Vegan advocates have been tremendously successful in raising awareness about the production and consumption of animals. Medical professionals have demonstrated the legitimacy of a plant-based diet; undercover investigations have exposed the horrors of factory farming; pandemic flus and mass recalls of contaminated animal products have shaken public confidence in animal agribusiness; vegan restaurants, foods, and cookbooks are proliferating; more and more celebrity vegans are speaking out for the cause; and the global concern with sustainability has brought the issue of eating animals into the public spotlight.
Because there is sufficient public awareness about the production and consumption of animals, the time is ripe for the next step in vegan advocacy. Advocates are ideally poised to target the roots of the issue: to expose and challenge carnism, the invisible belief system that makes eating animals possible in the first place. Understanding carnism can tremendously empower vegan advocates and organizations for a number of reasons and in a variety of ways.
Dominant systems maintain themselves largely by remaining unexamined, by keeping the focus on the “other” - the “minority” group (vegans) - and ignoring the beliefs and behaviors of the dominant group. Indeed, dominant systems operate as though there were no dominant group; there are vegans, and then there’s everybody else. When we focus on veganism rather than carnism, we unwittingly collude with the system to keep it unexamined. We play right into the hands of carnism by helping it maintain its invisibility.
Moreover, focusing on veganism rather than carnism reinforces the misconception that eating animals is a given rather than a choice, that vegans are the only ones with a belief system that guides their food choices. It also subtly but powerfully implies that the production and consumption of animals is vegans’ problem to solve, rather than non-vegans’ problem to face. Consider how most people, men and women alike, do not call themselves feminists, and yet these same people are often opposed to sexism and support many feminist initiatives. By focusing on sexism rather than feminism, feminists have been able to expose the system of male dominance and bring about significant changes in gender relations.
And finally, carnism is organized around a specific set of defenses, which are the lifeblood of the system. Carnistic defenses lose much of their power when they are exposed; for example, when the Three Ns of Justification (eating animals is normal, natural, and necessary) are revealed as ideological myths rather than objective facts, these defenses can no longer be used to justify carnism. Therefore, one of the most important steps vegans can take is to weaken carnistic defenses by illuminating them and keeping them in the spotlight.
One way that carnism maintains itself is through using language that masks or distorts reality, and one area where carnistic language has a powerful impact is in the terms used to describe those who enable the system. The labels we use for “non-vegans” are inaccurate and reinforce, rather than expose, carnism.
The label “meat eater” reinforces the perception of animals as meat and also focuses on the act of eating, implying that eating animals is a behavior that is divorced from a belief system - we don’t call vegans “plant eaters” for this very reason. And the terms “carnivore” and “omnivore” refer to one’s physiological disposition, rather than one’s ideological choice: an omnivore is an animal, human or nonhuman, that can ingest both plant and animal matter (and if humans are naturally omnivorous, then a vegan is just as much an omnivore as someone who eats animals); and a carnivore is an animal that needs to ingest flesh in order to survive. Both “carnivore” and “omnivore” reinforce the assumption that eating animals is natural, one of the most entrenched myths of carnism.
For these reasons, we use the term “non-vegan” rather than the aforementioned descriptors.
Carnism permeates all aspects of society: politics, entertainment, medicine, the media, economics, law, education, etc. Carnism - like racism, sexism, classism, and other entrenched ideologies - is structural, in that it is woven throughout the very structure of society; and it is therefore institutionalized, as it is embraced and maintained by all major social institutions, from the family to the state. Structural carnism normalizes and legitimizes the unnecessary production and consumption of animals and perpetuates the myths that keep the system alive. Understanding the structure of carnism helps us to appreciate that eating animals is not simply a matter of personal ethics, but the inevitable end result of a deeply entrenched belief system. Such a perspective can radically change the way vegans - and society - think and talk about the issue of eating animals.
Understanding structural carnism can help shift the focus of vegan advocacy from the individual to the system that informs individual beliefs and behaviors. We can stop trying to change the world one non-vegan at a time just as feminists, for instance, don’t simply reach out to one “sexist” at a time. This is not to say vegans shouldn’t advocate to individuals, but we need to balance such outreach with a focus on addressing the widespread, institutionalized assumptions and practices that form the pillars of the carnistic system. In other words, vegan advocates need to reframe the debate about eating animals and place it where it belongs - within the context of carnism, an institutionalized system of oppression.
Moreover, if those of us who are advocates do not understand the structure of the system we’re working to transform, we are at a great disadvantage, fighting blindfolded against an unidentified entity. Imagine trying to challenge racism, for instance, without understanding how racist attitudes and behaviors, institutions and legislation, language and politics, etc. are embedded and expressed within the culture. In order to challenge carnism on the structural level, we need to understand the system’s logic and language, so that we can anticipate and respond to the diverse ways in which carnism is enabled throughout society.
Here are two examples of how vegan advocates can challenge structural carnism:
Strategy experts agree that the first and most important step in reaching our goal is to accurately define the problem we’re trying to solve. Moreover, how we define the problem determines how we define our goal, and our definitions of both the problem and the goal guide our solution to the problem - how we attempt to reach our goal.
The sequence of definitions looks like this:
problem goal solution
Vegans currently define the problem as the production and consumption of animals. However, this definition reflects a consequence of the problem. The true problem is carnism. Therefore, the goal of the vegan movement is not simply the abolition of the production and consumption of animal products, but the transformation of carnism, the system that makes such production possible in the first place.
The current definitions are inaccurate:
problem: the production and consumption of animals goal: abolish animal agriculture
More accurate definitions would look like this:
problem: carnism (the system that enables people to produce and consume animals) goal: transform carnism
Currently, vegans’ solution is to educate people about the consequences of the problem. Yet more often than not, even when people agree with vegans about, for instance, the horrors of farmed animal production; the health hazards of flesh/egg/dairy consumption; or the environmental repercussions of animal agribusiness; they fail to adopt the solution and stop eating animals. If carnism is the root problem, then vegan outreach needs to include educating people about carnism itself.
The final sequence should look like this:
problem: carnism goal: transform carnism solution: educate the public about animal agriculture and carnism
Until non-vegans realize that throughout their entire lives they have been profoundly impacted by an invisible system that shapes their perceptions, feelings, preferences, and behaviors in regard to eating animals, it is unlikely that they will be able to connect and stay connected with the truth about the production and consumption of animals.
Because outreach is fundamental to vegan advocacy, it is essential that vegans understand those to whom they’re reaching out. The carnistic mentality is the psychological dimension of the broader system of carnism; it is internalized carnism. Understanding the carnistic mentality can help us communicate more effectively, increasing the likelihood that our message will be heard as we intend it to be. There are a number of ways that understanding the carnistic mentality can support vegan advocacy; most notable is recognizing and responding to carnistic defenses.
Just as carnism is organized around defenses, so, too, is the carnistic mentality. It is no wonder, then, that non-vegans frequently respond with defensiveness to vegan advocacy - and even to veganism in general. vegans who are unaware of the carnistic mentality often end up reacting to this defensiveness and engaging with carnistic defenses rather than advocating around them, getting caught up in a battle of justifications, for example, rather than a productive conversation: “But we wouldn’t have to worry about what to do with all the animals if we stopped eating them, because we wouldn’t be breeding them in the first place!” or, “What if you had to kill an animal yourself - would you eat meat then?!” Often we get pulled into this defensive argumentation because we assume the facts will sell the ideology (“If only you knew the truth about meat, egg, and dairy production, you’d never eat animal products again!”) instead of appreciating that there is a complex psychology that can enable even the most compassionate individual to dismiss such facts. And we can end up shaming and blaming, behaviors which reinforce the very guilt that arouses carnistic defenses in the first place and that are nevertheless disrespectful of others.
A backlash is a reaction by the dominant group against perceived threats to its power. Carnism, like other dominant ideologies, expresses its backlash largely through shooting the messenger. Carnistic culture portrays vegans as “anti” those to whom they are advocating (anti-human, anti-”meat eater”) or as otherwise undesirable (radical, hysterical, militant) or not credible (irrational, sentimental), in attempt to discredit them and thus dismiss or invalidate the vegan message. If those to whom we are reaching out view us as in opposition to them, unstable, or illogical, they are unlikely to be open to our message.
If we are aware of the carnistic backlash, we can be responsive rather than reactive to it. In other words, we can anticipate and understand the basis of many negative attitudes toward vegans so that we don’t take such attitudes personally and become defensive. We can also work to dispel the negative stereotypes that distort our image and diminish our credibility.
Here are two examples of how vegans can counter the carnistic backlash and become more effective ambassadors for veganism:
Like other violent ideologies, carnism is a system of victimization; its victims are both overt, or direct (farmed animals, the environment) and covert, or indirect (slaughterhouse workers and meatpackers, non-vegans, and vegans). (Covert victimization is explained in more detail in Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows.) Some covert victims play a dual role, as they are at once victims and perpetrators of the system.
Vegan advocates often don’t see non-vegans as victims and think of them only as perpetrators, thus viewing them as the enemy and treating them accordingly. Such behavior only serves to trigger carnistic defenses and reinforce carnistic culture’s stereotype of vegans as “pushy” and “holier than thou.” This defensive dynamic reflects a divide-and-conquer strategy that conveniently helps to maintain carnism: how can vegan advocates possibly hope to reach a critical mass of supporters - which is what we need if the vegan movement is to succeed - if we see the very people we are reaching out to as the enemy? If we recognize that the real problem is the system, we can ideally work with, rather than against, non-vegans. And at the very least, we can conduct vegan outreach more compassionately and effectively.
By understanding the workings of carnism, vegans are better able to feel more grounded in their choices and to articulate their beliefs. Often, those of us who are vegan “know” our choices are sound, have a visceral sense of the validity of our philosophy, but are unable to fully and accurately express how and why we have chosen a vegan lifestyle. Such ambiguity can lead to frustration and miscommunication. Imagine, for instance, how challenging it would be for someone with no understanding of sexism to explain why she or he is a feminist.
Moreover, when we understand carnism, we are less likely to buy into the negative messages we hear about ourselves (being called a “picky eater,” for instance, for refusing to eat around the meat in a stew) or to yield to carnistic pressures (compromising our values if, for instance, our doctor suggests that we should eat carnistic products).
Understanding carnism can help us to have more sustainable lives as vegans, and as advocates. It can be challenging to live as vegan minorities in a dominant carnistic culture, a culture in which we are incessantly exposed to horrors that are invisible to others and in which the prevailing attitude toward nonhuman beings is deeply prejudicial. One of the most difficult aspects of being vegan is coming to terms with the fact that most of our fellow human beings directly contribute to the very atrocities we are struggling to abolish - and to accept, and even respect, those whose attitudes and actions may offend our deepest sensibilities.
Too often, we assume that people continue to eat animals simply because they are selfish, lazy, apathetic, or even cruel. Such assumptions can lead us to become self-righteous, misanthropic, disheartened, and cynical; we can feel painfully alienated from, and even at war with, humanity. We can also end up sacrificing important relationships with those in our lives who have not chosen to become vegan.
When we understand carnism, however, we can appreciate that asking someone to stop eating animals isn’t simply asking for a change of behavior, but for a shift of consciousness, a shift that will only happen when he or she is ready for such change. We can therefore appreciate that good people can engage in harmful behaviors, as eating animals is less a reflection of an individual’s character than it is the inevitable result of a lifetime of conditioning. For instance, the smell, texture, flavor, and presentation of a meatloaf - a food that vegans see as a meal of misery - may automatically evoke powerful emotional memories of a beloved grandmother and cherished family gatherings. Understanding carnism can help us to be more compassionate toward non-vegans and to avoid the despair, bitterness, and resentment that often lead to burnout.
It is likely that, for any significant change in carnistic culture to take place, there must be awareness of carnism among the mainstream. However, until the vegan movement has fully incorporated carnism into its analysis, it is doubtful that awareness of carnism will make its way into popular culture. It is therefore essential that vegan advocates and organizations understand, and work to promote understanding of, carnism.