March 25, 2010
Marsha Rakestraw, NW VEG Board Member
Right on the first page of Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs & Wear Cows: An Introduction to Carnism: The Belief System That Enables Us to Eat Some Animals and Not Others, social psychologist and animal advocate Melanie Joy jumps into the inconsistencies we maintain in our relationship with animals by offering the scenario of eating a stew we find delicious and discovering that it's made with Golden Retriever meat. We have a strange relationship with animals. Some we eat, wear and experiment on, others we passionately protect, and/or enjoy as pets. Where did we get this skewed lens about which species are tasty, which are gross and which are off limits? (And it differs in many cultures.) And why do we vigorously defend our right to eat animals when we in most industrialized countries have no biological need to do so?
In Why We Love Dogs, Joy explores this culture of confusion. Her primary assertion is that we have such a skewed relationship with different species of animals, not because the animals themselves are different, but because our perception of them is different. And those perceptions influence our beliefs, ideas and experiences.
Joy introduces "carnism" as a belief system in which eating certain animals (but not others) is "considered ethical and appropriate." Like many oppressive and exploitative systems, it exists nearly invisibly, an internalized habit that we’ve been taught is "just the way it is." In the book she outlines the ideologies, strategies, systems, and psychological paradigms that "carnists" rely on to sustain, legitimize, and justify eating certain species of animals. Why We Love Dogs concludes with a call to stand as a witness to the extensive suffering inherent in animal agriculture.
One of the strengths of Joy's book is her integration of the data from numerous psychological studies on a variety of issues to construct a solid platform for why and how we are able to make cruel, destructive choices that conflict with our deepest values (and why it bothers us to do so). From experiments demonstrating our natural aversion to killing, to studies exploring the connection between our compassion and the number of victims we're asked to care about, to the famous Milgram experiments examining obedience to authority and personal responsibility, the examples Joy uses reveal enlightening and frightening realities about us.
Joy's exploration of carnism offers a powerful and fascinating examination of the lenses through which we see the world and the psychological and social means we use to shape, support and sustain our choices and habits. It's a call to awaken ourselves from the fog of culture and strive to make conscious choices that reflect our deepest values, rather than perpetuating a path of unconscious choices and habits that have been established for us since we were children. As Joy says, "…understanding carnism can help us think more critically about all systems in which we participate."