Technically, carnism is the opposite of veganism (“carn” means “flesh” or “of the flesh”) but in some ways it is an opposing belief system to both vegetarianism and veganism.
Carnism reflects a particular way of thinking about and relating to ourselves, animals, and our food. When we are “meat eaters” we are members of the dominant (mainstream) culture, in which the ethics of eating animals are not questioned and meat consumption holds positive meanings (e.g., meat makes a body strong; meat is food for celebration, etc.).
(Ethical) vegetarians and vegans belong to subcultures that are defined by the conscious choice not to consume animals or products from animals. Both vegetarians and vegans have examined the ethics of eating animals and have redefined how they see themselves in relation to the rest of the animal world. Both also tend to identify as ideological minorities in the dominant, animal-eating culture. Although vegetarians continue to eat eggs and/or dairy, they define themselves by what they do not eat. In other words, vegetarianism is not organized around eating eggs and dairy; it is organized around not eating meat.
It is useful to think of these ideologies on a continuum, with carnism on one end and veganism on the other. Most people fall somewhere along the spectrum, using varying degrees of carnistic defenses. Eating any animal products almost always causes harm to animals and therefore likely requires the kinds of defenses and distortions that block our feelings of disgust. For instance, just as many meat eaters may be disgusted by the idea of eating dogs, many vegetarians may be disgusted by the idea of eating eggs from turtles or pigeons or of drinking milk from rats or gorillas.
One way to answer this question is to substitute a dog for a typical farmed animal: Would you be comfortable eating the meat from a golden retriever who had been raised and killed in the circumstances you describe – who had been given life for the sole purpose of being killed? Would you consider it humane to slaughter a perfectly healthy dog for no reason other than because people like the way her body tastes?
Also, so-called humane meat, eggs, and dairy is a myth, a marketing strategy designed to offset consumers’ growing discomfort with eating animals as more of the truth about meat, egg, and dairy production reaches the public. We can consider the “humane myth” simply another carnistic justification, as it is virtually impossible to raise and kill an animal humanely, let alone multiple animals at a time; the “humane” animal products that make it to the supermarket are, inevitably, products of misery.
Speciesism is the belief system, or ideology, in which it’s considered appropriate to value some animals over others (with humans at the top of the hierarchy) for reasons of species alone. Carnism is the ideology in which it’s considered appropriate to eat some of the animals on the lower rungs of the speciesist hierarchy. Carnism is a “sub-ideology” of speciesism, just as anti-Semitism, for instance, is a sub-ideology of racism. Carnism, like anti-Semitism, is a specific expression of a broader ideology.
One reason is that people are simply unaware of both the similar structures of violent ideologies, and the true horrors of animal exploitation.
Another reason is that speciesism has conditioned us to believe that nonhuman animals are “inferior others” whose suffering is fundamentally different from human suffering and whose interests matter less than human interests. For example, although we have evidence that many animals are equally capable of feeling pain, we nevertheless proceed as though humans are the only species that possess sentience. And most people rarely, if ever, question whether humans should have the right to wield complete control over nonhuman animals’ bodies, habitats, lives, and deaths, or whether the tremendous suffering inflicted on billions of animals in order to serve human interests is just.
“Human privilege,” the belief that humans are entitled to use animals for our own ends, causes us to react defensively to the suggestion that humans and nonhumans have an equal capacity to suffer, have an equal desire to live free from harm, have lives that are equally important to them, or deserve equal consideration of their interests. And, like other forms of privilege, human privilege is deeply ingrained, largely invisible, and strongly defended.
A final reason people may take offense at the comparison between human and animal suffering is because they focus on the experience of the victims, rather than on the experience of the perpetrators. It is impossible to know – or therefore to accurately compare – the suffering of two individuals or groups. For example, while there are many similarities, the experience of a Jewish concentration camp prisoner in Germany would have been different than the experience of an African slave in the United States.
However, the mentality that enabled both atrocities was the same; all forms of violence and oppression rely on the same psychological mechanisms.
Oppressive ideologies are organized around the dynamics of domination and subjugation, with the group that holds social power exploiting a group of “inferior others” for their own benefit. These ideologies are structured to coerce people into supporting abuses to which they would normally be deeply opposed. Oppressive ideologies therefore rely on defense mechanisms that distort our perceptions, block our awareness, and shut down our empathy. So even though the experience of the victims of oppressive ideologies may differ, there is a striking similarity among the ideologies themselves because the mentality that enables the violence and oppression is the same.
There are many excellent resources to help you move beyond carnism and toward consuming a plant-based, or vegan, diet. You can find a list of these resources here.
One thing to keep in mind is that carnism exists on a continuum, and most people transition gradually from eating animals to eating plants. So the direction we are heading on the continuum matters perhaps more than where we are currently. Consider “crowding out” animal foods from your diet – adding in more plant-based foods rather than simply cutting out animal-based foods – at a pace that works for you. You may want to commit to eating one vegan meal a day, for example, or one vegan day a week, as you move toward a fully vegan diet and lifestyle. An excellent way to begin your transition is to take a 21-day vegan kickstart, or challenge.
Carnism exists among meat-eating cultures in which eating animals is a choice, rather than a necessity. Though the types of animals consumed may differ among such cultures, the way people relate to the animals they eat is similar. For instance, in carnistic cultures around the world, people tend to consider only a handful of animals edible – out of millions of species – and they often find the idea of eating “inedible” animals repulsive. And people typically consider their own culture’s choices to be rational and other cultures’ choices offensive and disgusting. Carnism is a social and psychological system that dictates how we experience eating animals, not simply which animals we eat.
The concept of carnism does not fully apply to those who lack the economic means to make their food choices freely, or to those who live in geographic regions where eating animals is necessary for their survival. While some similar defense mechanisms no doubt influence their experience of eating animals, people who are unable to make their food choices freely are not operating in quite the same system as those who can choose not to eat animals, nor are they the focus of Beyond Carnism’s outreach.
No. Eating animals defines, in large part, how we think of and relate to them: how can we objectively consider the rights of animals if the most frequent and intimate contact we have with them is through the consumption of their bodies? The fact that eating animals shapes our attitudes toward them was highlighted in a study that found a decreased concern for animal suffering after the consumption of meat. As long as carnism is a widespread ideology, eating animals will likely remain a widespread practice, and it is therefore unlikely that many animal rights measures will receive widespread public support.
Those working toward animal rights argue for moral consistency in people’s attitudes and behaviors toward animals. If, for instance, we believe that nonhuman animals – like human animals – have lives that matter to them and feel pleasure and pain, then we have a moral obligation to honor their interests, to grant them the right to be the subjects of their own lives (not the property of humans) and to live free from harm.
The “moral consistency” argument assumes that ideology exists independent of psychology, that the logic of a moral argument should be enough to persuade people to change. But more often than not, the facts do not sell the ideology: many people can, for instance, learn about the horrors of factory farming and agree that a plant-based diet is nutritionally sound, and still continue to eat (and otherwise exploit) animals.
Human psychology is messy, often illogical, complicated, and diverse. Our moral choices are determined by our stage of psychological development, our personal history, our temperament, and our current life circumstances, among many other things. What is most consistent in our relationship toward animals appears to be our inconsistency. So, while moral argumentation is an important component of working toward animal rights, it is one piece of a complex whole.
Abolishing the legal property status of animals would, of course, abolish the institution of animal agriculture, since animals would have rights that would protect them from being used to serve human ends. However, given the reality of human psychology, such cause and effect is unlikely; it is far more likely that abolishing or at least weakening carnism will come before the abolition of the property status of animals. Legislative change comes about only after there has been significant social change, and social change is bound up with psychological change: imagine, for instance, if citizens were given the opportunity to vote on abolishing the property status of animals, and the voting public was made up of a majority of vegans.