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Thursday, June 21, 2012

In Conversation with Dr. Melanie Joy: Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, And Wear Cows

I. Foreword

by Amruta Ubalevegan and animal rights activist from India.

In India, there are people who eat chickens but not eat cows, people who eat cows but not pigs, animal lovers who eat chickens or goats but loathe the thought of eating dogs or cats. I too belonged to one of these categories but one day I had an epiphany and quit eating meat. That followed with quitting all products derived from animal torture and there a Vegan was born. Life keeps evolving – I transformed from a non-vegetarian to a vegetarian, a vegetarian to a vegan, an animal lover to an animal activist. Having lived on the other side, I started to question why people favor some animals and justify the killing of other animals. My questions were answered when I came across Dr. Melanie Joy and her research on carnism, an invisible belief system that conditions people to eat (certain) animals.

Let me cite a recent example of carnism I came across. As part of my work, I had to visit a tannery one day. I saw a mix Labrador female dog tied in the tannery compound. On inquiring about the dog, I was told that one of the workers had rescued her from the slaughterhouse. I was curious to meet this worker and listen to the rescue story. He narrated, “As a routine job I go to the slaughterhouse to pick up hides of dead animals. One day after loading the tempo, this dog appeared out of nowhere next to my seat. I felt very bad for her as I figured she was homeless. So I got her back here.” The worker looked at the dog lovingly and petted her while she was set free in the compound.

See how the worker feels compassion for one animal and not an ounce of empathy towards the other, in this case goat and cattle. That unfortunately is a classic example of carnism.

I feel privileged to introduce Dr. Melanie Joy. A professor of psychology and sociology, Dr. Joy’s doctoral dissertation on carnism has formed the basis of one of the most important books of this century, her book, Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, And Wear Cows: An Introduction to Carnism. Dr. Joy is also an awe-inspiring public speaker as all videos on her presentations available in the Internet testify. She travels all over the world transforming minds with her slide shows on carnism. I wish to thank Dr. Melanie Joy for sharing insights on carnistic theory and its manifestations through this interview. It was an empowering experience for me working with Dr. Joy on this project.

II. About Dr. Melanie Joy (from

Dr. Melanie Joy
Melanie Joy, Ph.D., Ed.M. is the author of the acclaimed Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows: An Introduction to Carnism. Dr. Joy is a Harvard-educated psychologist, personal/relationship coach, professor of psychology and sociology at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, and celebrated speaker. She has written a number of articles on psychology, animal protection, and social justice, which have been published in a variety of journals and magazines.

Dr. Joy is the leading researcher on carnism, the psychology of eating meat, and has been interviewed for numerous magazines, books, and radio on her work, including the BBC, NPR, PBS, and ABC Australia. She has presented her work at national and international academic and grassroots conferences. Dr. Joy is also the author of the book, Strategic Action for Animals.

Click this link for a trailer of the book.

III. Interview with Dr. Melanie Joy: On why we love dogs, eat pigs, and wear cows

Vegan India!: Please walk us through your vegan journey. Do share how you first became interested in exploring your relationship with animals. Was it an epiphany or a series of small incremental steps?

Dr. Joy: That’s a great question. Becoming vegan was, for me (as I suspect it is for many people), both an epiphany and a series of incremental steps. Over the years, there were subtle influences that caused me to pause and consider, for a moment, the truth about my meat: a hamburger that was “too red,” a snippet of undercover footage from animal factories on the news, a chance encounter with a vegan guest at a dinner party. I suspect I had been exposed to the truth about eating animals many times before I fully “made the connection” between the meat on my plate and the living being it once was. My actual epiphany began in 1989. I ended up eating a hamburger that had been contaminated with campylobacter and I had to be hospitalized. That experience led me to stop eating flesh and shortly thereafter, I learned more about animal agriculture and realized I could never knowingly participate in such an atrocity against animals again.

Vegan India!: The slide show of your book, Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows: An Introduction to Carnism is brilliant as it drives the point subtly. You have explained carnism as “an invisible belief system” in your book. You also mention that carnism is exactly the opposite of veganism. Could you please deconstruct the theory of “carnism” briefly for our readers?

Dr. Joy: Thank you. Carnism is the term I have been using to describe the invisible belief system, or ideology, that conditions us to eat certain animals. Carnism is a dominant ideology, which means it is entrenched and normalized, shaping beliefs, behaviors, laws, norms, etc. And, it is a violent ideology, whose tenets run counter to core human values. Thus, carnism, like other violent ideologies, needs to use a set of social and psychological mechanisms to enable humane people to participate in inhumane practices without fully realizing what they are doing. We tend to believe it’s only vegans and vegetarians who bring their beliefs to the dinner table. But most people don’t, for instance, eat pigs but not dogs because they don’t have a belief system when it comes to eating animals. When eating animals is not a necessity for survival, it is a choice – and choices always stem from beliefs.

Denial (expressed through invisibility) is the primary defense of carnism. If we deny there’s a problem or a belief system in the first place, then we don’t have to do anything about it and we can’t question its tenets. And, carnism also keeps its victims (animals, of course, but also meatpackers, the environment, and human consumers whose bodies and minds are impacted by eating animals) out of sight and therefore conveniently out of public consciousness.

Justification is another carnistic defense. The way we learn to justify eating animals is by learning to believe that the myths of meat (and eggs and dairy) are the facts of meat. All carnistic myths fall under what I call the Three Ns of Justification: eating animals is normal, natural, and necessary. Not surprisingly, these same arguments have been used to justify a variety of violent practices, such as slavery and male dominance.

Carnism also uses a set of defenses—cognitive processes—that distort our perceptions of meat and the animals we eat so that we can feel comfortable enough to consume them. For instance, carnism teaches us to see animals as objects (as things) and as abstractions (lacking in any individuality or personality), and it also teaches us to put animals in rigid categories in our minds (for example, some animals are friends while others are food) so that we can harbor very different feelings and carry out very different behaviors toward different species.

Click this link  for Dr. Joy’s slide show on carnism.

Vegan India!: A vegan lifestyle intimidates many people. We are often looked upon as an object of curiosity. Would you say that understanding carnism will prove an effective tool for activists to understand the psychology of meat eaters? Do elaborate the best way to reach out to the masses and empower them with knowledge to help them come out of their carnisitic defensiveness.

Dr. Joy: Absolutely. I wrote my book for two groups: meat eaters and vegans. My hope is to help meat eaters become aware of carnism so they can step outside the system and make their food choices more freely – because without awareness, there is no free choice. And, I also wrote it to help vegans feel more grounded in and better able to articulate their choices; often vegans have a visceral sense of knowing their choices are sound, but have trouble explaining exactly why this is so in a way that others can relate to and hear. I wanted as well to help vegans understand meat eaters more fully – to reduce the stress and tension so many vegans feel living among such resistance to their message and to help them advocate more effectively.

Effective advocacy is the focus of one chapter in my first book, Strategic Action for Animals, and I also have a number of advocacy tips for vegans at I think one of the most important things vegans can do is to view the vast majority of meat eaters not as uncaring perpetrators of violence, but as victims of a system they were born into, that they have been conditioned to remain blind to, and that guides their food choices like an invisible hand so that they unwittingly act against their core values, their own interests, and the interests of others. Eating animals is not simply a matter of personal ethics; it is the inevitable end result of a deeply entrenched, oppressive system.

Another important tip is for vegans not to expect the facts to sell the ideology. Once we realize that carnism is internalized, as are its defenses, we can feel less frustrated that our message is so often distorted, blocked, and minimized. And finally, I cannot stress enough how important it is for anyone wishing to have productive conversations—especially around such a charged issue as eating animals—to learn the basics of nonviolent communication. Effective communication can be learned, and when it is practiced, it transforms interactions and relationships.

Vegan India!: Dr. Joy, you have also highlighted in your book that many people who consider themselves as “animal lovers” and shower incredible love and compassion on a certain species of animals, apparently have no problems in consuming others. Could you please elaborate how this selective empathy or paradox develops in humans?

Dr. Joy: Well, most people do feel empathy toward non human beings. There is ample evidence of this all around us. And, in meat-eating cultures around the world, most people have a tiny handful of animals that they learn to classify as edible – all other species they learn to think of as inedible and therefore (often) disgusting to consume. So, even though the type of species consumed changes from culture to culture, members of all cultures have a similar way of compartmentalizing when it comes to eating animals. What carnism does is teach us to block our awareness and shut down our empathy toward those beings we have learned to classify as edible. And, we learn this from the moment we are weaned, when we are fed our Gerber turkey and rice dinners, for example – not thinking or feeling when presented with the flesh of “edible” animals is modeled and reinforced for us throughout our lives, from our parents to our society.

Vegan India!: You didn’t mince any words in your book. The personal account told by some employees working in the livestock industry and slaughterhouses is sure to send shivers down the spine. On the other hand, many accounts from slaughterhouse ex-employees are emerging that describe their experience and what made them quit the “meat industry”. Some of them are now advocating against the industry. How do you think these employees reach this point of realization?

Dr. Joy: The same way anyone reaches the point where they decide to become conscientious objectors. They have a paradigm shift. In other words, they don’t see different things; they see the same things, differently. A paradigm shift occurs when one is ready to change – when it becomes more painful to continue with an existing behavior than to implement a new one.

Seeing the same things differently: “Figure and Ground” Gestalt Psychology

Vegan India!: Cruelty to animals can be a predictor for future violence towards humans. Do you agree? Can you please explain the relation?

Dr. Joy: Cruelty is cruelty. I try to refrain from commenting on cruelty to animals as a predictor of cruelty to humans because I believe that frame doesn’t present animals as having intrinsic value and that animal cruelty is seen as less concerning than human cruelty. For instance, imagine if violence toward females were concerning to psychologists simply because it could be a predictor of violence toward males in the future.

Vegan India!: There is so much talk of saving our planet and its resources these days. Multinational companies go for CleanTech, Green initiatives, employing renewable source of energy, and so on, spending billions of dollars every year. Which is all good. Yet, the livestock industry, one of major contributors to our environmental problems, is often ignored in public forums and policymakers choose to abstain from the subject completely. Please suggest how we can address the invisible belief system of policy makers and the popular media at large?

Dr. Joy: It is important to recognize that animal agribusiness is a multibillion-dollar industry, with powerful corporate lobbyists and tremendous influence on public policy. Also, policymakers, like everyone else, have internalized carnism such that they aren’t looking at issues pertaining to eating animals objectively. In my opinion, we must target the problem of carnism from multiple angles: as with other exploitative industries, we must challenge the stranglehold carnistic interests have on the public by, for instance, demanding some degree of decentralization and challenging ideologically biased meat subsidies; and we must also work to raise awareness of carnism among the public, so that citizens support the actions necessary for a more just and humane society. In other words, carnism must be challenged on both the institutional and individual level – an approach we take at Carnism Awareness and Action Network (CAAN).

Vegan India!: Although policymakers and the popular media have hidden it, consumer awareness on the cruel practices adopted by industries producing animal products has risen. Many consumers are asking for “humane” products. What are your views on humane animal products?

Dr. Joy: People want to buy so-called humane meat because they do care about animals, and most people believe that eating such meat is an ethical choice. Carnistic industry has constructed the myth of “humane meat” to appeal to consumer demand, demand which has resulted (largely) from vegan activism. So vegans should celebrate the fact that consumers are becoming more aware and critical of carnistic practices – while at the same time not allowing carnistic industry to co-opt such awareness and use their PR savvy to sell the public another lie.

Because carnism is so entrenched, most people don’t recognize that humane meat is a complete contradiction in terms – a myth constructed by those in the business of violence to appeal to those of us who would ordinarily never support such violence. Consider, for instance, the way in which many people would not condone slaughtering a perfectly healthy golden retriever just because they like the way her thighs taste, and yet these same people have been taught to think nothing of allowing the same thing to be done to somebody of another species. This is a perfect example of carnism at work.

Vegans should support and encourage meat eaters who want to cause less harm to animals and have been led to believe in the myth of “humane meat,” while challenging the carnistic distortions that perpetuate this myth. In my opinion, there is no such thing as a “humane animal product.” As soon as we turn a being into a product, we have ceased to be humane.

Vegan India!: The job of an animal rights activist is very stressful – investigating places of animal torture, going through stories of animal torture day in and day out, fighting the battle with less or no success at times, and so on. It is difficult to maintain normalcy sometimes. How do you suggest activists deal with this difficult situation?

Dr. Joy: It is important for activists to realize that one way dominant oppressive systems (such as carnism and the broader system of speciesism) maintain themselves is by making invisible the true power and scope of the social movements that challenge them. Activists often feel that their movement and thus their efforts are making little, if any, difference and they can lose faith in themselves and in humanity. This illusion of not making a difference often leads to despair, depression, hopelessness, frustration, embitterment, and burnout.

Vegan activists need to know that the vegan movement is in fact mushrooming! It is growing exponentially and there are signs of this truth everywhere: statistically the number of vegans and vegetarians is increasing significantly; vegan restaurants, foods, cookbooks, blogs, websites, celebrities, dieticians, are springing up everywhere. Vegans are a part of a powerful, transformational movement comprised of millions of people around the world, a movement that is shaping a better future for all beings.

I would also suggest that activists learn as much as they can about recognizing and treating secondary traumatic stress – also called compassion fatigue. Activists need to take good care of themselves so they can have sustainable lives, as people and as activists. It is almost impossible to avoid traumatization living among such oppression and violence. The best book I have found on this subject is Trauma Stewardship, by Laura van Dernoont Lipsky.

IV. Acknowledgements

This blog is grateful to Dr. Melanie Joy for consenting to this discussion on the psychology of meat eating. The goal of this interview was to draw from the realm of Psychology and Sociology, two fields of social science that provide base material and scientific analysis of human behavior in collectives and as individuals. Utilizing the social science framework to understand and interpret human behavior and its intricacies in the context of veganism, forms the core of the work of exceptional researchers such as Dr. Melanie Joy. Thank you Dr. Joy for enriching this blog space and providing an important tool to vegan activists in our quest to impact probably the most powerful entity – the human mind. This blog is also ever grateful to Amruta who helped conceptualize and coordinate this interview with Dr. Joy. Thanks much, Amruta for enriching this blog space with your initiative and verve!

For more interviews featured in this blog, you can click this link.


  1. life is simple, man from beginning till end, if being positive / aware, can be superior to all beings by planning and being supportive with mother nature and be caring, but if ignorant then worst of all beings, because no animal does harm to others as humans do, one may see cow is supreme being by helping human also their milk can be good for other livings beings too, similarly every living being is playing important role on planet.
    but alas we are too busy in creating words, classifications, theory, degree, flags, rituals, laws, that we miss our inner voice / humanity.

  2. That was a superb interview with Dr. Melanie Joy which highlighted the profound role of the invisible but all pervasive role of carnism and how it has adversely affected human psychology.

    There are many books that highlight the mass destructive power of non vegetarian diets but this one looks at the problem from a different perspective. It tries to uncover some of the basic truths about the behavioral psychology of the human race as a whole. I had not heard of the word carnism before but through this work I could understand what carnism is all about.

    The introductory part to this interview by Amruta Ubale is really brilliant. The questions posed by you are very appropriate and Dr Joy's responses are very clear cut and to the point.

    Dr Joy's words are soothing to many of the troubled vegan minds. You have raised such questions in your interview as well. It is extremely heartening to note that there are such great personalities as Dr Joy who are able to nudge the world towards a vegan way of life.

    Vegan India has been publishing wonderful interviews with many outstanding vegan scholars. It speaks of your tremendous commitment and hard work. Once again Kudos to your team for such a wonderful and truly enlightening interview.

    1. @kv rangan: Thank you so much for your words of appreciation and acknowledgement. Glad that you found the interview enlightening; it was enlightening for us as well. Understanding works at all levels. As activists, the framework of carnism helps us understand why people behave and think the way they do and with this understanding, we feel better equipped to engage with them. Like Dr. Joy said, it is worth examining the principles of non violent communication to make a lasting impact on the minds of people.


Ahimsa Paramo Dharmaha! Non-violence supersedes all other duties! This blog is work-in-progress to make the Earth a little less violent. Are you on the same task as well? Best wishes to you and thank you for reading this post. Do feel free to type in and share any information that you think might be significant to this story.

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