Food for Thought: Carnism and the Psychology of Eating Meat
Melanie Joy, Ph.D., Ed.M.
"…I mean, there are so many mortifying things in our culture and society. But that [killing animals for food] certainly is one of the worst and people ignore it the most because they think that animals don't matter…I feel a lot for these animals. Just the thought is really upsetting…I'm crying."
While many VegFamily readers likely identify with the above quote, what may come as a surprise is that this statement was made not by a vegetarian, but by a meat eater. Perhaps even more surprising is that the sentiment expressed in the statement appears to be more the rule than the exception. Research suggests that eating other animals brings about an inner discomfort, or inconsistency, that people are generally unaware of. The question, then, is how can the average American, who very likely considers her- or himself nonviolent toward other animals, eat their bodies and experience no apparent discomfort?
The answer to this question may be explained, at least in part, through an understanding of carnism. Carnism is the word I began using several years ago to denote the ideology of meat consumption. Ideologies are social belief systems that have enormous power to shape people's attitudes and behaviors. Ideologies are often so embedded in society that their influence is mostly unconscious-and therefore unquestioned. Typically, ideologies are only recognized when are an exception to the "normal" way of thinking (what we call the "dominant ideology"). This is why there is a name, vegetarianism, for the ideology that considers the consumption of other animals inappropriate or unethical. The dominant ideology in our society maintains that eating other animals is normal and even necessary. However, there is no name for this ideology. We therefore tend to view eating animals not as a choice, but as a given. This way of thinking makes society view the consumption of animals as normal, natural, and legitimate.
Ideologies can hide contradictions between people's behaviors and their values. They allow people to make exceptions to what they would normally consider ethical, without even realizing it. This is how we can understand carnism. If we consider carnism to be an ideology, then we can explain why it is possible to love some animals and eat others. We have been so socialized to believe in the legitimacy and necessity of carnism that most people do not even think of their meat as having once been an animal. Indeed, most people begin eating meat before they can even talk, and the process of maintaining the invisibility of the animals who become food continues for the rest of our lives.
In my own research, I found that certain ways of thinking support carnism. Interviewing carnists (meat eaters) and meat cutters, I learned that, in order to eat or process the bodies of other animals, individuals needed to use a degree of "psychic numbing"-the separation of thoughts from feelings and of beliefs from practices. This psychic numbing was expressed through a variety of defense mechanisms. Among the most notable are:
-denial ("animals don't really suffer when being raised and killed for meat")
-justification ("it's acceptable to eat certain animals because they're bred for that purpose")
-avoidance ("don't tell me that; you'll ruin my meal")
-dichotomization ("I think of some animals as companions and some as food")
-dissociation ("when I look at meat, I don't connect it with an animal-if I did, I would be disgusted and unable to eat it").
One might ask, then, if such defenses are necessary for the consumption of meat, why continue to eat meat? Why not just go vegetarian? The answer to this is complex. In a nutshell, though, carnists often continue as carnists due to a number of factors, perhaps the most prominent of them being fear. A comprehensive list can be found in Carol Adam's wonderful book, Living Among Meat Eaters (2003). Since ideologies tend to perpetuate themselves, it should be no wonder that the carnistic system works quite hard to ensure that its members remain loyal, using fear as an effective tool toward this end. For instance, many of us have been led to believe that if we stop eating meat, we will become unhealthy, seen as antisocial, weak or less "manly," flaky, and a host of other stereotypes. These notions are communicated through the mass media, in which vegetarians are often portrayed as strange or radical. They are also conveyed through carnistic "education" campaigns and marketing, where meat is associated with health, strength, community, and normalcy.
While an understanding of psychic numbing may help us better relate to carnists, it can also help us better appreciate and value our own choice to be vegetarians. Psychic numbing, when used to enable violent practices such as carnism, is, arguably, psychologically unhealthy. Unfortunately, though, the field of psychology has typically supported, rather than challenged, the status quo, and so the use of massive psychological defenses to enable participation in violent practices that are contrary to one's deeper value system is generally not considered psychologically questionable. Instead, those who resist the dominant ideology (i.e., vegetarians) tend to be either ignored or pathologized-for instance, a psychologist might assume that one's vegetarianism is simply a mask for an eating disorder.
Thus, what may be one of the most important points to remember as vegetarians is that mental health comes not from unquestioningly participating in what we have learned is normal (consider the average German in Nazi Germany), but from practicing we believe is right. It comes from living in accordance with our deepest values, values such as personal authenticity, integrity, empathy, and compassion for all beings. What better model for a peaceful planet? What better lesson to teach our children?