What is carnism? Dr Melanie Joy reveals all

Author: Holly Johnson

Read Time:   |  15th July 2022

We’ve all heard the debates about veganism vs vegetarianism, but what is carnism?

In a recent episode of the Simply Vegan podcast, we spoke to Dr Melanie Joy – the psychologist who coined the term.

As a psychology student at Harvard, Joy studied the psychology of violence and non-violence.

She was curious about how rational, caring people could just stop thinking and feeling when it came to this issue of eating animals.

Dr Melanie Joy chatted to Vegan Food & Living's editor Holly on a recent podcast episode

Dr Melanie Joy chatted to Vegan Food & Living's editor Holly on a recent podcast episode

“Many people in the world today don’t eat animals because they need to. They eat animals because they choose to,” says Joy.

“They don’t even realise they’re making a choice, because the belief system conditions people to believe that eating animals is the right thing to do.”

This invisible belief system is what Dr Melanie Joy calls carnism – a concept she covers in her book Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs and Wear Cows.

It is something that disconnects us from our natural empathy and distorts our perceptions of what is OK and not OK to eat.

“Carnism is a dominant system – it’s so widespread, that it’s basically invisible. It’s woven through the very structure of society, so it shapes norms, laws, beliefs and behaviours.”

In her best-selling book, Dr Melanie Joy addresses the psychology of eating meat

In her best-selling book, Dr Melanie Joy addresses the psychology of eating meat

Is carnism a natural part of society?

Where do carnism views come from?

“They evolved over many, many years,” explains Joy. “And historically, humans ate animals because they had to eat animals. We ate animals because if we didn’t eat animals we were not going to survive.”

Joy goes on to explain that she recognises not every culture is the same.

“In some places in the world today, people do eat animals because they have to.

“They are geographically or economically unable to make their food choices freely.”

Dr Melanie Joy now gives talks all over the world on the subject of carnism

Dr Melanie Joy now gives talks all over the world on the subject of carnism

Discovering veganism

Like many of us, Dr Melanie Joy grew up treating her pet dog like a family member. And of course, she still ate meat, eggs and dairy.

But in 1989, when she was 23 years old, she ate a hamburger that turned out to be contaminated with Campylobacter bacteria.

“I wound up hospitalised on intravenous antibiotics. And I was so sick that I never wanted to eat meat again. I became a vegetarian by accident.”

Whilst learning about the vegetarian diet and lifestyle, Joy stumbled upon information about animal agriculture, through books and vegan documentaries.

“What I learned shocked and horrified me. I just couldn’t believe the extent of the suffering and harm to animals.”

But what was perhaps more shocking to Joy was that no one wanted to talk about it.

“They would say things like ‘don’t tell me that, you’ll ruin my meal!’. They would call me a radical, a hippie, a vegan propagandist.”

Dr Melanie Joy had a close relationship with her dog as a child

Dr Melanie Joy had a close relationship with her dog as a child

“When we’re born into such a widespread system, we internalise this carnist mentality, this defensive mentality.”

Anyone who has adopted a vegan lifestyle will no doubt be familiar with that defensive response from others.

“All vegans have to do is say ‘I’m vegan’, and they’ll be hit with this wall of resistance.

“They’ll be told by somebody who’s never even heard of veganism all the reasons why veganism is wrong,” says Joy.

Talking to non-vegans

So how can we bridge the divide between vegans and non-vegans? Especially when we feel so passionate about sharing what we’ve learnt and the benefits of veganism for our health, for animal welfare and for the planet?

“You can feel incredibly compelled to use every minute of your day to try to raise awareness.” says Joy. “It’s a sign that your moral compass is working.”

Joy says the danger is that we feel like we are responsible for turning everyone around us vegan, and that if we don’t do that, we have somehow failed.

“It can also make us believe that we can’t have healthy connections with people who are not vegan,” she says.

Dr Melanie Joy goes on to explain that rather than attempting to persuade friends and family to go vegan, we should instead ask them to support our choices.

“Many people in the world today do not feel ready or able to become vegan for a whole variety of reasons that are valid to that person.

“I always recommend that vegans do not ask the people in their life to be vegan, but ask the people in their life to be what I call vegan allies. Or more aptly put – vegan supporters.”

You can listen to this exclusive interview on the Simply Vegan Podcast via Spotify, Apple Podcasts, and all the usual places.

Want to show family and friends just how good vegan food can taste? Cook them a feast from our extensive selection of vegan recipes

Written by

Holly Johnson

Holly is editor of Vegan Food & Living magazine and host of the Simply Vegan podcast. Her career highlight was discussing how to turn her mum vegan with Alicia Silverstone.

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