What’s Wrong with “Carnism”?

Sponge Bob Vegan

Many of my readers have asked over recent years why I do not support the rhetoric of “carnism.” The short answer is that it is speciesist.

In an interview with ARZone, Dr. Melanie Joy discusses her theory on carnism, which she defines as an invisible ideology of “meat”-eating (I place “meat” in quotations as it is a euphemism) that is (according to her website) “‘essentially’ the opposite of veganism” (I place “essentially” in quotations as I will show this not to be true).

One host asks Dr. Joy why she rejects the more logical and straight-forward concept of speciesism. Her reply was that speciesism is “too abstract” and “confusing,” but most people seem to “get” carnism.

This is where I have a problem.  Why the focus on flesh? To single out flesh as somehow more problematic is nonsensical. Instead, it becomes yet another campaign for reductionism/vegetarianism. Carnism obscures the importance of veganism and unnecessarily confuses anti-speciesist campaigning.

Dr. Joy insists that the term carnism actually entails all animal products. To the casual observer, however, this is not true. Having read her books, for that matter, I can attest that this hidden vegan meaning is never made clear. She even concedes in the ARZone interview that she rarely mentions “leather” or “wool.” Carnism also excludes vivisection, companion animals, and animals used in entertainment.

Following up with this important oversight, the ARZone host asked if she believes that audiences exposed to carnism ideology were “getting it” or if they were finding themselves “confused.” Dr. Joy  clarified that she’s had no problem with confusion at all; most people do indeed “get it.” Of course, we would not expect many authors promoting their work to suggest that it left readers or listeners confused! But aside from the leading question–Dr. Joy isn’t really pushing us to consider anti-speciesism or veganism, so there isn’t much to get confused about. Vegetarianism as a concept has been largely accepted in our culture for some years now. She’s not proposing anything radical or new.

The real intention of carnism lies in its ability to sell.

At the time of the ARZone interview and the publication of her second book, Joy had recently launched the Carnism Awareness and Action Network. As with dozens of other reform-focused organizations, CAAN does not explicitly promote veganism, but instead promotes arbitrarily defined reductionism. It’s all about the meat.

Most importantly, CAAN’s website also loudly displays “DONATE” buttons.

Clear anti-speciesist messages discourage donations, and large non-profits are wary of this. As organizations professionalize, they compromise. This is a pattern that surfaced in my dissertation research spanning the late 20th and early 21st century of the Nonhuman Animal rights movement. When an organization professionalizes, donations become key to its survival. Carnism language helps CAAN to stand out in the crowded social movement space. It also makes it more appealing to elite donors when that nasty, offensive “vegan” language is carefully tempered, obscured, or erased entirely.

Joy’s argument is that the carnism schema simplifies an overly complicated concept (that we shouldn’t hurt others). She insists that speciesism (the correlative to racism, sexism, heterosexism, ableism, ageism, and ethnocentrism) is just too confusing. But rarely (if ever) does she herself make a clear case for veganism in her writing or campaigning. Also troubling is she never clearly states why exploiting species, such as cats, elephants, and dolphins, that are not used for food is problematic. Nor does she make it clear that exploiting Nonhuman Animals for their skin, milk, or eggs is inherently linked to the flesh consumption that carnism highlights.

Patrick from Spongebob Squarepants inhaling an endless stream of Crabby Patties
Again, the misleading nature of carnism ideology is intentional, as further evidenced in Joy’s essay titled, “Our Voices, Our Movement: How Vegans Can Move Beyond the ‘Welfare-Abolition Debate’.” This essay published with One Green Planet at the time of the ARZone interview and CAAN’s launch, and it seeks to downplay the importance of the growing divide between “abolitionist” veganism and reductionist/reformist non-vegan approaches. Washing over factional divides in the movement is critical for non-profits, as acknowledging them would mean legitimizing pundit concerns about the non-profit structure itself. Acknowledging them would certainly undermine Dr. Joy’s superfluous theory on carnism as well.

Like many non-profit leaders,  Dr. Joy ardently defends counterproductive and ultimately speciesist tactics of reform and vegan-bashing.  Her suggestion for “moving beyond” the debate is simply that anti-reformist vegans cease their claimsmaking and join the status quo (“our voices, our movement”). Carnism works to invisibilize veganism as a rhetorical matter, but also as a political one.

This essay is not intended to character attack Dr. Joy. Her approach to anti-speciesism is a common one–it is part of a larger system of pro-capitalist non-profiteering which stagnates social change, despite the good intentions of its participants. While her approach to social change is deeply flawed, her social psychological work on how humans and societies interact with and understand other animals is very approachable. I have even assigned it to my students in the past.

That said, carnism has got to go. Joy insists that we must understand carnism in order to understand the mental blocks preventing liberation. However, caring about Nonhuman Animal suffering while simultaneously participating in their exploitation doesn’t need yet another label. In social psychology, it’s called “cognitive dissonance,” and it is a result of oppression generally speaking, and speciesism specifically. That’s the language the social justice community understands, but a new label for an old idea makes for jazzy grant proposals. That’s the bottom line.

 


Cover for "A Rational Approach to Animal Rights." Shows a smiling piglet being held up by human hands.

Readers can learn more about the social psychology of veganism in my 2016 publication, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights. Receive research updates straight to your inbox by subscribing to my newsletter.

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