Carnism: How We Justify Killing Animals for Food

In November of 1995, a cow named Emily stood on line at the slaughterhouse. Perhaps she felt that something was not right, as she watched her companions go into a little shed and not come out again. She somehow jumped over a gate – as the workmen watched in shock at the impossibility of the feat – and ran for the woods.

For a month, Emily kept hidden from the meat workers who searched for her. The townspeople reported seeing her running with a herd of deer, learning how to forage. They left bales of hay in the woods for her. Eventually, the meat plant owner (whose granddaughter had given Emily her name) agreed to sell the cow to the Peace Abbey, where she lived out the rest of her days, and inspired many people to give up meat forever. After her death, a statue was erected in her honor.

How strange that Emily’s story moved so many people at the time, and yet every single day that the news was reporting on the “cowhunt”, thousands of other cows continued to be slaughtered. Doubtless, many of the people who sympathized with Emily continued to buy beef at the grocery store and order cheeseburgers at the pub.

In her book, Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows, Dr. Melanie Joy coins the term “carnism” to describe the paradoxical behavior of human beings toward different species of animals. Carnism, she writes, is the ideology by which modern, meat-eating humans justify the raising and slaughtering of certain animals for food. While most of “us” would recoil at the idea of eating dogs (the book is centered on Americans), we seemingly have no problem eating cows, pigs, chickens and fish. Why is that? (I can tell you from experience that a well-prepared meal of dog tastes similar to one of flank steak.)

Joy writes, “The primary way entrenched ideologies stay entrenched is by remaining invisible.” Hence, while “vegetarianism” has a label, the status quo is unnamed. “If we don’t name it, we can’t talk about it, and if we can’t talk about it, we can’t question it.” Carnists are different from carnivores, because a carnivore (e.g., a wolf) has to eat meat, while a carnist (a human) merely chooses to. Meat is not required to sustain a healthy human diet.

Satisfying the American demand for meat requires killing ten billion animals per year. The level of violence necessary to achieve this is something that no normal human being wants to contemplate; therefore we do not contemplate it. Joy, who is a professor of psychology and sociology at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, gets her students to understand why they identify more with dogs than with pigs (the stereotypical “cute dog” and “dirty pig”, which hardly hold up to scrutiny), and she also works with many abattoir workers suffering from PTSD on account of the extreme violence inherent in their jobs.

To keep the unpleasant realities safely away from the majority of us, the meat industry locates their production facilities in isolated areas, confines their animals in windowless rooms, and pushes for laws designed to hide their operations – such as the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act of 2006, which “makes it illegal to engage in behavior that results in the economic disruption of an animal enterprise.” Doesn’t that sound like it makes vegetarianism illegal? In the wake of a mad cow disease outbreak in 1996, Oprah Winfrey was sued by Texas beef producers for over $10 millionĀ  under the Texas Food Disparagement Act because she said she would not eat another burger. Oprah successfully defended herself (and free speech for all of us), but only after millions of dollars in legal fees.

Paul McCartney once said that if the slaughterhouses had glass walls, we’d all be vegetarians. But over time, the processing of animals into meat has become more invisible, and regulation has shifted from the government to the industry – that is, we have allowed meat producers to regulate themselves. It seems, on balance, that Americans just don’t want to know what goes into the production of their food.

Join us Tuesday, December 14th at 8:30pm to discuss these and other issues related to eating in America. We’ll be at DOC Wine Bar in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

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