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Dr. Melanie Joy Interview

April 24, 2010

Dr. Melanie Joy

24 April 2010

Melanie Joy is a social psychologist, professor, and personal coach. She has been involved in the animal liberation movement since1989 and has worked as an activist, educator, and organizer.

Melanie is the author of Strategic Action for Animals and the recently released (2010) Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows: An Introduction to Carnism. She has also authored numerous articles on psychology, animal advocacy, and social justice, which have been published in academic and popular journals and magazines. A professor at theUniversity ofMassachusetts,Boston, Melanie teaches sociology and psychology. She also spent two years on the faculty of the Institute for Humane Education, the first institute in theUnited States to offer a master’s degree with a concentration in humane education. Her academic areas of specialisation include: human-animal relations, the psycho-sociology of violence and nonviolence, psychological trauma, family dynamics, ecopsychology, addictions, and strategic social change.

Melanie is also the leading researcher on the ideology of meat production and consumption—a phenomenon she’s termed carnism—and she has presented her research at national and international academic and grassroots conferences.Melanie Joy holds a Ph.D. in psychology from Saybrook Graduate School, a master’s degree (Ed.M.) in teaching and curriculum from the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

In her groundbreaking new book, Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows, Melanie explores the invisible system that shapes our perception of the “meat” we eat, so that we love some animals and eat others without knowing why. She calls this system carnism. Carnism is the belief system, or ideology, that allows us to selectively choose which animals become our food, and it is sustained by complex psychological and social mechanisms. Like other “isms” (racism, sexism, etc.), carnism is most harmful and culturally powerful when it is unrecognized and unacknowledged. Why We LoveDogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows names and explains this phenomenon and offers it up for examination. Unlike the many books that explain why we shouldn’t eat flesh, Melanie’s book explains why we do eat flesh—and thus how we can make more informed choices as citizens and consumers.

ARZone:   What methods/activities/strategies do you recommend for activists who wish to reach out to children with the vegan message?


Melanie Joy:   Children are a tricky demographic for vegan advocates to reach out to, because their choices are invariably secondary to those of their parents or guardians. So we can raise consciousness among children, but what those children do with this information is dependent on what their parents determine should be done. A couple of approaches that I see as useful are working to reform school lunch programs and writing children’s books that appeal to both children and their parents. I think books with a strategically crafted vegan message that appeal to children are a powerful way to reach both children and their decision-making parents.


Your book seems both cautious and moderate – and perhaps tactically so. For example, you talk of animal welfare not animal rights, and vegetarianism not veganism. Although the book is new (2010) it seems rather dated for these reasons. Do you subscribe to the view that veganism and philosophical animal rights (as opposed to rhetorical AR) are extreme ideas?


First, I tend to avoid framing ideas in terms of “moderate” or “extreme” because I find these concepts to be highly subjective and therefore often not helpful in discussions. As any author must, I asked myself—when I set out to write my book—“What kind of language and approach will most increase the likelihood that people will read my book and reflect upon their choice to consume animal products?”

Next, I’m not sure I understand what you mean when you say I talk of animal welfare but not animal rights, I of course talk about the welfare of nonhuman animals, just as I’d talk of the welfare of human animals were I writing a book about the exploitation of humans; “welfare” simply refers to a state of wellbeing—which directly implies a state of being free from harm. And though I don’t use the phrase “animal rights” I certainly do argue that one species’ desire should not trump another species’ right to live free from harm. This is the message that is consistently woven throughout my book; I argue that the carnism is an irrational system that shapes a mentality which enables atrocities and obscures absurdities. To quote a passage from my book.

“Only when we deconstruct the carnistic schema [mentality] can we see the absurdity of placing our preference for a flawless re-creation of a textural norm over the lives and deaths of billions of others.”

I’d like to add that there are more than enough books, in my opinion, examining eating animals from an ethical or philosophical perspective. Brilliant arguments for the moral imperative of becoming vegan have been laid out. However, intellectual argumentation and moral appeals have not reached a mainstream audience; the facts rarely sell the ideology. Why? One reason is because there is a social and psychological system in place—carnism—that is structured to prevent these arguments from being heard in the first place. So my goal has been to unveil that system, in a way that would speak to the very people we need to reach: carnists.

Now, you or I may not find the concept of vegetarianism “extreme” but to approximately 98 percent of the U.S.population—the meat-eating majority—it certainly is. And you and I have an idea of what “animal rights” means that, I can assure you, is quite different from that of the average American. So if I want to reach people, to communicate with readers in a way that decreases
rather than increases their inherited and deeply embedded carnistic defenses, I need to communicate in a way that they can hear.


In regard to psychic numbing/disconnection, it has been stated that together, denial + avoidance = invisibility. Most carnists seem to excuse their behaviour by adhering to this.How then, would you suggest broaching this topic with a carnist in order to get past this avoidance mentality?


To answer your question, first, I think we need to appreciate that all carnistic defenses exist for a reason: to maintain the system.

And key defenses to this is by protecting carnists from coming to terms with his or her cognitive moral dissonance. Cognitive moral dissonance is the internal discomfort one feels when his or her values are incongruent with his or her actions. I therefore look at denial and avoidance as defenses rather than excuses.

Personally, I always discuss eating animals by sharing my own experience. I talk about the fact that I grew up eating meat, for instance, and about how I was aware on one level that animals had to die for my plate but on another level I preferred not to know. I describe my experience of my own carnistic defenses (without using that term), and my experience of shifting from carnism to veganism (again, generally without using those terms) It’s so easy for those of us who are vegan to forget we were ever carnists. But the vast majority of us were not born vegan.

Anyway, I try to do what I suggest in my book: act as a witness, allowing the listener to see through my eyes, through my experience, and at the same time I try to witness her or his process of taking in the information I’m sharing. I also avoid judging. I know it’s difficult to do, but the minute someone feels judged, they feel “less than” which is the feeling of shame. And shame is an extremely de-motivating emotion. In my opinion, the best way to get someone to do nothing, or to resist your message, is to approach them with an attitude that is judgmental.

My hope has been that by understanding carnism, vegans will be more understanding of and therefore more compassionate toward carnists; this, in turn, will reduce or eliminate the judgment and help vegans advocate more effectively. I am not sure if that completely answers your question.

How would you say carnism differs from speciesism? Is it really that different, and if so, is the word carnism really even necessary?

I’m going to give an excerpt from an interview with me from “Bitch” magazine, in which I was asked this same question:

“Speciesism is the ideology in which it’s considered appropriate to value some animals over others (with humans at the top of the hierarchy), while carnism is the ideology in which it’s considered appropriate to eat some of the non-human species on the lower rungs of the speciesist hierarchy… Carnism is a “subideology” of speciesism, just as anti-Semitism, for example, is a subideology of racism; it’s a specific expression of a broader ideology. In many ways, the structure of these two ideologies is similar, but the content—what they’re focused on—differs In other words, speciesism and carnism (actually, all exploitative “isms”) use similar social and psychological defense mechanisms to maintain themselves. These defenses condition us to numb ourselves, mentally and emotionally, to the experience of nonhuman beings. Yet while speciesism is a broad, sweeping ideology carnism is focused specifically on eating animals.”

In order for a person to eliminate their “cognitive moral dissonance” – the moral discomfort they feel when their values and actions are not in alignment – do they have to give up eating meat entirely?

Well, in general, I don’t believe it’s ever possible to eliminate cognitive moral dissonance; I’ve never met an individual who lives one hundred percent in alignment with their values one hundred percent of the time. Not even close. So what I always say is that what’s most important is how we *relate* to our cognitive moral dissonance. Do we, for instance, authentically reflect on our behaviors? Are we committed to our own integrity, making an effort to decrease the gap between our values and practices? These, in my opinion, are the questions we need to be asking, and encouraging others to ask.

What is the carnistic schema?

The carnistic schema is another way of describing the carnistic mentality or the internalized, or psychological, version of the system of carnism. When we’re born into any dominant, entrenched system, we inevitably absorb the system’s logic as our own. We learn to see the world through the eyes of the system. The carnistic schema distorts our perceptions of animals (and what we’ve learned to call meat) so that we can feel comfortable enough to consume them. It does this by using cognitive distortions that I discuss in my book. For example, we learn to place animals in rigid categories in our minds; the carnistic schema teaches us to view a select group of animals as edible and all others as inedible and therefore disgusting. Understanding the carnistic schema can help vegans understand, and therefore be less likely to engage with, the defensiveness of carnists they encounter.

In chapter 5 of ‘Why We Love Dogs…’ you talk about some of the structural supports for “the three Ns of justification.” Could you highlight some of these points for us please?

I argue that there’s a vast mythology surrounding meat, and that these myths are carnistic defenses; they provide justifications for eating animals. I deconstruct what I call the Three Ns of Justification: eating meat is Normal, Natural, and Necessary. And these same myths have been used to support other violent practices and ideologies throughout history (slavery, male supremacy, etc.). The myths of meat are institutionalized; they’re embraced and maintained by all major social institutions from the family to the state, so they’re transmitted to us through all social channels and they are used to legitimize the system.

I also point out how the legal system plays a crucial role in legitimizing and forcing conformity to the system. Here is a brief excerpt. “Writing the tenets of an ideology into law forces conformity to the system. Consider, for instance, how the legal status of animals ensures continued meat production. Under, one can be either a legal person or legal property. A legal person is entitled to basic rights, most notably the right to live free from being physically violated by another. In contrast, legal property has no rights; only the legal person who owns the property has rights, which is why, for instance, you can sue someone who damages your car, but the car itself cannot press charges. I then explain how humans are persons and nonhuman animals are property and “person-owners have the right to do what they will with their private property, with few exceptions. So animals are bought and sold, eaten and worn and their bodies are used in such a wide variety of products that it’s virtually impossible not to conform to the system.”

What are your thoughts towards the environmental movement becoming more compassionate towards animals? From your experience[s] do you see that gap between enviro activists and veg/and vegans beginning to close?

My hope is that understanding carnism will help build a bridge between vegans and other activists, environmentalists notwithstanding. Many vegans (understandably) feel such outrage toward peoplewho continue to eat animals, especially those working to protect so-called wildlife and the environment. Vegans often see environmentalists as the ultimate hypocrites, and the judgment and attacks I’ve witnessed from vegans toward environmentalists has been intense. As I said before, people who feel judged are unlikely to change their behaviors.

Like all of us, environmentalists have been born into a carnistic society and thus they, too, see the world through the eyes of carnism. I have stated elsewhere, and often, that asking someone to stop eating animals and animal products isn’t simply asking for a change of behavior; if it were truly that simple we’d live in a very different world. It’s asking for a shift of consciousness. And people do not shift consciousness in such a way until they are psychologically ready to do so—environmentalists are no exception.

So, if we (vegans) can be more understanding of environmentalist carnists, we will be better able to create an atmosphere that will increase the likelihood that our message will be heard by a group of people we very much need to hear it. Moreover, my hope is that environmentalists, like other carnists, will learn about the ways carnism has impacted their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors toward other animals—and will therefore reconsider their choices when it comes to eating. animal products.I can’t comment on the second part of your question because I don’t work closely with enough environmental groups to know the answer to it.

Why do you think its important we put a name on ‘carnism’?

The primary way the system I call carnism defends itself is by remaining invisible, and the primary way it stays invisible is by remaining 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 or challenge it. Imagine trying to discuss the exploitation of people of color without having named and examined the system of racism. If we only have a name for veganism or vegetarianism but not carnism, then eating animals is seen as a given rather than a choice and we operate under the assumption that it’s only veg’ns who bring their beliefs to the dinner table.

Moreover, carnism has very specific structures and features and, when understood, they are much less powerful. Vegan advocates are at a tremendous disadvantage when they don’t understand, when they can’t see, the very system they’re working to transform. Ultimately, my hope is that, by understanding “meat” eating, or the consumption of animal products, not simply as a matter of personal ethics but as the inevitable end result of a deeply entrenched belief system, vegans and carnists alike will radically change the way they think and talk about the issue.

There are some people in Americawho aren’t disgusted by the idea of eating dogs, or other “non-edible” animals. Why is that?

Those people are a minority, to be sure. But nevertheless, virtually all people do have a line they draw when it comes to eating other animals; the question is simply how (psychologically or emotionally) close. that being must be to them before they become disgusted. For example, people who say they would eat dogs would likely not eat their own dog, just as many people who eat pigs wouldn’t eat a pig whom they’d considered a “pet.” When it comes to eating animals, as with everything in life, people’s responses are often diverse and complex. However, while the type of animal consumed may vary from culture to culture, or the proximity one must feel to the animal before feeling disgusted changes from person to person, the principles of carnistic numbing are consistent.

Do you feel that the use of hidden footage at abattoirs has been a valuable tool in educating carnists?

Hi Kelly. I believe that any information that can help pierce the veil of secrecy that insulates the public from the truth about the production of animal products is essential. So, yes, absolutely.


How do you justify promoting vegetarianism as a morally defensible position – or even an incremental step towards veganism? Surely our message should be clear – that all animal products involve suffering and death. How is promoting vegetarianism any different to saying that the individual should continue to be an omnivore?

I see myself as promoting an awareness of carnism. My book describes, in great detail, the atrocities inherent in the production and consumption of all animal products. But as I said to Roger, earlier, my job is to reach as many people as possible to raise awareness about carnism. Using appropriate terminology is essential, lest we alienate (which is done often) and lose our audience.


You say carnism is invisible. There have been some who disagree and think it is very visible. Do they not understand carnism as you define it? What is your response to those who claim carnism is visible?

I say carnism as a system is invisible, which we can see because the system hasn’t been named, identified. Many of the *consequences* of carnism are not invisible, or at least not totally invisible. But the system itself, and its structure, had not been defined nor described. This is true of all systems of privilege and oppression. It’s been described by those fighting against, for instance, white supremacy, patriarchy, etc. The way systems that are built on privilege and oppression maintain themselves is to remain invisible – and over time, as activists raise consciousness they become more and more visible.


ARZone exists to promote rational discussion about our relations with other animals and about issues within the animal advocacy movement. Please continue the debate after a chat by starting a forum discussion or by making a point under a transcript.



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