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What is “Carnism”? Or Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows. SV Interviews Melanie Joy

“This is the book I wish I had had to give the meat-eaters in my life so they would understand me, and how they and I could have such a different perspective on the same issue.” This statement from Melanie Joy about her new book, Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows: An Introduction to Carnism, might seem a little forward, but she’s right.

Before you roll your eyes and shrug carnism off as another “ism,” let Melanie explain it to you, which she does so eloquently in the interview below.

I will tell you that almost ten years ago, while I was editor of Satya Magazine, Melanie Joy submitted an article introducing the concept of carnism. She was working on her Ph.D. in psychology at the time and it was a little earnest and ambitious. Still, the editorial staff was intrigued and persuaded by her argument and we published it. I really wasn’t sure where the idea would go from there. Back then, she was arguing to restructure language. Now she’s talking about transforming our culture. And, again, she’s right.

Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows is an elegantly-written description of why people eat meat. The argument is subtle but her writing is very approachable, with a friendly tone and low on the use of academic jargon. For me, it’s the most thought-provoking book about how animals are perceived culturally since The Sexual Politics of Meat by Carol Adams (which had a big influence on me). I will leave it at that and let Melanie take it from here…

SV: Have you had any really surprising responses to your book so far?
MJ: Yes. I’ve been on a couple of radio shows in the Southwest–”cattle country”–and the reception has been surprisingly positive. Carnists and hunters have called in saying they agree with the precedent of the book. They care about animals too and are against factory farms. A lot of mainstream meat-eating readers have responded positively.

Why DO we love dogs, eat pigs, and wear cows?
Because the invisible system that I call “carnism” conditions us to love certain animals and eat others. Carnism teaches us not to feel when it comes to the animals we consume. Our natural way of responding to other animals appears to be based on empathy. One way we can see that: meat-eating societies around the world eat only a handful of species and find the idea of eating others disgusting. This is because carnism blocks our awareness and empathy when it comes to the species we have deemed edible.

Who is the intended audience for Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows?
I wrote it for vegans and vegetarians as well as for meat-eaters. I wrote it to help vegans feel more grounded and empowered in their choices. To have words to put into some things that they have known intuitively but haven’t necessarily articulated, and also to help vegans understand the system they are working to transform.

Carnism has a very specific structure. Carnistic mentality doesn’t have to be a mystery. So if vegans understand how the system works–socially and psychologically–they’re in a much better position than if they were fighting against an invisible entity. I also wanted to help vegans feel more understanding for the carnists in their lives. Activists often lose important relationships after becoming vegan. Some readers have expressed relief to know that carnists are not monsters, to be reminded that we weren’t all born vegan.

I wrote it for carnists because I wanted to have a book that spoke to meat-eaters and wasn’t just about the reality of meat production (there are plenty out there). I wanted to invite meat-eaters into the conversation, to explain why they do eat meat and not simply why they shouldn’t eat meat. This is the book I wish I had had to give the meat-eaters in my life so they would understand me, and how they and I could have such a different perspective on the same issue.

Why do you think we need another ism?
Carnism is a subideology of speciesism, just as anti-Semitism, for example, is a subideology of racism. It’s important to name and understand specific ideologies because even though they stem from a broader ideology, they have some distinct features that should be understood and addressed directly.

For longtime vegans, daily life in a carnist world can be extremely stressful, leading to frustration, misanthropy, sometimes depression and anxiety–for some, sometimes even violence. Do you have any suggestions for vegans who live in a world that, as you put it, offends “their deepest sensibilities” and how to deal with it?
One thing that’s really important–and it’s a reason why I wrote the book–is to be able to understand the psychology behind the behavior of carnists that causes vegans so much stress. To understand that “good” people can engage in harmful behavior, so that vegans don’t end up seeing other humans as the enemy and become isolated and misanthropic.

I think it’s important for vegans to understand that their emotional response to animal suffering is appropriate and not let it be pathologized. Feelings of despair, grief, rage, confusion–they are all legitimate responses to bearing witness to animal suffering.

Witnessing trauma like that–that we are powerless to change–requires a certain kind of resiliency. We can only be resilient if we are healthy–psychologically, physically and emotionally.

What is your ideal meal?
Just one?? I’m a big foodie. I’m 115 pounds and when I’m out eating, I generally eat as much as the 250-pound meat-eating men I’m with–and they’re shocked. People expect vegans to sit there poking at iceberg lettuce.

What kinds of classes do you teach at the University of Massachusetts?
I teach the “happy classes”: trauma, addiction, violence/nonviolence, and socialization.

Whoa. How do you maintain a sense of humor?
It’s dark stuff but the other side of the material is recovery. There’s light there. And I do try to integrate humor into classes. I tell jokes. Sometimes they go over well; sometimes they bomb. But it’s about trauma and recovery, just as working for animal rights is.

To learn more about Melanie, visit www.melaniejoy.org.

6 Comments

  1. Comment by

    Jason Das

    on #

    Thanks for the interview! Is there by any chance a shorter-than-book-length intro to carnism out there? I’m curious to learn more about the concept but I’d get around to an article a lot faster than a book.

  2. Comment by

    Cat Clyne

    on #

    The book is only 150 pages, dude. But there’s a description on her website: http://www.melaniejoy.org/what-is-carnism/

  3. Comment by

    Jason Das

    on #

    OK, if the margins are big enough I may be able to handle that.

  4. Comment by

    Lisa

    on #

    It’s a pretty easy read – good bathroom book.

    It puts both sides into perspective. Although I still find myself hurt and angered by people that just don’t get it – this book has helped me to gain a little understanding so I can approach the issue with others more gently.

  5. Comment by

    LindaMid

    on #

    When I read Why do we love dogs, eat pigs, and wear cows, I could not PUT IT DOWN. It all made such great sense and her understanding of human behavior was ideal. Entertaining, brutally honest. Please buy and read this if you CARE at all about yourself or the animals!

  6. Comment by

    trish.styles

    on #

    The philosophy of carnism at once constrains our consumption of meat because carnism is ridiculous, we need to use a defense mechanisms in order to maintain the status of living that includes denial, avoidance and objectification which take place on both the individual and institutional levels.
    Trish
    get big fast

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