In 1989, the social psychologist Melanie Joy became a vegetarian almost by accident. She ate a hamburger contaminated with campylobacter and became so ill that she couldn’t stomach the idea of eating meat again. So she set about learning new ways to cook for a meatless diet, reading cookbooks and doing research.
In the process, she started to learn about the suffering of non-human animals, the suffering of workers on factory farms, and the environmental toll exacted by animal agriculture.
This new knowledge shocked her.
“But what shocked me in some ways even more than what I was learning was that nobody I talked to was willing to hear what I had to say,” she remembers. “I mean, the response was almost always something like, ‘Don’t tell me that, you’ll ruin my meal.’”
She was especially shocked that this was coming from her family and friends — people who, in her mind, were progressive and passionate about social change.
“As soon as the conversation came to eating animals,” she says, “all of the progressive values that they espoused would just go right out the window.”
Joy wanted to know why she was seeing this phenomenon in people who were otherwise progressive. So she went back to school and got her doctorate digging into the psychology behind eating animals. She’s since written several books explaining her findings, including Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows, and Powerarchy: Understanding the Psychology of Oppression for Social Transformation.
In her research, she hit on the notion of a powerarchy: a belief system that conditions people to see a group of people or animals as less worthy of moral consideration. Whether we’re trying to justify systems of racism, sexism, or, as she describes our treatment of animals, “carnism,” the mental hoops we jump through are very, very similar.
For season three of the Future Perfect podcast, we asked her to walk us through the ways human beings justify their participation in these systems, and how — at least when it comes to animals — we can start constructing new ones.
What follows is a transcript of our conversation, edited for clarity and length.
Carnism speaks to our ideology around meat. But is there something broader we can say about how human beings think about the moral worth of all sorts of beings around them?
Absolutely. In my research on carnism, I was really trying to deconstruct this ideology and say, how does it keep itself together? I was looking at the structure of it.
Carnism is structured like other systems of oppression. So when we look at all systems of oppression — classism, racism, sexism, and so forth — we can see that these systems all have the same basic makeup. They all reflect and reinforce the very same mentality. And that is the belief in a hierarchy of moral worth: this belief that certain individuals or groups are more worthy of moral consideration, of being treated with respect, than others.
I think there are some people who might have a hard time connecting with this when it comes to animals specifically. So can we actually start by digging into an example of this hierarchy of moral worth that’s not at all meat-related, just to make this really clear? Can you take me back on a little journey to, let’s say, pre-1950s? What did women’s lives look like then?
Back before the second wave of feminism, women were essentially relegated to the realm of domestic servitude. Their primary identity and value came from fulfilling the roles of mother, wife, keeper of the domestic domain.
To be more specific, this was the identity and role of white middle-class women. Women who were socioeconomically disadvantaged or women of color still had to work. But nevertheless, they still also had to be domestic servants, only to other people in other people’s homes as well as in their own homes.
The average woman was not being encouraged to create a path for herself outside of that. And, of course, many women were deeply unfulfilled, deeply unhappy.
Back in the 1940s or ‘50s, I’m sure that many men still loved their wives. There were still feelings of affection. So what exactly do we mean when we say that they maybe saw their wives as outside the moral circle or didn’t have a ton of empathy for them?
You can feel affection for somebody and still perceive them as not on the same level as you when it comes to your perception of their moral worth.
Okay. So what are some of the narratives that people were using back then to justify treating women this way?
There were what I call the three Ns of justification. These three primary justifications have been used to maintain all power: normal, natural, and necessary.
It’s normal for women to seek nothing other than domestic bliss. Everyone’s doing it. It’s the path of least resistance to conform, and to deviate is to risk scorn and shame.
It’s natural. The division of labor that we’re talking about here had been longstanding and far-reaching. It’s existed for millennia. It’s around the world. Women have always been, and therefore — this is the narrative — will always be in the service of men, of the family, of the home.
And, of course, it’s necessary. We need somebody to be taking care of the household labor for the economy, for the function of society.
Okay, and now how does that play out with regard to animals? What’s the myth we tell ourselves about why eating animals is normal, natural, and necessary?
We learn to believe two sets of myths. One set is that eating animals is normal, natural, and necessary. And the other related set of myths is that not eating animals is abnormal, unnatural, and unnecessary.
So the whole caveman diet would be about “this is natural.” We’ve learned to justify carnism by saying that we’ve always eaten animals, or that because we’ve been eating animals for so long, it’s the way we’re meant to be.
It’s true that we’ve been eating animals for millennia. However, it’s also true that our very earliest ancestors were fruit eaters, and for millennia, only a tiny percentage of our diet has come from animals.
And, of course, we’ve been raping and murdering for just as long as we’ve been eating animals. But we don’t use the longevity [of those practices] as justification for them today.
And we’ve learned to believe in this myth that eating animals is necessary for survival. Now this myth is becoming increasingly debunked. We’re learning that it’s actually necessary to eat fewer, if any, animals, if we want to survive and thrive.
But you know, this myth, you can see it through these diets, like the Paleo diet, for example, or the keto diet, where there’s this belief that if we don’t eat meat and lots of it, we’re somehow going to get sick, be unwell, unable to thrive.
Often this is tied up with animal protein. You know, we need animal protein in order to survive and thrive. Of course, there’s a tremendous amount of literature debunking this myth today, but that is probably the core myth of necessity.
What about the idea that it’s sort of necessary to feed the world with meat?
I mean, the United Nations would disagree. In fact, the opposite is true. We know that animal agriculture is a key driver, for example, of climate change, deforestation, of desertification, of freshwater depletion, issues that affect all of us, but in particular affect people in the developing world.
[Author note: Joy doesn’t just believe that there’s a parallel between how people justify a system like sexism and a system like eating animals. She also thinks there are parallels in the ways that those systems of justification are undermined. She drew another comparison to sexism for us, but this time, she was drawing lessons from the success of second-wave feminism.]
There were a lot of different factors converging, but we can’t downplay the role of technology in enabling a real shift back in the early 1960s. We have the advent of the dishwasher, the electric washing machine, the birth control pill, the marketing and availability of commercial infant formulas.
And what happened was that it became increasingly difficult to argue for the necessity for women to remain in this position of domestic servitude. It’s no longer necessary to have somebody at home all day long when we have machines and other ways of men managing household tasks and chores.
When a behavior becomes a choice, when we no longer can justify a behavior as necessary, then that behavior takes on a moral dimension it didn’t have in quite the same way before. And so a lot of these technological changes really helped pave the way for society to become more open to engaging with the issue of feminism, the issue of equal rights for women, because there was no longer as strong an investment in maintaining women in positions of domestic servitude.
So if the core myth of necessity around animal eating is we need the protein, we need this to feed the world, is there a new technology that’s coming around now that might knock down some of those ideas?
Yes, it’s the newer technologies we have. You know, even just five years ago, the plant-based meat products were completely different than they are today. There are more and more alternatives that are much more palatable than the older alternatives had been.
So there are newer plant-based products: meat, eggs, and dairy. And then, of course, you’ve got cellular agriculture, which is sometimes referred to as cultured or clean meat, which is being created from the cells of animals.
Once you have these viable alternatives that make meat that is grown from plants or from cells just as delicious and potentially eventually just as accessible and cheap, is the idea that eating animals could increasingly feel like a choice?
Absolutely. As awareness grows about the fact that we really don’t need to eat animals, when the behavior becomes a choice, it takes on an ethical dimension it didn’t have in the same way before. It becomes increasingly difficult to feel comfortable with and be able to justify that behavior.
There are other countries like China that have had meat substitutes, pretty sophisticated ones, for a long time. China had these medieval banquets where they would serve these delicious elaborate meat substitutes that were designed to look and taste like duck, for example. So why would meat substitutes take off and be different this time?
The motivation needs to be there. People need to be motivated to change longstanding habits. And motivation takes awareness. Fifty years ago, many people were not aware of the reasons to even want to move away from eating animals. People need to be able to really understand why they would want an alternate to something that’s actually working for them.
I want to sound a note of skepticism for a minute about this idea that in the future we’re going to have this wonderful world where we never eat meat and we never oppress anyone.
The average American eats something like 200 pounds of meat a year. When you look at developing economies like China or India, trendlines seem to suggest that as they develop economically, they’re going to follow eating patterns that we have in countries like the US, which is to say wanting more protein in their diets, and specifically more meat.
So is it likely, given all that, that somehow the world is going to overcome those trends and still move toward the future you’re envisioning?
First of all, they’re not going to be eating more meat in developing countries. They are eating more meat.
But there is a movement, the vegan movement, that’s also growing all over the world. And there are many people who are not even necessarily vegan, but they’re concerned with climate change. They’re concerned with some of the pollution and toxins that come from factory farms. And so there is a tremendous amount of growing resistance around the world, really challenging the expansion of carnism, even as that expansion is happening.
This podcast is made possible thanks to support from Animal Charity Evaluators. They research and promote the most effective ways to help animals.
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