From cuisine to corpses to 'carnism'

From cuisine to corpses to 'carnism'

In May I went to Berlin to take part in giving a prize to Professor Peter Singer. He is one of the best known contemporary philosophers in the world and his book, Animal Liberation, provided the framework for the animal welfare movement. At the ceremony, I met Melanie Joy, the author of a very important book called Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows. She has coined the term "carnism" and a few years from now it will be as common a term as vegan or vegetarian. This week, I am going to reproduce her very thoughtful speech.

"In the early 1990s, when I was a young student living in Boston, I was hospitalised after eating what would be my very last hamburger, a burger that was contaminated with dangerous food-borne bacteria. That experience led me to swear off meat, which led me to become more open to information about animal agriculture - information that had been all around me but that I had been unwilling to see, so long as I was still invested in maintaining my current way of life.

"And as I learned the truth about meat, egg and dairy production, I became increasingly distraught. The extent of the suffering was unfathomable, and the fact that such violence was utterly unnecessary was incomprehensible. For instance, in one week more farmed animals are killed globally than the total number of people killed in all wars throughout history - and farmed animals live in a misery that defies our worst nightmares. Baby animals are routinely castrated and have their beaks, horns and tails cut off with no painkiller whatsoever and many animals end up skinned and boiled alive.

"So, suddenly I was looking at the world through new eyes: what I had once seen as cuisine I now saw as corpses; what I had once seen as appropriate I now saw as absurd. But worst of all was that nobody I talked to about this was willing to hear what I had to say. My attempts to share what I had learned were often met with avoidance (there was always something more important to discuss than the rapidly expanding global industry that has caused more bloodshed than all wars, famines and natural disasters combined). Sometimes my sharing was met with denial (people who had never been exposed to information about animal agriculture would calmly assure me that the problem wasn't nearly as bad as I thought). And sometimes my sharing was even met with hostility (I was a moralist, a propagandist, an extremist, a deluded misanthrope).

"I wound up confused and despairing. I felt like a rudderless boat, lost on a sea of collective insanity. Nothing had changed, but everything was different.

"I knew I had to spend my life working to stem the tide of destruction I had become aware of, but first I had to understand the root of this destruction. Defining the problem is the first step to finding the solution. I needed to understand why. Why would an entire society of rational, caring people like myself go through their entire lives being blind to what was right in front of them, and resist the very information that would set them, and the world, free?

"I would eventually find the answer to this question, and the philosophical foundation for my answer came to me thorough reading Animal Liberation. It was Peter Singer's brilliant exposition of speciesism that laid the groundwork for the development of my theory, a theory that would provide the social and psychological framework for understanding the issue of eating animals.

"I thought I had found my answer as to why good people engage in harmful behaviours. And again, I shared with others what I had learned - not only about animal agriculture, but also about speciesism, human supremacy and the oppression of non-human animals. But again, my words were met with resistance. At best, people would nod their heads in agreement before enjoying their pepperoni pizza; at worst they would hurl insults about my logic and priorities.

"I needed to understand why, when it came to eating animals, information and reason were not enough to bring about change. Why did well-intentioned people so fervently defend their right to engage in a behaviour that harms themselves and their world? So I poured myself into research on the psychology of eating animals.

"And this is when I discovered carnism - the name I gave to the belief system, or ideology, that conditions people to eat certain animals. Carnism is essentially the opposite of veganism, and it is a sub-ideology of speciesism (just as anti-Semitism, for instance, is a sub-ideology of racism). We often believe that only vegans and vegetarians follow a belief system. But when eating animals is not a necessity, which is the case for many people in the world today, then it is a choice - and choices always stem from beliefs.

"Carnism is a dominant ideology; it is invisible and entrenched, embedded within the very foundations of society. (So when we study nutrition, for example, we actually study carnistic nutrition). Carnism is also a violent ideology - meat cannot be procured without violence and egg and dairy production cause extensive harm to animals. And carnism runs counter to core human values, values such as compassion, justice and authenticity.

"So, in my research, I sought to understand how carnism maintains itself, since no rational, humane person would willingly support such a system. And I discovered that carnism uses a set of defence mechanisms that operate on a social and psychological level - they are both institutionalised and internalised. These defences distort our thoughts and numb our feelings so that we can pet our dog while we eat our hamburger without recognising the glaring inconsistencies that are right in front of us.

"For example, carnism teaches us to believe in the mythology of meat - to believe in what I refer to as the Three Ns of Justification: eating animals is normal, natural and necessary. (Not surprisingly, these same arguments have been used to justify violent practices throughout history, from slavery to male dominance.) And carnism teaches us to see farmed animals as abstractions, as lacking any individuality or personality of their own: a pig is a pig, and all pigs are the same.

"My research on carnism exposed the truth that eating animals is not simply a matter of personal ethics; it is the inevitable end result of a deeply entrenched oppressive ideology. Eating animals is thus a social justice issue.

"And I also discovered that awareness is the antidote to carnism - not simply awareness of the facts about animal agriculture or the existence of carnism, but awareness of carnistic defences themselves. Awareness dispels defensiveness like light dispels shadow. And once our carnistic defences recede, we can reconnect with our natural empathy toward other sentient beings - empathy that has always been there, but that has been blocked by carnism. So the goal of my life's work has been to raise awareness of carnism so that people can make their choices freely - because without awareness, there is no free choice.

"After talking about carnism on five continents, I can say with some certainty that our species is waking up. More and more people are choosing to become vegan, are becoming actively engaged in the struggle for animal liberation, and are catalysing powerful legislative and social change. It is an incredible time to witness the proliferation of vegan organisations and institutions and to behold the rise of animal liberation. What I can imagine now is a future where all animals, human and non-human, will one day be liberated."

(To join the animal welfare movement contact gandhim@nic.in, www.peopleforanimalsindia.org)

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