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.
Yes, thank you. I read some of that at the time. The idea is strikingly similar to a Facebook post of mine.
I agree that the people usually get defensive when their belief system is put in question. When the dominant belief system is in question people usually become defensive regardless of the terminology used. Even something as innocuous as "happy holidays" can mean "war on Christmas" to a believer.
Then would you agree that most people think that knowingly causing needless suffering is immoral?
That is the moral principle assumed by Dr. Joy's work. Given this moral principle, she points out there is a disconnect between many people's proposed moral values and their actual behaviors when it comes to eating animals. She concludes that this disconnect is due to a dominant belief system which enables people to cope with this inconsistency - in part by not thinking about it too much. By labeling carnism as a belief system, she thinks people will be encouraged to examine this inconsistency.
"Not eating meat should be so low on the list of moral priorities that even talking about it should be considered immoral. Use this time and effort to resolve more important problems of the world, that would be my advice."
This implies that it takes a great deal of time and effort to not eat meat, which it doesn't. Are you saying that people who don't eat meat aren't contributing to other issues? Because, if so, you're sorely mistaken.
Also, what would you say to the idea that eating meat is not inherently immoral, but eating meat that is factory farmed and pushed through a slaughterhouse, rather than that which comes from actual farms and is not tortured throughout life, is?
At age 20, it took a few friends about 6 months to convince me vegetarian was the way to go, I switched to veganism a year later. But that only last one year, it just took too much joy out of social eating. So by 23 I was back to ovo-lacto, then after 6 months volunteering in Ecuador in local organic agriculture, I returned to Canada and had a boyfriend who ate Quaker Harvest Crunch for breakfast. Everytime I slept over, I got sick. I took 2 years for the gastroenterologist to "guess" that I was lactose-intolerant, probably due to Ecuadorian intestinal parasites contact. Lactose intolerance forced me back to vegan, or ovo-vegetarian for a few more years, but by age 30, I was missing the fun flavor of meat, and the occasional pizza, my health and weight were no better than before, so I reincorporated a little fish and organically raised or local meat into my diet, in small quantities, and carefully.
It's not always about digging in, sometimes it's about digging out...
I think most people agree that causing needless suffering is immoral. I think most people understand at some level that animals who are raised and killed for food suffer, even if they don't want to think about it too much. But once someone recognizes that raising and killing animals for food is unnecessary then I believe they have a choice. They can be consistent with their position that causing needless suffering is immoral and stop eating animals or they can change their minds about the immorality of causing needless suffering. It is often easier to change your mind than it is to change your behavior, so many people choose to continue eating meat. In so doing, they often develop rationalizations and defense mechanisms to bridge the gap between their moral values and their actual behaviors.
But to answer your questions more directly, yes I think that someone who knowingly causes animals to suffer for such trivial reasons as taste preference is immoral. Criminalizing immorality is rarely effective though. I prefer to think people can come to reasonable conclusions if they are able to think past the rationalizations and defense mechanisms they use to protect their belief systems.
I was hesitant to write this as I know many people here like the idea of being 'good people'.
I don't. I like to see myself as self centered egomaniac. I know plenty about how animals are treated, there's more than enough information on youtube but I still eat at the local McDonalds and I'll eat meat with almost any meal. Even if I do think of how the animals are treated, I'll carry on eating, appetite not affected. *Eats another mouth-ful of pot noodles.*
But does this make me immoral? That depends on how you define immoral. I'm fine with live and let live so long as it's not in my way. I'll help people if it's no problem. Hell, I buy tramps food and eat with them from time to time because they have some interesting stories. (Made up mostly, they all have son's doing the same Uni course as me...) I think of all people as defined by themselves, not their backgrounds or physical selves. (Note: not equal. People who have dead hookers in their cars are not going to be on the same level as your average person.) I follow the idea of I won't force my religion on you if you don't force yours on me. (I'm past the point of giving christianity a chance. It's too annoying.)
I have friends who I support entirely. I'm always as honest as I can be and I'm clearly a valued member of a number of social groups. I get along with pretty much anyone who's open to new friends.
The fact that I like the idea of being a bad person dosen't have to make me immoral, the only crime I've committed intentionally is hacking a coke machine. Teacher caught me... long story. Sure, I hate and terrify kids on purpose and people my own age were equally scared of me a few years back even though it was mostly talk. (read the PS). Wether or not I eat meat is not really a part of the bad thing for me. Not being veggie or vegan is, but I'd eat meat just as happily if I wanted to be a good guy.
P.S. I've recently come out of psychological aid, so telling me I need to get help is... not going work. I hear it a lot anyway.