Feature Interview: Melanie Joy on Books, Documentaries, and Carnism

Melanie Joy Why We Eat Dogs

Photo Courtesy Melanie Joy

In our society there is a disconnect in the way “domestic” animals like dogs are viewed, versus the way “farmed” animals like cows and pigs are viewed. One is for companionship, the other, food. But why is that? Melanie Joy addresses these tough, and often perplexing, topics in her book Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows: An Introduction to Carnism. Vegan Mainstream picked Melanie’s brain and uncovered methods to understand “carnists,” in order to meet them where they are in a civil discourse regarding animal rights.

Vegan Mainstream: Tell me how you got involved with animal activism?

Melanie Joy: I got involved with animal activism in the late 1980s. I had gotten sick from eating a hamburger that was contaminated with Campylobacter, which is similar to Salmonella. Before that time I had been increasingly uncomfortable with the idea of eating animals, having witnessed on a handful of occasions the horrors of animal agriculture. But I hadn’t stopped eating animals. After I got sick, I had the impetus to go vegetarian and then later vegan. At that point, I became open to taking in the reality of animal agriculture. I became very curious. What I learned motivated me to want to take action and to share this information with others.

That really was the catalyst for my activism. I had always considered myself an animal lover, but I hadn’t really realized that there was an inherent contradiction in my attitudes and behaviors toward animals. Once I was able to make that connection, it really helped catalyze, for me, the way in which I wanted to go about my life’s work. Before then, I had thought I wanted to do something to help animals and humans, but I wasn’t quite sure what.

When I closed that “gap in my consciousness,” it made me very curious about how I had been able to love animals and eat animals at the same time. I knew that if I could understand that, then I could understand ways to work towards that transformation of consciousness among the meat-eating majority. That’s really what led me to do my work, and that led me to write my book.

VM: For those who may be unfamiliar, can you talk about the concept of “carnism”?

MJ: “Carnism” in a nutshell is the term I started using in 2001 to describe the invisible belief system that conditions us to eat certain animals. It’s essentially the opposite of veganism. It’s a dominant belief system or ideology, and typically dominant belief systems remain invisible. We tend to name only those belief systems or ideologies that fall outside of the norm. The dominant set of practices end up looking as though they are simply common sense, or a given rather than a choice; a choice resulting from a belief system.

VM: Did your book stem from academic work or something you developed later?

MJ: I was teaching before I went to get my PhD. I was teaching English and I was also holding workshops around the Boston area about vegetarianism. What I discovered as an educator is that information alone is not enough to bring about behavioral change. People would come to my workshops and they would cry, and they would be moved, and they would be on board with vegetarianism. But then they would leave and keep eating animals. So, I became very curious about why that was possible. That was what really led me to go back to school and focus my studies on understanding the psychology of violence and nonviolence.

It was that, in combination with this growing awareness of my own psychological transformation of becoming vegan, that led me to do my work. So, I wrote my doctoral dissertation on the psychology of eating meat. For my dissertation, I interviewed vegans, vegetarians, meat eaters, meat cutters, butchers, people who had raised and killed their own animals for food, and I discovered there was much more to eating animals than simply individual attitudes and behaviors. The individuals I was interviewing all had extremely similar experiences either eating or butchering animals. Such beliefs and behaviors didn’t exist in a vacuum. This led me to the discovery of carnism. Later I turned my dissertation into a book for a lay audience.

VM: At the beginning of Why We Love Dogs, you ask students how they feel about pigs and why. How do you approach a younger audience in an educational setting, i.e. college students, with the concept of carnism?

MJ: The same way I approach it with anybody. I use something very similar to the exercise I talk about in my book in Chapter 2. There are certain courses I won’t have that conversation in, because it’s not relevant to the materials we’re covering. But I do bring this question into as many of my courses as I can, because it is relevant to a number of courses I teach, such as socialization and psychological trauma.

I try to use the Socratic method in my teaching as well as experiential learning. I consider myself a humane educator and there’s an approach to teaching in humane education where we’re trying to get people to ask the right questions, or ask questions that are relevant, and answer their own questions. One of the common exercises I do is ask students about their attitudes towards pigs, and to describe pigs. Then I ask them to describe dogs. We compare the sets of adjectives they use to describe these two different types of species. Then we talk about where their information has come from, because generally pigs are not described in a favorable light, and dogs generally are. That opens up a whole conversation about where these beliefs, which are erroneous to a large degree – at least when it comes to their beliefs about pigs – come from. If we were to have the same beliefs about pigs that we do about dogs, how might that impact our relationship with pigs?

VM: What sorts of things did you look at when first writing your dissertation and then your book? What sorts of things did you research or study?

MJ: What I started out studying was simply the psychology of violence and nonviolence, without looking specifically at the human/nonhuman relationship. I read about the psychology of genocide, etc. I was very interested in psychological trauma, in cognitive-moral dissonance, and the ways that we relate to the internal discomfort we feel when our behaviors and practices are not in alignment. I also studied the psychology of prejudice.

There has been a good deal of work done looking at the ways in which human psychology has enabled us to carry out violence towards other human groups. We create this idea of “the other”, or “the enemy”, who we perceive as so fundamentally different from ourselves that we can carry out violence towards them without the discomfort we might otherwise feel. I simply applied some of this to our psychological relationship with nonhuman beings.

VM: Do you feel your book is not really for vegans, but for carnists?

MJ: No, I feel my book is for both equally. I wrote it for vegans and vegetarians because, often when we become vegan or vegetarian, we have this visceral sense that our choice is fundamentally right. We feel clear in our philosophy and our ethics, but often our argument is not grounded in a broader argument that makes it easy to articulate why we believe that our choice is ethically and philosophically sound. I wanted to support vegans and vegetarians by helping to show there is this frame, this system in place that has a very clear structure in many ways. If we can identify the system, if we can describe the system, we become better able to articulate and feel more grounded in our own choices.

I also wrote it for vegans and vegetarians because the goal of the vegan movement is not simply the abolition of animal agriculture; it’s the transformation of carnism, the system that enables animal agriculture in the first place. It’s very important for those of us who are working to abolish animal agriculture to really understand the system that we’re trying to transform. If we don’t see it, it’s like we’re fighting blindfolded against an unseen force. I also wrote my book for vegans and vegetarians because it is incredibly challenging, in many ways, to live as such a minority in a dominant meat-eating culture that daily offends our deepest sensibilities and this reality can cause a tremendous amount of pain and conflict in our relationships with others in our lives who are not vegan or vegetarian.

I also wanted to help vegans/vegetarians to feel more compassionate toward meat eaters, to have more understanding of why not everybody  makes the same choices we do, so we can have more sustainable lives and be able to maintain a sense of connection with our loved ones who are still eating animals. And I wanted to help vegans and vegetarians advocate more effectively.

I wrote the book for meat eaters because I wanted a book that talked not simply about why people shouldn’t eat meat, but why they do eat meat in the first place. I really believe that by illuminating the hidden defenses of carnism, it diminishes their power significantly. I feel that people need and deserve to know the truth, and not just the truth about animal agriculture, but the truth about the system that has shaped their perceptions and guided their food choices like an invisible hand. I wanted to raise awareness so people could make their food choices freely, because without awareness there is no free choice. I do believe most people, with genuine awareness, not just about animal agriculture, but about carnism, really will be much better positioned to make choices that are more in alignment with their core values. And those core values do not support violence toward other beings.

VM: Along this thread, what are some methods you think vegans and vegetarians can use to have a healthy discourse about animal issues with carnists?

MJ: On my website Carnism.com, which is the website for my organization, Carnism Awareness and Action Network (CAAN), there’s a tab for vegans and vegetarians. We have a list of tips of how to advocate effectively and relate to non-vegans/non-vegetarians. I also give workshops on this very issue. It’s very important for us to understand carnism because carnism is a system comprised of defense mechanisms. Systems such as carnism need to use a set of social and psychological defense mechanisms in order to enable humane people to participate in inhumane practices without fully realizing what they’re doing. These defenses become internalized, so when vegans or vegetarians interact with somebody who is not vegan or vegetarian, it’s almost inevitable that they experience that defensiveness. For many of us, we react to defensiveness with defensiveness, as opposed to recognizing the defenses for what they are, anticipating and expecting them, and being able to navigate around them.

On a practical level, one of the most important things I suggest to vegans is not to expect the facts to sell the ideology. We so often go into conversations thinking, “if only you knew the truth about eating animals, you’d never eat them again.” But then that same person is at the McDonald’s drive-thru the next day. We’re infuriated and exasperated and it becomes very difficult to have a productive conversation when that’s the way we’re feeling. The facts don’t sell the ideology, more often than not. And they don’t because carnistic defenses are so deeply ingrained. I would suggest that we expect some defensiveness. I always suggest vegans and vegetarians learn the principles of effective (non-violent) communication because effective communication is effective communication – it doesn’t matter if you’re talking about whether to eat animals or not, or whether to go out or stay in on a Saturday night.  The same principles apply. If we communicate with each other with the goal of sharing the truth of our experience and hearing the truth of their experience to gain better mutual understanding, as opposed to communicating with the goal of telling the truth to influence the other person to change their behaviors, we’re more likely to be heard.

VM: Briefly talk about the paradox your book discusses, where animal lovers can still eat meat.

MJ: The same way anybody can still eat meat. They’re not making the connection; because carnism socializes us such that we automatically compartmentalize species in our minds. Some species are classified as food, and other species are classified as worthy of moral concern. It doesn’t matter whether we’re working for animal welfare, or whether we’re working for human rights, or whether we’re the CEO of a corporation, we’re all born into this carnistic mentality. Those who are more sensitive to the plight of animals, and the suffering of animals, are often more defensive when learning about the reality of animal agriculture, because it’s harder for them to come to terms with the fact that they’ve participated in the atrocity.

I think it’s important when we’re advocating to speak to people’s strengths and meet them where they’re at. I find that if you communicate with people who are already in touch with their compassion for animals, it’s simply a matter of asking the right questions.

VM: What necessitated the creation for your book, Strategic Action for Animals?

MJ: I wrote that book when I was really trying to figure out how I could best support positive change in the world for animals. I realized the most effective use of my skills and the tools I had at my disposal at that time was to support the people who were already doing the important work. Animal activists are a small minority in a world that is overwhelmingly cruel to animals. That world is difficult to live in once you’ve stepped outside of the box that prevents you from recognizing just how much animal suffering there is in the world. I really wanted to support the people who were already on the front lines doing this important work and doing it very well in many cases.

The animal rights movement is made up of activists who get less training to try to make the world a better place than they would to operate a cash register. What I wanted to do was really analyze the literature and synthesize what we have learned from movements throughout history, so busy activists could have a handbook they could pick up and not have to start from scratch every time, and to really learn some of the basics of effective activism. If every activist were twice as effective, the movement would be twice as powerful.

VM: What are you working on now, or is there something you’d like to talk about that I haven’t asked about?

MJ: I’m on the second year of a national speaking tour now, and I have a slide show on carnism that I’ve been showing around the country and will be showing in Europe for a week in March. That has really been the focus of my efforts.

CAAN was launched about a year ago and is really starting to have an impact. Carnism awareness is starting to spread among meat eaters, vegetarians, and vegans, which is fantastic. The goal is continuing the slide show, reaching increasingly larger audiences of people who are in positions of influence to share these ideas, and who can apply and use such ideas. There is the potential for a documentary to be made about carnism as well; we are working on getting that in place. My approach to carnism awareness has been three-pronged: Writing the book, making a documentary film, and speaking as widely as possible. Once carnism becomes an established concept among the mainstream, it has the potential to dramatically change the way we, as a society, think and talk about the issue of eating animals.

Check out Melanie’s website for more information on carnism and her book Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs and Wear Cows.

Also see what Farm Sanctuary has to say about the issue of carnism.

To get involved, visit the CAAN website, http://www.carnism.com/.




By | 2016-10-17T10:40:31+00:00 February 24th, 2012|Featured Interviews, Vegan Professionals|1 Comment

About the Author:

Graduate of MU Journalism program. Love mustaches, vegan-things, LOST and beer.