"Carnism is a revolutionary concept that neither animal advocates nor meat eaters can afford to ignore."
─ John Robbins, Internationally bestselling author of Diet for a New America, The New Good Life, and The Food Revolution
"Carnism is one of the most thought-provoking concepts in decades."
─ Heather Mills, charity campaigner
"Carnism is an extremely important concept that has the potential to dramatically transform the way society thinks about eating animals."
─ Gene Baur, president and cofounder of Farm Sanctuary and author of Farm Sanctuary: Changing Hearts and Minds about Animals and Food
"The concept of carnism is important and empowering; it uniquely names and illumines what has been virtually invisible in our culture's most defining attitudes and practices."
─ Dr. Will Tuttle, author of The World Peace Diet
"With the advent of carnism, we now have a word which, if adopted widely, could pave the way for conscious and conscientious acts of resistance and help bring about the liberation of both animals and humans."
─ Zoe Weil, president of the Institute for Humane Education and author of Most Good, Least Harm
"Carnism shows us that cultural conditioning is the only basis for widespread meat eating today."
─ Jonathan Balcombe, Animal behavior scientist and author of Second Nature and Pleasurable Kingdom
"Carnism requires a denial of our basic humanity; becoming aware of carnism inspires us to rethink and reshape our relationship with animals."
─ Brian Wendel, creator and executive producer of Forks Over Knives
"Carnism masterfully defines a new paradigm with which to view our society, and empowers us to understand why we believe what we believe about eating animals."
─ Julieanna Hever, MS, RD, Plant-based dietician and author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Plant-Based Nutrition
"Understanding carnism is essential for personal integrity, ethical eating, and social and environmental justice work today. Once you grasp the concept, you notice the reality—and develop insights that nurture your spirit and help heal our world."
─ Rev. John Gibb Millspaugh, Chair, Unitarian Universalist Association President's Committee on Ethical Eating: Food and Environmental Justice
"With carnism, Melanie Joy has given us precisely the analytical tool that we need to recognize and transform the deadliest, most destructive machine in history."
─ Norm Phelps, author of The Longest Struggle: Animal Advocacy from Pythagoras to PETA
Technically, carnism is the “opposite” of veganism (“carn” means “flesh” or “of the flesh”) but in many 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 think of ourselves as part of the norm, the social majority. We are members of the dominant culture, a culture in which the ethics and legitimacy of eating animals are not questioned and meat consumption is imbued with positive meanings (e.g., meat makes a body strong; meat is a celebratory centerpiece, such as the Thanksgiving turkey, etc.).
(Ethical) vegetarians and vegans belong to subcultures that are defined entirely by the conscious choice not to consume animals or parts of animals. Both vegetarians and vegans have examined the ethics and legitimacy 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, meat-eating culture. Although vegetarians continue to eat eggs and/or dairy, unlike those who eat meat, vegetarians do not define themselves by what they do eat, but by what they do not eat. The vegetarian subculture isn’t organized around eating eggs and dairy; it is organized around not eating meat, and practicing compassion toward animals. Thus, while there are some distinct differences between vegetarianism and veganism, there is a much greater difference between carnism and vegetarianism.
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, utilizing varying degrees of carnistic defenses. Eating any animal products causes harm to animals and therefore likely requires the kinds of defenses and distortions that block our feelings of disgust; so, for instance, just as meat consumers may be disgusted by the idea of eating dogs, vegetarians may be disgusted by the idea of eating eggs from turtles or pigeons or drinking milk from a rat or gorilla. Thus, vegetarianism, though quite different from carnism, is not its “pure opposite.”
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 someone likes the way he or she tastes?
Moreover, so-called humanely produced meat is a myth, a marketing strategy designed to offset consumers’ growing discomfort with eating animals as more of the truth about meat 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 your supermarket are, invariably, products of misery.
Witnessing, or bearing witness, is being willing to see the truth - with our hearts as well as with our eyes. When we bear witness to another (human or nonhuman), we see the world through his or her eyes; we empathize. Witnessing is what is missing when we participate in systems like carnism, which require us to block our awareness of and empathy toward others.
Witnessing is the kryptonite of carnism; the whole system is organized to block witnessing so that we remain impassive consumers rather than active citizens. Our failure to witness, on an individual and collective level, enables the kind of mentality that violates our own integrity - as we disconnect from our authentic feelings and act against our core values - and that is incompatible with a just society.
Transforming carnism thus requires that we choose to bear witness to the reality of the system and its victims, and become active proponents of change. Virtually all violent ideologies have depended on preventing mass witnessing, and virtually all social movements have depended on cultivating mass witnessing. The goal of the vegetarian and vegan movements is to attract a critical mass of supporters by encouraging the public to bear witness to carnism, ultimately tipping the scales of power.
One reason is that people are simply unaware of the similar structures of violent ideologies, and of the true horrors of animal exploitation. A more important reason, however, is the prevailing belief system that we have all inherited which makes us regard humans as fundamentally different from and superior to all other animals: human supremacy.
Human supremacy enables us to view nonhuman beings as inferior “others” whose suffering is qualitatively different from human suffering and who are therefore less deserving of moral concern. For example, though we know that all animals, human and nonhuman, are equally capable of feeling pain and have lives that matter to them, we nevertheless proceed as though humans are the only species that possess sentience and self-interest. We rarely, if ever, question our right to complete control of nonhuman animals’ bodies, habitats, lives, and deaths or the unimaginable suffering to which we subject them in order to serve our own interests.
Human privilege is an inevitable consequence of human supremacy. Like other forms of privilege, human privilege is deeply ingrained, largely invisible, and staunchly defended, so we have a vested interest in maintaining our view of nonhuman beings as lesser life forms whose interests are far outweighed by our own. We therefore take offense at any 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.
Of course, no two groups - human or nonhuman - are ever exploited in precisely the same way, so comparisons must always be made carefully and with an awareness of the uniqueness of each group’s experience.
Violent ideologies are organized around the dynamics of domination and subordination, with the group that holds social power using a group of “inferior others” for their own benefit. These ideologies are structured to manufacture public consent of abuses that the vast majority of people would not normally condone. Violent ideologies therefore rely on defense mechanisms that distort our perceptions, block our awareness, and shut down our empathy. So even though the victims of violent ideologies may differ, and the experience of each group of victims is unique, there is a striking similarity among the ideologies themselves and the social mentality they cultivate.
Consider the mentality that has enabled us to legally classify African slaves as things rather than full persons; believe that the internment camps in which thousands of Japanese Americans were imprisoned afforded them greater educational, occupational, and political opportunities; slice off young girls’ genitalia without anesthesia to ensure their virginity; accept the unfounded medical claim that infants had a higher threshold of pain and therefore didn’t require anesthesia when surgically impaled; debate whether women should have the right to control their own reproductive systems; or turn a blind eye to the millions of victims of the Nazi regime as they were shipped to their death “for the greater good.” Such a mentality is not terribly different from that which enables us to think of a cow as something, rather than someone; believe that farmed animals are better off in factories than had they not been bred in the first place; castrate unanesthetized calves so they are less aggressive in intensive confinement; believe that lobsters feel no pain when they’re boiled alive; confine millions of female pigs to “rape racks” in which they are forcibly impregnated year after year; or to turn away from the billions of intelligent, sensitive individuals who are confined to lives of misery simply so their flesh can provide, for instance, the topping for a pepperoni pizza.
If we do not pick out the common threads that are woven through all violent ideologies, we will never figure out how to undo them. Violent ideologies do not exist in a vacuum; they are interconnected and reinforce one another. When we support one violent ideology, we support the mentality that enables all violent ideologies.
When we’re born into a system as pervasive as carnism, we inevitably see the world through the eyes of the system, and those who become doctors and nutritionists are no exception. Moreover, carnism is institutionalized, meaning that it is embraced and maintained by all major social institutions, including medicine and nutrition. Institutions play a key role in maintaining the myths that keep carnism alive, shaping the attitudes and beliefs of the professionals that represent them. Carnistic bias is inherent in all social institutions, so it’s no wonder that many doctors and nutritionists continue to support a carnistic diet. The problem does not lie with individual practitioners - who in all likelihood have their patients’ best interests at heart - but with the system that informs them.
Moreover, just as the tobacco industry promoted smoking as healthful for decades after evidence surfaced linking cigarette smoking with cancer - and doctors continued smoking and prescribing cigarettes to their patients - the animal agriculture industry promotes their products as healthful despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary - and doctors and nutritionists continue eating meat and prescribing a carnistic diet to their patients. And just as the tobacco industry funded research in attempt to offset the amassing data demonstrating the dangers of smoking, the multi-billion-dollar animal agriculture industry funds research in attempt to offset the growing body of literature demonstrating the dangers of eating animal products.
As empirical evidence supporting the benefits of a plant-based (vegan) diet amasses, though, the carnistic bias that has dominated the medical and nutritional industries is diminishing; recently, the American Dietetic Association released a statement that a plant-based diet is nutritionally sound and likely even more healthful than a carnistic diet.
Carnism exists among meat-eating cultures in which eating animals is a choice, rather than a necessity for survival. Though the types of animals consumed may differ among such “carnistic cultures,” the way in which people learn to relate to the animals and meat they eat is similar. For instance, in carnistic cultures around the world, people tend to consider only a tiny handful of animals edible - out of thousands of possible species - and they find the idea of eating “inedible” animals repulsive. And people typically consider their own culture’s choices rational and other cultures’ choices offensive and disgusting, even though there is often no rationale for which animals a culture classifies as edible. Carnism is a social and psychological system that dictates how we experience eating animals, not which animals we are conditioned to eat.
The concept of carnism does not apply to those who lack the economic means to make their food choices freely, or to those who live in geographical regions where eating meat is necessary for their survival. While some carnistic psychological mechanisms no doubt influence their experience of eating animals, people who need to eat meat do not have the luxury of reflecting on their choices.
Melanie Joy presents two slide shows: both explain carnism, but one is for a general audience and the other is for vegetarians and vegans, to help them advocate and communicate with non-vegetarians more effectively.
If you would like more information or to request a presentation for your organization or conference, you can send us an email with the subject heading Slide Show. Please include the name, nature, and location of your organization and specify which of the two presentations you are interested in.
Speciesism is the ideology in which it’s considered appropriate to value some animals over others (with humans at the top of the hierarchy). 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.
No. Eating meat defines, in large part, how we think of and relate to animals: how can we objectively consider the rights of animals if the most frequent and intimate contact we have with them is through the unnecessary consumption of their bodies? The fact that eating animals shapes our attitudes toward them was highlighted in a recent study that found a decreased concern for animal suffering after the consumption of meat. As long as carnism is the prevailing ideology, eating animals will remain a prevalent phenomenon, and it is unlikely that many animal rights measures will garner widespread public support.
The Problem with the “Moral Consistency” Argument
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. However, such moral analysis requires that we transcend our deeply ingrained biases, undoing a lifetime of psychological and social programming. It requires that we be willing to shift our core identity - to see ourselves as strands in the web of life, rather than standing at the top of the so-called hierarchy of life - and radically transform the way we relate to ourselves and the rest of the natural world.
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 animals.
Human psychology is messy, often illogical, complicated, and diverse. Our moral choices are determined by our state 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 ourinconsistencies. So, while moral argumentation is an important component of working toward animal rights, it is one piece of a complex whole.
Carnism is the Primary Obstacle to Promoting Veganism
Veganism is considered the moral baseline of the animal rights movement. Working to raise awareness of and transform carnism, then, directly benefits animal rights for two key reasons: because carnism as an ideology is a direct impediment to veganism, and because understanding the carnistic mentality is fundamental to vegan outreach.
Moreover, the mentality that enables carnism is not terribly different from that which enables speciesism - and speciesism is the primary obstacle to animal rights. As people examine their carnistic defenses and become aware of the mechanisms of carnism, they are much better positioned to examine speciesism and its similar defense mechanisms.
Social and Psychological Change Precede Legislative Change
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. Even abolishing the attitude among the populace that animals are or should be property would help lead to the abolition of animal agriculture. However, given the reality of human psychology, such cause and effect is unlikely; it is far more likely that the abolition or at least destabilization of carnism will precede 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 constituency was comprised of a majority of vegans.
Carnism, like speciesism, is not a strategy, but an ideology - an ideology that impedes animal rights. Therefore, when understood and exposed, carnism can only help achieve animal rights.