Carnism is the invisible belief system, or ideology, that conditions people to eat certain animals. Carnism is essentially the opposite of veganism, as “carn” means “flesh” or “of the flesh” and “ism” refers to a belief system.
Because carnism is invisible, people rarely realize that eating animals is a choice, rather than a given. In meat-eating cultures around the world, people typically don’t think about why they eat certain animals but not others, or why they eat any animals at all. 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.
As long as we remain unaware of how carnism impacts us, we will be unable to make our food choices freely – because without awareness, there is no free choice.
Why has carnism not been named until now? One reason is that it is simply easier to recognize those belief systems that fall outside the mainstream (e.g., vegetarianism or veganism).
A much more important reason, though, is that carnism is a dominant belief system: it is so widespread that its principles and practices are considered common sense, "the way things are," rather than a set of widely held opinions. Carnistic bias is built into the very foundations of society – when we study nutrition, for example, we actually study carnistic nutrition.
And carnism is also a violent belief system: it is organized around intensive, extensive, and unnecessary violence toward animals. Even the production of so-called humane (or, bio) meat, eggs, and dairy – a tiny percentage of the animal foods produced in the world today – exploits animals and involves brutality.
In short, carnism is a system of oppression. It is enabled by an unjust exercise of power that causes unnecessary harm to billions of individuals.
Carnism runs counter to core human values, values such as compassion and justice. Most people would not willingly support unnecessary violence toward other sentient beings. Therefore, carnism, like other violent systems, uses a set of defense mechanisms that distort our thoughts and block our natural empathy so that we act against our values without fully realizing what we are doing. In other words, carnism teaches us how not to feel.
Carnistic defenses hide the contradictions between our values and behaviors, so that we unknowingly make exceptions to what we would normally consider unethical.
The primary defense of carnism is denial: if we deny there is a problem in the first place, we don’t have to do anything about it. Denial is expressed largely through invisibility, and the main way carnism remains invisible is by remaining unnamed; if we don't name it, we can’t question it. But not only is the system itself invisible; so, too, are its victims: the trillions of farmed animals who remain out of sight and therefore out of public consciousness; the increasingly damaged environment; the exploited and often brutalized meatpackers and slaughterhouse workers; and the human consumers who are at increased risk for some of the most serious diseases in the industrialized world and who have been conditioned to turn off their hearts and minds when it comes to eating animals.
Another carnistic defense is justification. We learn to justify eating animals by learning to believe that the myths of meat, eggs, and dairy are the facts of meat, eggs and dairy. These myths are expressed largely through the Three Ns of Justification: eating animals is normal, natural, and necessary. Perhaps not surprisingly, these myths have been used to justify other exploitive practices and systems, such as slavery and male dominance.
Carnism also uses a set of defenses that distort our perceptions of meat, eggs, and dairy and the animals we eat so that we can feel comfortable enough to consume them. We learn, for instance, to view farmed animals as objects (e.g., we refer to a chicken as something, rather than someone) and as abstractions, lacking any individuality or personality (e.g., a pig is a pig and all pigs are the same), and to create rigid categories in our minds so that we can harbor very different feelings and carry out very different behaviors toward different species (e.g., cows are for eating and dogs are our friends).
Carnistic defenses are both powerful and fragile. They have a powerful impact on us when we are unaware of them, but they lose much of their power when they are made visible. So when we recognize carnistic defenses, we are able to make food choices that reflect what we authentically think and feel, rather than what we have been taught to think and feel.
Carnism (like other oppressive systems) maintains itself by both strengthening itself and weakening the system that challenges it: veganism. Carnistic defenses serve both these purposes: they validate carnism (they make eating animals seem legitimate, the “right thing to do”), and they invalidate veganism (they make not eating animals seem not legitimate, the “wrong thing to do”).
Secondary carnistic defenses are the special defenses that exist to invalidate veganism. They do so by invalidating vegans, vegan ideology (beliefs and practices), and the vegan movement as a whole. Secondary defenses hide or distort the truth about veganism so that we remain unaware of important facts, and we don’t trust the facts we are aware of.
For example, most of us are unaware of the tremendous health benefits of a vegan diet, and we still believe the myths that eating animals is necessary and nutritious. And popular (carnistic) culture often portrays vegans as biased (ignoring the fact that carnistic bias is deeply ingrained) so that we tend to distrust the information that vegans share. Vegans are also often portrayed as overly emotional (and therefore irrational), moralistic, and radical – all stereotypes that serve to discredit the vegan message. By shooting the messenger, carnism makes it less likely that the message – which directly challenges the validity of carnism – will be heard.
Because carnism is invisible, we assume that eating or not eating animals is simply a matter of personal ethics: “You make your choices, and I’ll make mine.” However, when we recognize carnism, we can appreciate that eating animals is in fact the result of a widespread, oppressive system. (Consider, for example, how believing that women did not deserve the right to vote had less to do with “personal choice” or “personal preference” than it did with the widespread sexism that conditioned people to believe in the inferiority of women.)
And carnism is structured like other systems of oppression, such as racism, sexism, and heterosexism. While the experience of each set of victims of oppressive systems will always be unique, the systems are similar because the mentality that enables the oppression is the same.
Ultimately, cultivating compassion and justice is not simply about changing behaviors; it is about changing consciousness so that no “others,” human or nonhuman, are victims of oppression. To bring about a more compassionate and just society, then, we must strive to include all forms of oppression in our awareness, including carnism.