Ask any meat eater why people eat meat and they’ll tell you it’s delicious, that eating meat is not only natural but also normal and necessary. Ask Dr. Melanie Joy the same question and you’ll get a much darker—and interesting—answer: a violent ideology has convinced them they must do it.
That ideology is carnism, the opposite of veganism. Never heard of it? That’s exactly her point.
“Carnism is a dominant ideology, which means it’s embedded deeply in society to the point that it’s considered ‘just the way things are,’” Joy explains. “But just because something isn’t recognized or is viewed as ‘how things are’ doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Racism wasn’t recognized as a problem or ideology at a point in history but that doesn’t mean it didn’t exist. It’s just been around for so long that it’s taken for granted.”
Joy, a Harvard-educated psychologist, first explained her theory in a TEDX talk in early 2015. A former “meat lovers pizza girl” who would make sure her pizza had all types of meat in it, she turned vegan after being hospitalized for eating bacteria infested meat. The reason behind her deciding to ditch animal products wasn’t initially the animals themselves, but soon after, she began seeing them as sentient beings, not products. That’s when she began her research on what drove people like her former self to eat them.
“When we’re born into a world with a dominant ideology, we can’t help but see the world through that lens,” she says of how kids whose parents eat chicken wings, for example, will start seeing chicken as a natural food option. “There are people in this world who absolutely need to eat meat because geographically or socially, that’s where they are. Most people, though, have a choice when it comes to eating animals, they’re just not aware if it because they’re blinded by the ideology.”
Those blinders come from both inside and outside ourselves, she says. From the outside we have agro-businesses taking strong measures to make sure people don’t know how violent and cruel the process of making meat actually is, calling a cow a hamburger, a hen chicken wings and a pig hot dogs. From the inside, we convince ourselves eating meat is normal, necessary and natural by reminding ourselves people have done it for years.
The only way to break the cycle is then to make the ideology visible, she argues. Look at undercover footage of factory farming, see how those animals are treated, learn about how an animal becomes a hamburger, a chicken wing or a hot dog.
The first step in that chain of events is for people to first acknowledge that there is an ideology, however. That was her goal with the TEDX Talk and now an animated video she recently released — and it’s working.
Her presentation, ‘Beyond Carnism and Toward Rational, Authentic Food Choices,’ has become one of the top one percent most viewed TEDX talks of all time and she has presented it in five different continents.
“It’s really exciting the shift of consciousness that’s happening around the world,” she says. “A lot of people are asking how they can make more ethical choices.”
But is it enough to trump an industry that kills 77 billion animals for flesh and body parts to be sold for food? Joy thinks so.
“I have no doubt veganism will replace carnism one day,” she proclaims. “Look at the other -isms who have fallen before like sexism and racism. Carnism is so contrary to humans and their values. Most people genuinely believe in values like compassion and not causing harm unnecessarily. Carnism goes directly against all of those values. When people become aware and freely choose how they participate in these systems, they start saying ‘no.’”