In her book, “Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows,” social scientist Dr. Melanie Joy introduces us to a very important idea, a social construct, which she calls carnism. Carnism is a belief system that supports the idea that it is normal, natural, and necessary for human beings to consume the flesh of other animals. By naming and defining carnism, which has been both invisible and ubiquitous in our culture, Joy makes a significant and timely contribution to the efforts of animal rights and vegan advocates, and to our society at large.
In carnistic societies, eating animals is taken as a given, a necessary part of who we are. As Joy points out, however, it is actually something people choose to do (though they are unaware that they are even making a choice). Eating animals is an option, not a requirement, and it comes with serious ethical implications.
Exploiting and killing animals for food is inherently violent and inconsistent with our natural empathic tendencies, so we have developed social and psychological mechanisms to maintain our meat-eating habit. We have become largely disconnected from the painful reality of exploitation and slaughter, keeping it out of sight and out of mind. In the rare instances when we are forced to confront our subjection of billions of animals each year to unnecessary suffering, we fall back on the human brain’s great capacity for rationalization. We have come up with good reasons to do bad things for thousands of years. The techniques we use to excuse the eating of meat are the same we have used to justify other violent institutions and prejudices throughout human history.
In discussions about food, vegan advocates often find ourselves defending our choice not to consume animal products, as though that decision is an aberration we need to explain. A discussion of carnism, however, emphasizes that the habit of animal consumption is itself a social construct. Reframing the meat-eating debate in this way is akin to shifting from focusing on “feminists” or “civil rights activists” to discussing sexist or racist institutions and the social systems that bolster them. As with sexism and racism, carnism is an ideology that supports violence and injustice.
Humans are social animals, and we learn behaviors, including how and whom we eat, from those around us. In carnistic societies, members unwittingly support businesses that engage in systemic cruelties and conspire to look the other way. But humans are also hardwired to feel empathy. The concept of carnism is a useful tool to understand and deconstruct a dominant institution that stifles our innate compassionate impulses.