Steve's Guest Blog: An Interview With Melanie Joy

Below, enjoy a guest blog and interview by my husband, vegan male blogger extraordinaire Steven Smith. It should be noted that Melanie marks our 20th interview to date, and we couldn't be happier to have her on the blog today! Read on...

Depending on the source, it has been cited that there are somewhere between 250,000 to 1,000,000 words in the English language.  The average person may know or use around 12,000 to 20,000 of them, more or less; again, depending on what roots, derivatives, and slang are being used, the number can vastly fluctuate.  What's for certain, though, is one word that has not made it into the mainstream of the English language. Not only will it be the focal point of this post but also a term that will revolutionize the way everyone thinks about their daily dietary and lifestyle choices.  This word is carnism.  The book is Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows: An Introduction to CarnismIts creation is all thanks to Melanie Joy.

While it was back in 2001 that she coined this term, it wasn't until last year that it really jumped onto the scene in the aforementioned book.  And shortly after its introduction to the literary world, I bought my copy and learned about carnism myself.  As an avid reader of plant-based nutrition, animal activism, and vegan advocacy literature, I have to say I experienced something entirely different than I had from my previous reads.  All are usually inspiring, educational, and touching, but this one... I felt this one could be revolutionary.  Introducing and analyzing the sociological and psychological motives behind what we eat and why we eat it, Melanie exposes the invisible defense mechanisms and reasoning that allow certain decisions, that upon further inspection would be considered cruel and immoral, to be deemed as fundamental to our society.  She separates dietary dependencies from belief systems and challenges us to look deep within our own morals and mores and determine if our actions do indeed back up our own system of values.

Not just a beautiful, thought-provoking read, but a true commencement of enlightenment into our relationship, as humans, with animals.  By the end, there is a hope that people will bear witness, accept the hidden truths that are, in fact, right under our noses, and take responsible and compassionate action.  Pick up a copy of Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows as soon as you can, and check out Melanie's newest website, The Carnism Awareness and Action Network, a resource for vegetarians, vegans, and carnists who wish to understand and help expose and transform carnism. With that, it's an absolute pleasure to delve a little bit deeper with Melanie Joy:

Kiss Me, I'm Vegan: You introduce us to the ideology of carnism in Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows.  What is carnism, and how does a carnist differ from one with a more mainstream title (carnivore, omnivore, vegetarian, etc.)?

Melanie: Carnism is the invisible belief system, or ideology, that conditions people to eat certain animals. Carnism is essentially the opposite of veganism. However, unlike veganism, carnism has not been named, and therefore eating animals is seen as a given, rather than a choice. But when eating animals is not a necessity for survival, it is a choice, and choices always stem from beliefs. So, contrary to popular belief, vegans are not the only ones who bring their beliefs to the dinner table. 

Melanie's website,
Carnism is a dominant, violent ideology that uses a set of social and psychological defense mechanisms that enable humane people to participate in inhumane practices without realizing what they’re doing. These “carnistic defenses” distort our perceptions of meat and the animals we learn to eat, so that we can feel comfortable enough to consume them. 

Not surprisingly, the primary defense of carnism is invisibility, and the primary way the system remains invisible is by remaining unnamed: if we don’t name carnism, eating animals appears to be a given rather than a choice—and we can’t talk about or question the system. Moreover, carnistic language masks and distorts reality; for instance, 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. 

I therefore use the term “carnist,” a derivative of “carnism,” to describe those who eat animals. If we have a name for vegans and vegetarians, it only makes sense to have a name for those whose behaviors reflect the opposing belief system.

KMIV: For something that exists in social (un)consciousness as "normal, natural, and necessary," as you state in the book, how do we bring carnism to the surface and invoke our truest sense of free will?

Melanie: I think it’s incredibly important that vegans recognize—and help carnists recognize— carnism. Carnistic defenses lose much of their power when they are made visible. Once carnists realize that their thoughts, feelings, and actions have been shaped by an invisible system that requires them to act against their core values, then—and only then—are they in a position to make their choices freely. Without awareness, there is no free choice.
Encouraging others to become vegan necessarily entails helping them step outside of the carnistic box; as long as they’re inside that box, they’ll see the world through the lens of carnism. And for someone to be willing to step outside a box, they need to realize that they’re in a box in the first place. So a vital aspect of vegan advocacy is making carnism visible.
One defense that is essential to expose is what I refer to as the Three Ns of Justification (eating animals is normal, natural, and necessary). The Three Ns are myths that are used to perpetuate a violent ideology which most people would likely choose not to support if they were aware of the truth—the truth about not only the consumption of animals, but about carnism, the system that makes such consumption possible in the first place. If vegans recognize these myths (which have been used to justify virtually all violent ideologies, from slavery to male dominance), they are in a much better position to help carnists do the same. 

KMIV: When discussing veganism or an opposing lifestyle, we usually hear about it from a scientific, emotional, or a health/culinary point of view.  Why is bringing the psychological point of view on the topic just as, if not more, important to include in its focus?

Melanie: Because, more often than not, the facts don’t sell the ideology. In other words, all the scientific evidence in the world, all the emotional appeals to the hearts of carnists, all the delicious vegan meals available still aren’t enough to turn most people vegan. If the facts of veganism were sufficient to get people to stop eating animals, the world would already be vegan.

I’m not saying the facts aren’t important; they are. The facts are vital. But without understanding why such facts don’t stick—why, for instance, people can be brought to tears by a film clip exposing the horrors of factory farming and the very next day happily sit down to a breakfast of bacon and eggs—we are at great disadvantage as vegan advocates. We need to focus on psychology so that we can understand and counter the mentality that blocks the facts from truly impacting those to whom we’re reaching out.

KMIV: What was the turning point in your life that led you to veganism? Was it one huge moment, or a collective group of small moments that changed you?

Melanie: I think that for most people, even when the turning point of becoming vegetarian or vegan is marked by a huge moment, a series of small moments have led up to it. We need to be in a state of readiness—psychological, social, physical, financial, etc.—in order to open ourselves to the truth about carnism.

For me, becoming vegetarian (not vegan; my shift to veganism was much less dramatic and occurred nine years later) was marked by a huge moment that had followed a number of other moments. Throughout my life, I had always been an “animal lover” and by my late teens, after having been exposed to various pieces of literature about meat production, I became a tentative vegetarian. I say “tentative” because although I stopped eating meat I lacked the awareness or conviction to truly maintain a vegetarian lifestyle. So I resumed my carnism, guiltily, and felt almost as if I were a vegetarian trapped in a carnist’s body.

There were more instances where I heard some disturbing facts about meat production, but I wasn’t ready to commit to vegetarianism and pushed such information out of my consciousness. Then, at the age of 23, after eating what turned out to be a tainted hamburger at a local restaurant, I wound up on intravenous antibiotics at Beth Israel Hospital. The pain of that experience gave me just the motivation I needed to stop eating flesh and eggs, and I became a passionate advocate for vegetarianism. Nearly a decade later, after having met a vegan who compassionately encouraged me to reflect on my dairy consumption, I became a vegan.  

KMIV: What have been the greatest rewards of your vegan lifestyle? What have been the greatest challenges?  

Melanie: I think the greatest reward is that I feel a much deeper sense of connection with other beings—and with myself—now that I’m no longer living the double life I did as a carnist, when I loved animals and also ate them. I’m most aware of this connection when I’m around animals, eating meals, or cooking (which I love to do). I feel more fully myself, empowered in the knowledge that, when it comes to my relationship with other beings, I’m living in accordance with my core values. A side benefit is that I am healthier today than I was when I was half my age, and people tell me that I look much younger than I actually am.

My greatest challenge—and I think many vegans can relate to this—is living in a carnistic world that daily offends my deepest sensibilities. A related challenge is knowing that I can (and I intend to) spend the rest of my life working for animal liberation but will likely not live to see the day this goal is realized. A less dramatic but still difficult challenge is making it through the frigid Boston winters without wearing down coats, wool sweaters, leather boots, and silk long johns!

KMIV: What advice would you give someone who is interested in veganism, but afraid of taking the leap? 

Melanie: I would ask them what exactly their fears were, and help them consider how to move toward veganism in a way that felt safe and sustainable to them. People are more likely to make lasting, healthful changes when such changes fit in with their current psychological, social, financial, and physical state.

KMIV: Okay - time to get silly (or still serious, your call) - you're stuck on a deserted island with three vegan food items - what are they and why?

Melanie: I’d have to say eggplant, red or green peppers, and seaweed—because these are the only vegan foods I don’t like. I’m a huge foodie and sometimes my self-control goes out the window when it comes to my favorite foods. If I were stuck on an island, I’d want to be able to pace myself and make my rations last!

Melanie Joy, Ph.D. is a Harvard-educated psychologist, professor, and personal/relationship coach, and she is the author of Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows: An Introduction to Carnism. Dr. Joy has been interviewed about carnism for magazines, books, and radio, including the BBC, NPR, PBS, and the prestigious Le Scienze. Dr. Joy is also the author of Strategic Action for Animals: A Handbook on Strategic Movement Building, Organizing, and Activism for Animal Liberation, and she has been an animal advocate for over two decades. Dr. Joy recently founded Carnism Awareness & Action Network, a resource for vegetarians, vegans, and carnists who wish to understand and help expose and transform carnism.


CurlyLocks said…
Thank you for an interesting, thoughtful, and enjoyable blog.
I read Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows (a present from my son). Melanie Joy has presented an important new way of looking at society's rationalizations and inconsistencies. Her book is definitely thought-provoking.
Angela said…
This book has been on my to-read list for a while, but not for long! Clearly I need to pick it up ASAP. As a vegan, I find this new perspective on my lifestyle choice refreshing and intriguing. Great post!!
Melanie said…
Thank you for this interview! This will definitely be on my "to read" list. I have studied Psychology for years and I became a vegan 10 months ago. I like how Joy has coined a term to balance out the table of beliefs. Having people explore the psychological aspect of carnism will help people better connect their core values to their actions and hopefully result in a postive change.
dirtyduck said…
oh great post! i need to read this book.
"And for someone to be willing to step outside a box, they need to realize that they’re in a box in the first place"

that was big to me, when i first started reading about veganism, i realized how conditioned i was!! i DID NOT like that at all!!
Anonymous said…
Hi Lindsay,
I found your blog through Meatout Mondays a couple of weeks ago and just wanted to say "hi" and thank you for the wonderful job you are doing. I enjoy reading your blogs and love the look of your website. Thanks for doing what you are doing!
Kaycee said…
Hey! I have never heard the term "Carnism" before, but it is brilliant. It is the perfect way to describe those who eat meat. I love that she breaks it down by saying that all food is a conscious choice. Even though it is common to believe eating meat is the "normal" thing to do, it is in fact a choice. I cannot wait to read this book, it seems epic, and I have read tons of books on vegan/animal welfare awareness.

Vegan Machine
I need to get this book for my dissertation!! I'm writing about my experiences with transitioning to a vegan lifestyle and how society has reacted to it. Carnism definitely helps to explain this. Thank you for posting this interview. I'd never heard of this book before!
Lolly said…
What a great blog post and interview. I have had Melanie Joy's book on my wish list for a while now ~ hopefully I will read it sooner than later. I *heart* Melanie Joy.

I have been a vegetarian for 15 years and became a happy vegan about 3 years ago - my life has changed for the better.

Although I don't think I have ever commented, I so enjoy this KMIV blog! Keep up the great work!

Lydia said…
Melanie Joy seems incredibly insightful. I've been fishing around in the back of my head for over a year now, trying to wrap my head around the fact that my veganism was seen as so absurd and limiting to my family members. (In actuality, it is they who are limiting themselves: I've had sooo much variety in food since going vegan!) The fact that they are viewing things through the dominant paradigm of "carnism" really makes sense.