Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Book Report - "Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs and Wear Cows: An Introduction to Carnism" by Melanie Joy

Somewhat unique to veg*n literature, this book discusses our relationship with animals from a sociological and psychological perspective. Melanie Joy explores the social and cultural component of eating and subsequently how our brains compute and our societies justify dietary choices through various categorical classifications and schema.

By exploring dietary choices as an inherently cultural phenomenon, Joy dismantles the notion of eating cows, chickens and pigs as a natural component of the human lived experience, arguing instead that "we like the foods we've learned we're supposed to like". Importantly, she does not dispute evolutionary evidence with regard to certain tastes like sugar, for example, or even "meat" as a general category in and of itself. However, she does muse, "Ever wonder why, out of tens of thousands of animal species you probably feel disgusted at the idea of eating all but a tiny handful of them?" and uses this as a starting point for addressing how, as a society, we have come to be okay with eating some animals and not others. And not only how we have come to eat certain animals and not others, but how we have come to be complicit in the extreme violence associated with mechanized animal agriculture.

For me, it's integral that Joy embraces a discussion on the role of meat in evolution as opposed to simply dismissing it. If I had a dime for every time someone pointed at their canine teeth and talked about cavemen when the topic of veganism came up, I'd be a rich lady. For me, what the "cavemen" did or didn't do is completely irrelevent to a modern discussion on food ethics. For some reason, eating animal flesh seems to be the only aspect of primitive life that our species is interested in maintaining and subsequently using as a basis for justifying their dietary choices. The cavemen ate meat, but contrary to popular representations, it wasn't all the time. And they didn't get it from a drive thru. It also wasn't a product of a gestation crate. They didn't eat it three times a day plus snacks and they didn't sit at desks for eight hours a day letting it clog their arteries. If we want to talk about what the cavemen did or didn't do, we need to look at the whole picture, not just the components that satisfy our pleasure principle.

As annoying as the use of these misinformed justifications is, if we want to further the vegan cause, this is a topic that we cannot dismiss. The rolling of eyes has never amounted in anything productive. We need to instead open the dialogue and embrace the debate, working to dismantle this inaccurate understanding of what evolution is and how it works. Consequently, this book is such an important step in the right direction. Using far more control than I have when it comes to archaic justifications for the slaughter of millions of animals each year, Joy calls attention to the fact that eating meat or not eating meat is not an issue of survival anymore - unless, of course, we're talking about how the Standard American Diet hinders survival. This book is a discussion on eating meat in the 21st century, where we do have the luxury of debating food ethics and can survive (some studies show up to 10 years longer than our meat eating counterparts, actually) without animal products and byproducts.

Joy uses the remainder of the book to dismantle the notion of eating meat as a natural act by introducing the reader to the schemas at work when we consider food's appropriateness (or subsequent inappropriateness) - or, more simply, the psychological systems that organize our beliefs and values and in turn perpetuate them. Schemas are an integral component in organizing our experiences, but because they operate outside our realm of awareness they are often difficult to challenge. It is schemas that continue to perpetuate the notion that eating meat is natural, even in the face of contradictory evidence. This is why eating meat is normalized and veganism is considered unnatural. This is why veganism is referred to as a choice, while eating meat is not. Based on our schemas, eating meat is a given. That is, meat in the form of cooked cow, pig, chicken, turkey and a few other exceptions. Not dog or cat or rat (in North America, that is). If you don't salivate at the sight of a freshly killed raccoon at the side of the road, there is nothing "natural" about your eating meat and instead your cravings and desires are based more on social and cultural phenomena than they are on biological and physiological urges.

Joy argues that veg*ism means re-evaluating and challenging these schemas, but you can't do this until you are aware not only that they exist, but just how powerful they can be in inciting action (or inaction).

Right from the first chapter, I knew that I would like the underlying spirit of this book. In a lot of veg*n literature, people who eat meat are the jerks of the universe. These people are, in fact, quite often kind and well-intentioned people. So much so that these psychological defense mechanisms (what Joy calls "psychic numbing") become so impervious to reality, so complex and so intricate that they operate outside of awareness in order to guarantee conformity. This is not exclusive to the abuse of animals, but to the many value, moral and belief systems a society endorses (like gender roles, for example). Joy confirms that "Psychic numbing is not evil; it's a normal, inevitable part of daily life, enabling us to function in a violent and unpredictable world...but it becomes maladaptive, or even destructive when it is used to enable violence."

The first step in increasing awareness about a violent ideology is giving it a name. Joy calls this particular system carnism. Even though I personally come from a sociology background and am well versed in conflict theories, I've never really been one to argue about semantics and terminology. That being said, there is no denying that language is power and labeling something not only gives it a name, it gives it a description and legitimizes its existence. Knowing all of this, I'm surprised that until now I never really considered what the opposite of vegan is. In my daily dialogue and through this blog I've referred to non-vegans as "omnivores" or "meat eaters" for lack of a better term, but it wasn't until I read this book that I realized how grossly inaccurate those terms are. Joy calls to attention that when the term "vegetarian" is used in the mainstream sense it implies not only dietary practices but an ideology; a set of values and often times, a set of characteristics. Whether or not these traits are stereotypes or realistic representations of what veg*ns are is less the point than the fact that the term is used to reflect an entire person rather than just a dietary circumstance. That being said, the terms "meat eater", "omnivore" and the especially inaccurate "carnivore" are but mere biological predispositions and are thus inadequate when discussing the human experience that goes along with them. There is no social component to them at all. Joy believes the term "carnist" more adequately reflects the opposite of veg*n:

"Carnism is the belief system in which eating certain animals is considered ethical and appropriate. Carnists - people who eat meat - are not the same as carnivores. Carnivores are animals that are dependent on meat to survive. Carnists are also not merely omnivores. An omnivore is an animal - human or nonhuman - that has the physiological ability to ingest both plants and meat. But like 'carnivore,' 'omnivore' is a term that describes one's biological constitution, not one's philosophical choice. Carnists eat meat not because they need to, but because they choose to, and choices always stem from beliefs."

After all these years, this system finally has an accurate name. The carnist system is so entrenched within our sense of society that it becomes mistaken with "common sense" and "fact" rather than a choice that is being made three times a day, everyday. The fact that it is a violent ideology (i.e. violence - slaughter - is the main component of this system, without the violence itself there is no system) the psychological component is all that more powerful: "The violence of carnism is such that most people are unwilling to witness it." This is why cameras are never allowed in slaughterhouses. This is why Oprah did a show on veganism and showed the slaughterhouse experience, everything up to and after the animal was killed but not the most important moment, the slaughter, missing the point of visiting a slaughterhouse entirely. The violent experience is so far removed from the act of eating meat that most people don't even think about it. The invisibility protects and perpetuates the system. The psychological defense mechanisms inherent to violent ideologies like carnism are so fierce that people are participating in them without realizing that they are doing it. Without realizing that they are behaving in a way that is completely and totally contradictory to all that they hold to be true and good. Three times a day. Plus snacks. This system has been so normalized it didn't even have a name up until this point.

Throughout this book, Melanie Joy assigns this system a name and thus makes it real. Once there is a term for something, it makes it all that more difficult to ignore and all that more easy to discuss.

The middle section of the book is dedicated to raising this "sheath of invisibility" -highlighting the horrors on Old McDonald's farm. Because invisibility is a key component in maintaining a violent ideology, it can only be challenged when it is within each individual person's awareness. So we keep telling these stories over and over, because even if it's the same story of the factory worker who sliced off pieces of the live pig's snout or the story of the factory worker using a live chicken as a football over and and over again, we are refusing the sheath of invisibility that encourages otherwise non-violent people to condone violence. We keep talking about it and blogging about it and tweeting about it because it is still there, existing, at the rate of tens of thousands of lives everyday and because not talking about it doesn't somehow make it go away. Joy says, "Naming carnism and demystifying the practices of meat production can help us begin to see through the facade of the system".

In her effort to combat the invisibility, she not only focuses on the animal violence, but also the human casualties involved in meat production and consumption. People are so quick to forget that humans are animals too. Referring to a discussion on carnism as an "animal rights issue" is not somehow indicitive of a lack of compassion for humans. On the contrary. For me personally, the well-being of human animals is as strong a driving force in my dedication to veganism as my love for animals and I think that rings true for a lot of my vegan counterparts. Joy dedicates a chapter to the direct plight of those skilled and untrained workers in meatpacking plants, suffering serious and debilitating diseases of both the body and the mind, making meatpacking "the singlemost dangerous factory job in the United States" as well as the most violent. It is easy for us vegans to sit back and think of those that slit the throats of the animals that eventually line the supermarket aisles as evil, sadistic and even sociopathic. But Joy highlights the truth of the mental and emotional "conditioning" that occurs in these plants and looks at how the desensitization translates to violence outside the meatpacking plant, noting the high rates of self and spousal abuse among those who kill animals for a living. So you see, it's not just about nonhuman animals. It never was. Participating in violent actions against humans and nonhumans alike is related; intricately connected in the most frightening of ways.

The testimonials of extreme violence (both sanctioned and unsanctioned) that occur on the kill floor are difficult to read. You want to hate these people. You really, really do. As a vegan, how can you not be hateful toward someone who can look, square in the eye, at a being that is so gentle and patient as a pig and then proceed to beat her skull in with a three foot pipe until she finally, belatedly, painfully dies at his feet? How can you not hate this person? While I can't guarantee this violence won't incite a little bit of violence within yourself, on however a secret level, but I will say that Joy addresses the issue with such control that you find yourself suddenly aware of the suffering of the human as well as the pig. The physical, mental and emotional suffering that brings an otherwise sane person to commit such heinous act on a defenseless creature has to be addressed. It just has to.

I don't say this in order to encourage pity upon this person or to somehow excuse his actions. I say this because on some level, unless you are of the minute portion of the population that has sociopathic tendencies, you know that this behaviour is wrong and is, in many instances, a product of human suffering too. Within carnist ideology, both the suffering of the pig and of the human are normalized and thus ignored and hidden and this invisibility is even protected by societal institutions, like the law and the media (in 2011 cameras are watching us all day long, doing the most mundane things, yet there is no surveillance of those working on the kill floor? Seriously!).

Finally, Joy gets to everyone else. Even if you don't care about animals or humans or the environment. Even if you are a person of the most narcisstic proportions and care only about yourself, this situation can be viewed not as an animal or human rights issue but as a tried and true "ME" issue. Joy takes some time to highlight the impact of animal products on our health and on the environment and how these two "casualties" of carnism are so intricately related, finding their battleground within the human body. I know all these statistics already. I know that livestock are routinely fed euthanized cats and dogs and that eating meat can increase your risk of developing colon cancer by 300%. I know that in the United States, "Caracasses have been considered acceptable for human consumption even when they've contained blood clots, stains, scar tissue from ulcers, liver spots and hemorrhages." They're considered acceptable even when the cattle being led to slaughter "wheeze loudly" as their "lungs are filled with fluid" that "have scar tissue and abscesses running all up and down the sides of their lungs, stuck to their ribs and have popped blood vessels in kidneys that are no longer functioning...that are stuffed with regurgitated food...oozing out."

Even though I know all of this, it doesn't matter how many times I come into contact with these statistics I am equally scandalized. The shock doesn't go away. Nor should it. This is as much a "Me Me Me" issue as it is an issue of compassion, or animal rights, or environmental preservation. I don't want this crap in my body. If you don't care about anything or anyone else, care about yourself and what these kind of toxins are doing to YOUR body and the bodies of those you love. And don't wait for someone else to protect you, because they won't. As Joy notes, big agribusiness and the government are now and have always been in bed together (i.e. the livestock industry contributed $8 million to the 2008 American election). When the industry is allowed to police itself, it's no small wonder that this is allowed to go on and no small wonder that the vast majority of people don't even know about it.

Once the practical information has been established, Joy returns to a sociological exploration of carnism, beginning with the "mythology of meat" and how carnism is justified. It is through these myths that we ignore, or aren't even consciously aware of, the inconsistences inherent in our participation in the ideology. Joy explains that there are Three N's of Justification: Normal, Natural and Necessary and underlines the fact that these justifications are not exlusive to carnism; rather, they are a part of every violent ideology that ever existed, including African slavery and the Holocaust. I know that people get a bit uncomfortable when "animal rights issues" are discussed in conjunction with human rights tragedies such as the Holocaust because they think human rights are being trivialized as a result. The truth is that these systems, regardless of the specifics and both in terms of ideology and practice are terrifyingly similar and these patterns cannot be ignored. Ignoring the similarities is not only a mistake from an intellectual and analytical point of view, but from a place of real-life and the desire to never, ever again allow these atrocities to occur (even though they do occur, everyday, in 2011 - but that's another story).

This is a great section of the book, as Joy uses examples of standard attacks on veg*ism that we face everyday and addresses how they fit into the three N's of justification. The big one, for me, is the notion of eating meat as "Normal" because that myth is actually correct, just not in the way people think it is. Eating meat is normal because most people do it. The problem arises when people don't realize that referring to something as "normal" does not somehow make it any more real or any more correct. The normalization of something is inherently social and it is both created within and perpetuated by the system itself. This is simple sociology and not exclusive to discussions on carnism/veganism.

In every aspect of our lives we are rewarded by adhering to the normal and berated for going against the grain. As a vegan, how many times were you teased about your choices? How about if/when you were a carnist, how often were you teased for eating meat? (I'm not going to say you were never teased, but the odds are unless you live in some super awesome vegan community, you were teased a lot less as a carnist. As an aside, if you did live in some super awesome vegan community please email me because I want to go to there).

Our entire social existence and subsequent interactions with one another are based on social norms that are often completely beyond our awareness - they are so ingrained within our way of life that we don't even think of them as sociological concepts. We make them into something that is Natural (the second N of justification) and we not only confuse the difference between the terms of "natural" and "normal" but also "natural" and "justifiable". In our society, eating meat is considered natural and so it must be Necessary, and at even the tiniest sniff of veganism there is a tendency to threaten - usually with health and wellness, because if eating meat is "natural" then it is also "healthy" and subsequently the opposite of natural (veganism) is unhealthy.

The importance of this chapter on myths cannot be overstated. I literally want to copy and paste the entire thing onto my blog because everyone needs to read it. Joy herself notes that the thing with violent ideologies is that once people become aware of them - not the myths themselves but more so how they are created and the ideological system at work itself - they demand change. They always (eventually) demand change. That is why it is so imperative to the carnist system that these myths remain intact and that those who rebel against them are ridiculed, giving the justifications priority in all discussions.

This brings her to a discussion on the "Myth of Free Will". Joy argues that within a carnist system it appears that each of us as an individual is operating under free will - choosing to eat meat. But the system is so complex, so intricate and internalized that it is impossible to call it free will. Before you have the capacity to make a choice, the choice was already made - pureed chicken and Happy Meals and Thanksgiving turkey. As a result you have to UNLEARN. You have to work with purpose to not subscribe to carnism because it is always at work around you. Because this system existed before even you yourself took a toothless bite of that meaty puree it makes it all the more difficult to view carnism from outside it. In fact, it typically makes it downright impossible. And even when you do question the system, even when you actually decide that you've had enough and no longer subscribe to carnism, there are often still little bits of the dominant ideology that float around your mind. Everytime you apologize for being an inconvenience to a host. Everytime you reminisce about ice cream cones after baseball games. It's within us and a part of us, even though we are consciously aware of the ideology and the system and we disapprove of it. It is THAT permeating and THAT difficult to unlearn. That can in no way be referred to as "free will" in the traditional sense of the concept.

In a violent ideology like carnism, justifications are not only promoted, they are internalized. As a result, we look at not just our food and dietary practices, but our entire worlds, through the lens of carnism and this in turn reinforces the carnist system. Joy argues that the internalization of carnism is based on "The Cognitive Trio": 1) Objectification (right down to the language we use, animals are considered "somethings" rather than "someones"), 2) Deindividualization (because it is easier to commit violence against a faceless abstraction than an individual being) and 3) Dichotomization (arbitrary categories that draw lines between "us" and "them".

Dispelling the myths of carnism involves shaking up this internalization. It means challenging how we consider and refer to animals. It means continually individualizing and personalizing animals and telling their individual stories, the way that organizations like Farm Sanctuary do. I've always found it interesting how the public reacts with such rage to stories about violence committed against a baby cow, or a puppy, or one specific baby raccoon, but the annihilation of millions of animals every year doesn't cause an eyelash to bat. We vegans get frustrated everytime a carnist rages over a story like this, but Joy helps to illustrate the psychology behind this kind of reaction and shows us a good place to start combating the carnist system - by personalizing animals. This not only helps eliminate deindividualization, it also calls into question the dichotomies created to justify the system, like "edible" versus "inedible". More often than not these categories are based on arbitrary and even nonsensical criteria (such as "cute" animals being viewed as more valuable than "ugly" animals, or "stupid" animals considered as more appropriate for dinner than "intelligent" animals) and this ambiguity needs to be addressed.

When we tell their stories over and over again we shake up the cognitive processes at work in carnism. Vegan literature often highlights the intelligence of pigs, or the sociability of chickens, or the peacefulness of cows, and I've often wondered why. Who cares if an animal is (by our standards) smart or not? What does that have to do with our right to their flesh? Joy's book opened my eyes to the great importance involved in the continued mainstream exposure with regard to these studies because they contradict our internalized dichotomies, provide faces and individuality in the face of abstractions and most importantly they bring to attention the ambiguity and downright hypocrisy inherent to a violent ideology such as carnism.

It is only when you are aware that the carnist system not only exists, but the ways in which it has become so entrenched in our daily lives, that you can begin to personally step out of it and move toward a new system. Joy concludes this book by providing practical steps to move forward from a system of violence, the first and most important step being "bearing witness". She argues, and I could not agree more, that collective awareness is the key:

"Virtually every atrocity in the history of humankind was enabled by a populace that turned away from a reality that seemed too painful to face, while virtually every revolution for peace and justice has been made possible by a group of people who chose to bear witness and demanded that others bear witness as well."

The system will try and ensure its sustainability via invisibility, which is precisely why we need to keep talking about it - even when we are berated and even when it seems like no one is listening. We need to dismantle the psychological process of disassociation and continue to help people become aware of the system. Not in a similarly violent way. Not in a forceful or hateful way. But with the same compassion that we extend to the animals. We need to not grow frustrated or angry with our carnist counterparts. We can do this by always keeping in mind the complex psychological and sociological systems at work that we too (lifelong vegans excluded) were also once upon a time a part of. At some level, even if they aren't aware of it, most people do actually care and don't actually want to cause harm to anyone. Many of even the most avid carnists have no interest in slitting throats.

We have to remember that bearing witness means suffering and so compassion and patience is as integral to the process as is the providing of information. Knowing is inconvenient. And people are tired. They work hard. They have their own problems. People are often so burnt out from being bombarded day in and day out with information on all that is wrong with the world and the end result is retreat. We need to encourage the value of truth over the comfort of ignorance and illustrate that awareness is power. Not helplessness. Because knowing about this stuff does often lead to a sense of apathy, even among the most seasoned activists. We need to help people be aware of the power that just changing yourself via awareness leads to, regardless of the impact of the overall system. You may not be able to change the world but when you change yourself you are never helpless. You are no longer apathetic. How can you feel helpless when you are doing something?

Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs and Wear Cows is positive and empowering. It does not end on a depressing and overwhelming note like so much other animal advocacy literature out there does.

If you take no other advice from this blog, please read this book. I am comfortable saying that it is the most important piece of literature on animal ethics available today. Through this book, Joy is not playing the blame game. She's not accusing or berating. People who are curious about animal ethics but are not themselves veg*n can feel completely comfortable picking this book up.

This kind of approachability is exactly what our cause needs at this point and time.

Now is the time to keep telling our story and the story of the animals. The cause has made such strides in these last few years. I mean, Oprah talked about it! Martha Stewart! In the middle of the day, no less! We vegans get frustrated by these shows and the elementary information on veganism that they provide, but seriously you guys, the word vegan is being used on daytime TV now. That is progress. I don't care what anyone says. And that progress has been made possible because of a few brave souls who weren't afraid of being ostracized. People who told and tell the stories and take on the giant carnist entity that's been operating around us since before veggie burgers were available at large scale restaurant chains. There is no need to feel helpless because progress is happening!

Technology plays a strange role within carnism. It certainly perpetuates the violence, often times keeping it hidden through mechanization, but it has also been an integral component of dismantling the system. We live in the time of the Internet, and timing has never been better to challenge carnist ideology. Imagine going vegan before the Internet? I will be the first to say that the Internet was THE most important tool in my transition to veganism and it continues to be a source of encouragement. When I'm feeling discouraged by carnism in real life, my Twitter feed, filled with dozens of vegans from around the world experiencing the same things and still motoring forward, gives me a sense of kinship. It no longer matters where you live and if the store nearest to you sells tempeh; these days you always, always have a support system.

To end the book, Joy provides realistic steps toward embracing a compassionate lifestyle, based upon becoming involved in the vegan community, be it in real life or online. Even if you're not vegan. I promise, we don't bite (unless you are a head of broccoli, in which case you better watchout). Join some message boards. Sign up on Twitter and check out what some awesome vegans are up to each day. Start a blog. Start small and stay involved. Keep dialoguing away. This blog here is for the cause, for sure, but it's also for me too. To help keep me connected and motivated.

And, if all else fails, you always have a buddy in me and you can always stay strong against carnism and integrated in the vegan community by emailing me (mary@thisisvegan.com). I have no life and I tend to burn easily when I receive too much direct sunlight. As a result, I make a pretty good penpal and I'd love to talk vegan with you.

This was long. I hope Melanie Joy doesn't mind and seriously, this is just a simple summary and there is so much more to this book that you need to be knowing and you need to be knowing it right now.

If you made it this far you are kind of crazy and I like that in a person. If you are just skimming to the end to appease me, you probably can't see this, but you will see this...



spécialiste de l'éphémère said...

I really want to read this book.
I saw the author on an interview and she had brilliant arguments.

Mihl said...

What a wonderful review! Thank you so much for writing it down. I thought about ordering the book, thank you for reminding me that I have to!

Bliss Doubt said...

This is my absolute favorite part of your blog, Mary, the book reviews. Another excellent one, bravo.

Mary said...

Specialiste - This is one of the most amazing books I've ever read...you won't be disappointed!

Mihl - it is definitely worth the purchase. I think everyone should read it!

Bliss - Thank you so much!

Anonymous said...

Really, really intriguing. Thanks for the review!

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