I realize this is a rather long post, but I would love to get your thoughts on it. I admit my use of the word “religion” in the title for this post may be misleading. I am referring to a belief system in our culture that in many ways parallels the psychology of theists.
According to Melanie Joy, Ph.D, Ed.M, a social psychologist and professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts, meat eating is an ideology, or a belief system.
She says, “Most of us who have grown up eating meat don’t realize that every time we sit down to our food, we are acting in accordance with an invisible belief system that has shaped our thoughts, preferences, feelings and behaviors. We aren’t aware of how we have been conditioned to eat animals without considering the implications of our choices on ourselves or on others - or to even realize we are making choices at all.”
“Meat production and consumption, the most far-reaching and widely supported form of nonhuman animal exploitation, remains an unnamed ideology.”
“This invisible belief system, carnism, has created the illusion that when we eat meat we are making our choices freely. But carnism is structured to enable humane people to participate in inhumane practices without realizing what they’re doing, to block our awareness so that we unknowingly act against our own interests and the interests of others.”
“We have, however, recognized that the opposing dietary standpoint—vegetarianism—is, indeed, an ideology. For this reason, we do not call vegetarians "plant-eaters" or "non-meat-eaters" because we understand that vegetarianism, though its principles are manifested in the act of abstaining from the consumption of flesh, is actually a philosophy in which the subjugation of other animals is considered unnecessary and unjust.
This inequality of ideological identification demonstrates our collective meat bias. It is, in fact, quite common to label only those beliefs which run counter to the dominant culture. We assume that it is not necessary to assign a term to ourselves when we adhere to the mainstream way of thinking, as though its prevalence makes it an intrinsic part of life rather than a widely held opinion. Meat eating, though culturally dominant, reflects a choice that is not espoused by everybody.
Some people refer to meat-eaters as carnivores; yet, human meat-eaters are actually omnivores, as they consume both flesh and plants. Moreover, the terms carnivore and omnivore suggest a biological predisposition toward flesh, while contemporary, wide-scale meat eating is not a physiological necessity but an ideological choice; the millions of healthy vegetarians who have persisted throughout the centuries are testament to this. Neither carnivore nor omnivore expresses the beliefs beneath the behavior.
For the reasons listed above, I have chosen to employ the terms carnism and carnist to the ideology of meat production/consumption and its proponents. Carnism stems from the Latin carn, meaning flesh or body, and is the root in carnage. Fleshist might have been appropriate, but flesh has fewer connotations suggestive of slaughter and this label may be too disconcerting and removed from the socially accepted carnivore for carnists to be willing to apply to themselves. And the term meatist reinforces the social construction of meat in which "meat" is perceived as synonymous with "food."
By naming the belief system which underlies the acts of meat production and consumption we are better able to acknowledge that slaughtering nonhuman animals for human consumption is not a given but a choice; a choice that is based upon an ideology in which the domination and exploitation of other animals is considered a natural human privilege. To say "I eat meat" or "I am a meat-eater" denotes an action devoid of a philosophical viewpoint, whereas to say "I am a carnist," describes a choice, an identification with a particular belief system. Using the verb, eat, in the labels meat-eater or even flesh-eater places the focus of the consumption of other animals on what one does, rather than what one is.”
In her book, “Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows”, Dr. Joy explains the process through which carnists use psychic numbing to cope with the moral disconnect between the common belief that it is wrong to cause needless suffering and the act of causing animals to suffer needlessly so that we can eat them.
Psychic numbing: “we disconnect, mentally and emotionally,from our experience; we ‘numb’ ourselves. [...] Psychic numbing is adaptive, or beneficial, when it helps us to cope with violence. But it becomes maladaptive, or destructive, when it is used to enable violence.”
On both an individual and institutional level, we engage in a number of defense mechanisms that help us to achieve psychic numbing:
- Denial: Also called “practical invisibility,” denial is the process by which the horrific realities of “meat” (and egg and dairy) production are literally kept invisible to us. For example, we “grow” billions of chickens, turkeys, pigs, cows, lambs, etc. for food every year; but where are they!? Few of us rarely, if ever, witness these animals grazing the land, rearing their offspring, sunning themselves in the grass or preening in the dirt. But they’re out there: crammed by the tens of thousands into massive, windowless buildings, located in large complexes on the outskirts of town. These animals are trucked to and from slaughter in unmarked vans; their only exposure to the outdoors comes when they await sale or death, on the auction block or at the slaughterhouse. Practically speaking, they remain invisible to us, as does their suffering. Because many of us enjoy eating “meat,” eggs and milk, this is how we like it.
- Avoidance: The counterpart to denial, avoidance involves “symbolic invisibility”; it is “knowing without knowing.” The animal agriculture industry – with no small amount of help from the other major social institutions, such as the government and news media – feed us ridiculous, transparent lies about “meat” production, and we eagerly gobble them up. "Humane meat" is an oxymoron: labels such as “organic,” “free range,” “grass fed,” etc. are rendered meaningless through industry lobbying and self-policing, and besides, no unnecessary death can ever be called “humane.” While the government has ostensibly established myriad rules regarding food safety, animal welfare, and environmental responsibility, again, these rules remain full of loopholes and usually go unenforced. For example, chickens aren’t considered “animals” under either the Animal Welfare Act or the Laboratory Animal Welfare Act.
- Justification: We use a series of myths in order to convince ourselves of the “justness” of carnism. These myths typically involve the 3 Ns, as Joy refers to them:
Normal – Carnism has become normalized, such that its tenets are social norms. Social norms are both descriptive (telling us how things are now) and prescriptive (dictating to us how things ought to be). But just like religious belief, just because something is normal, or common, doesn’t make it right.
Natural – If something is “natural,” it’s assumed to be “justifiable”: “The way ‘natural’ translates to ‘justifiable’ is through the process of naturalization. [...] When an ideology is naturalized, its tenets are believed to be in accordance with the laws of nature.” “Natural” = “the way things are meant to be.” But I think many of us can easily point out the“naturalistic fallacy: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Naturalistic_fallacy
Necessary – Closely tied to the supposed “naturalness” of carnism, “meat’s” perceived “necessity” makes it seem inevitable; not a choice. But clearly “meat” consumption is a choice – in industrialized nations, anyhow – as any vegan or vegetarian can attest.
- Objectification: Via objectification, we reduce living, sentient beings to nothing more than objects; we objectify them. Clearly, a cow is nothing like a television set – but both are considered pieces of property in our “modern,” “civilized” society. Objectification is even apparent in our language when we refer to animals as “it” instead of as “he” or “she” as if they are inanimate objects.
- Deindividualization: Through deindividualization, we strip animals of their individual identities, viewing them as pieces of a group and nothing more. One individual in the group is thought of as indistinguishable from all the rest; thus, the singular sentient beings become unfamiliar abstractions. (This is why Americans recoil at the thought of eating dog meat; most of us have either lived with or known at least one dog on a personal level. Dogs are individuals, familiars, whereas cows, pigs, fishes and chickens are not.)
- Dichotomization: Dichotomization involves grouping animals into two distinct, often diametrically opposed, categories: food/not food, cute/ugly, dirty/clean. These categories are usually arbitrary and based on our own prejudices and stereotypes rather than any semblance of reality. Along with objectification and deindividualization, dichotomization allows us to “distance” ourselves from“food” animals at will.
Here is nice video promo for the book that makes this point pretty well:
- Rationalization: To rationalize a behavior is to attempt to provide a rational explanation for a behavior that is, at its core, irrational. Animal agriculture is wasteful, unsustainable, harmful to human health and the environment, and – above all else – inherently cruel to the billions of nonhuman animals who are enslaved and killed for nothing more than human “taste” and “convenience” and corporate profits. Yet, our culture is replete with rationalizations for this most irrational of business and ethical models. Even otherwise rational people come up with crazy rationalizations when presented with even the idea of veganism –“don’t plants feel pain too” or “humans have eaten meat for thousands of years.” Yeah, so? Humans have raped and murdered for thousands of years too. Does that make it okay?
- Dissociation: Described by Joy as “the heart of psychic numbing,” dissociation “is psychologically and emotionally disconnecting from the truth of our experience; it is the feeling of not being fully ‘present’ or conscious.” Often times, dissociation is triggered by a traumatic experience, for example, experiencing or witnessing a physical assault. Given that “meat” production involves the assault and murder of tens of billions of sentient beings per year – and “meat”- eating is, literally, the consumption of a once-living, once-feeling individual – it makes sense that the same psychological defense mechanism that protects us from reliving our own distressful experience also shields us from the uncomfortable truth that, with every animal-based meal, we are directly participating in another being’s living (and dying) hell.
Anyway, that’s it. Sorry for the long post. If you read the whole thing, I would love to hear your thoughts. Thanks.
I agree with you. In addition, in the pre-agricultural world, living a vegetarian lifestyle would only have been possible on a very small percentage of the planet. Now that we pump tons of chemicals in the soil, we're all free to live long and fat and sedentary. It's even expected that today's cohort of children will have reduced life-expectancy through generalised obesity across the board in civilisation. This obesity is not due to kids over-eating meat but kids overeating stupid cereals for breakfast and french fries for lunch and mashed potatoes for supper, and a variety of 'pretend meats' wrapped in grease and cereal. What people call "meat" like McD or "sandwich sliced stuff" barely counts as meat. And as far as bad cholesterol goes, beef are herbivores, not vegetarian, beef raised as strict grazers do not have anywhere near the cholesterol levels of grain/cereal fed beef. If we only ate animal flesh that came from our backyard or the neighbours', we'd eat much less of it, and it would be entirely healthier and more humane
Not even hardcore meat-eaters are today saying that it's not beneficial to reduce meat intake. Problem is meat has been blamed for many ills that it is NOT responsible for.
I have no issues with the consumption of meat in small quantities, nor do I have issues with the act of killing for food, I do however have issues with meat production/ factory farms, as I also have equal issues with agribusiness which produce nutritionally empty and ecologically unsustainable fruit and vegetables.
You may like this example of Migmah's in Eastern Canada. Before colonisation, a major source of animal protein was eels. There was very minimal agriculture in Migmah tribes in Eastern Canada and meat was a common source of nutrition. When Cabot and Cartier and other white explorers arrived here, they were very surprised at how tall and healthy and longlived the Migmah were. And that was only a few hundred years ago. Our bodies are very capable of long healthy lives based highly on animal protein. It's just a matter of controlling total intake and quality.
Enjoying music harms no one. Eating meat harms animals.
I am arguing that causing unnecessary harm is immoral. Why do people keep separating necessity and harm when critiquing my point?
Radu, can you conceive of a discussion about morality that doesn't involve the use of forceful coercion? I have no desire to legislate morality or enact laws to enforce it.
I agree most people don't think it is immoral to eat animals. But I still think most people think it is immoral to needlessly hurt animals. And when they really think about it, they understand that raising and killing animals for food when we have alternatives constitutes needlessly hurting animals. But they live with the cognitive dissonance through various psychological defense mechanisms. I think many of these defense mechanisms mirror the defense mechanisms of other belief systems, including religion. That's what this discussion is about. It isn't about me or my views or if I plan to initiate some sort of legislative campaign to take away your meat.
If you are unfamiliar with Australian philosopher Peter Singer's book, Animal Liberation, first published in 1975, I highly recommend and suggest you get yourself a copy.
Amazon Reader Review:
"This is one of the first accounts of what was to become one of the most controversial movements in the world. Peter Singer, a moral philosopher, argues about the ethics of eating meat, biomedical experiments on animals, cattle farming, the meat industry, and other related topics. Written with his characteristic lucidity and clarity, this is no jittery, woolly, 'fascist animal rights lobby' book, but an intellectually rigorous, philosophically grounded tract on what it means to be human and what duties we owe other species who share the world with us. Clear-eyed, substantiated with impeccably-researched data and facts, and radiant with a moral energy that has all but left academic philosophical writing, it gives much-needed credibility to a burning, and often much abused and misrepresented, issue."
Check it out on Amazon HERE:
There is no objective morality. But it seems like the direction you are going is that since there is no objective morality that any type of behavior is okay. Theists seem to go this route when criticizing atheism. "Without objective morality you must think it is okay to murder and rape."
But the fact is that we, as a society, can come to an agreement about subjective morality. In our society (the United States), polls regularly show that most people agree that cruelty to animals is wrong. Most people agree that causing needless suffering is wrong. But there seems to be a disconnect between people's profess moral values and their actual behaviors. That is the point I am trying to make here.
P.S. I have an idea that we can determine an objective morality, but that is a topic for another post.