals who remain out of sight and therefore conveniently out of public consciousness; the devastated ecosystem; the violently exploited meat packers and slaughterhouse workers; and the meat consumers who are at increased risk of serious disease and who have been conditioned to shut down their natural awareness and empathy toward nonhuman beings.

Justification is another carnistic defense. Carnism presents the myths of meat (and other animal products) as the facts of meat by promoting what I refer to as the Three Ns of Justification: eating animals is normal, natural, and necessary. The Three Ns are institutionalized-they are embraced and maintained by all major social institutions, from the family to the state-and these same arguments have been used throughout history to justify other violent ideologies (e.g., slavery, male dominance, etc.).

Carnism also uses a trio of defenses that distort our perceptions of meat (and dairy and eggs) and the animals we eat so we can feel comfortable enough to consume them. We learn, for instance, to view farmed animals as objects (e.g., we refer to a chicken as something, rather than someone) and as abstractions, lacking in any individuality or personality (e.g., a pig is a pig and all pigs are the same), and to create rigid categories in our minds so we can harbor very different feelings and behaviors toward different species (e.g., beef is delicious and dog meat is disgusting; cows are for eating and dogs are our friends).

These are just some of the many defenses of carnism. All defenses work together, overlapping and supporting one another, to serve a single purpose: to prevent us from thinking and feeling when it comes to farmed animals and the products procured by their bodies.

Naming the Unmentionable

LTK: We have long had terms like vegetarian and vegan to describe people who choose to avoid animal products, but until now there has been no accurate term to describe those who choose to eat meat. What made you decide to explore this gap in the language?

MJ: One way carnism maintains itself is by remaining unexamined. So I felt it was essential to have a word for those who eat animals that is accurate, and that exposes, rather than reinforces, carnism.

As you point out, our current labels for those who are not vegetarian or vegan are inaccurate. Consider how "meat eater" suggests that eating animals is a behavior divorced from a belief system-we don't call vegetarians "plant eaters" for this very reason. And the terms "carnivore" and "omnivore" refer to one's physiological disposition, rather than one's ideological choice: an omnivore is an animal, human or nonhuman, that can ingest both plant and animal matter and a carnivore is an animal that needs to ingest flesh in order to survive. Both "carnivore" and "omnivore" reinforce the belief that eating animals is natural, one of the most entrenched myths of carnism.

I have therefore chosen to use the term "carnist" to describe those who eat animals. "Carnist" is not meant to be pejorative; it is merely meant to describe one who acts in accordance with the tenets of carnism-just as "capitalist," "Buddhist," or "raw foodist," for example, describe those who act in accordance with a particular ideology. If we have a name for vegetarians and vegans, it only makes sense to have a name for those whose behaviors reflect the opposing belief system.

Taking Action

LTK: Why it is important for animal welfare advocates to understand the structure of carnism?

MJ: I believe it's vital that animal advocates promote understanding of carnism for many reasons. I'll list just a few.

First, the production and consumption of animal products exploits more animals than all other forms of animal exploitation combined. So a crucial part of animal advocacy is promoting veganism. And the goal of the vegan movement is not simply the abolition of meat/egg/dairy production, but the transformation of carnism, the system that makes such production possible in the first place. If we don't understand and focus on the system we're working to transform, we're at a tremendous disadvantage. We also play right into the hands of carnism, leaving it unexamined and invisible.

Moreover, because outreach is fundamental to promoting veganism, it's essential we understand those to whom we're reaching out. Once advocates understand the carnistic mentality, they are much better positioned to advocate effectively.

Understanding carnism can also help animal advocates have more sustainable lives. We can become more aware of and grounded in our own ideology and therefore better able to articulate our choices to others. And we can become more tolerant of those around us who haven't yet chosen to stop eating animals, as we understand the profound and enduring impact of carnism on their consciousness.

And finally, when we understand carnism, we can appreciate that eating animals is not simply a matter of personal ethics, but the inevitable end result of a deeply entrenched belief system. This awareness can radically change the way we, as a society, think and talk about the issue of eating animals.

LTK: After realizing we are acting on values and ideas not our own, many people will be spurred to action. You are currently working on a site to address this need - could you tell us a bit about that project?

MJ: I am in the process of launching CAAN-Carnism Awareness and Action Network-whose mission is to raise awareness of and work to transform carnism. CAAN will provide resources to empower vegan/vegetarian advocates and organizations as well as curious carnists, and to help the concept of carnism become integrated into both vegan/vegetarian and carnistic culture. CAAN will be available soon at and we will need all the help we can get to spread the word!

Whether you are already a committed vegan activist or are simply considering a change in diet, taking the time to understand the ideology that has shaped your worldview will help to clarify your position. For a more in-depth introduction to carnism, pick up a copy of Dr. Joy's book or visit the CAAN website.

Introduction to Carnism