Jordi Casamitjana, the author of the book “Ethical Vegan”, explores how much carnist indoctrination remains to linger in the behavior and attitude of some vegans.
Remember the day you became a vegan? (If you are not vegan yet, imagine that day is today). How different were you as a person compared with the day before? How much did you change?
When people convert to a new religion, there is often a big ritual to somehow imprint a memory of profound transformation. Baptists even “drown” you in water, so it feels that you are “saved” and reborn as a completely different being. But philosophical beliefs don’t have any of that. When you become a pacifist, an environmentalist, a feminist or an ethical vegan, there is no ceremony. There is no initiation ritual. It often happens when you are alone and have been ruminating for a while. And you may not tell people about it for some time.
When people become vegan they experience something akin to “awakening”, but to be honest, you kind of already knew that animal exploitation was wrong. You just got rid of the last obstacle that prevented you to manifest such knowledge with a positive coherent permanent change of behavior. You just got the courage to step away from animal exploitation, as you could no longer believe the excuses you gave to yourself for delaying the decision. Hardly an awakening, really. It’s more a cleansing from the self-imposed burden that soiled your “soul” and you thought was preventing you from becoming a normal decent human being.
But was it really self-imposed? Was it our fault that we began our lives actively or indirectly participating in animal exploitation in almost everything we did? Was it our fault that we carried on doing it well into our adulthood and even seniority? No, someone did this to us. Well, not anyone specifically, but most people around us. We were taught to behave in such an appalling manner. We were persuaded that was the right way to act. We were indoctrinated into exploiting others and ignoring their suffering. We were made carnists.
The Concept of “Carnism”
The American psychologist Dr Melanie Joy coined the term “carnism” in 2001 but popularised it in her 2009 book “Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows: An Introduction to Carnism.” She defined it as “the invisible belief system, or ideology, that conditions people to eat certain animals.” Therefore, she sees it as the dominant system that tells you that is OK eating pigs and chickens here but not there; or is not OK to eat dogs and cats here but is fine there. In other words, the prevailing ideology in society which, sometimes overtly, sometimes more subtly, legitimizes animal consumption, specifying which animals can be consumed and how.
In a way, carnism is a sub-ideology of speciesism, the belief supporting discrimination against individuals because of the “type” they belong to — since it considers some “types” are superior to others. In the same way that racism or sexism also are sub-ideologies of speciesism. Carnism is the speciesist ideology that dictates who can be consumed or exploited.
I don’t agree with all Melanie Joy’s views. Although I find her psychological understanding of the vegan and carnist mind quite interesting and insightful, I don’t agree with her reducetarian approach to vegan advocacy. However, I very much like the term “carnism” she created. For many years I was looking for some word that encapsulated the forces that have legitimized — and codified — animal exploitation across cultures. Something more dogmatic, pragmatic and tangible regarding the use of others than the simple speciesist attitude regarding the view of others. An ideological force that erases instinctive compassion and desensitizes us from other sentient beings’ suffering. A socio-political force that operates in our parents’ rules, our schools’ teachings, our businesses’ publicity, and our governments’ policies. A term that has an “ism” and an “ist” so can be used in a variety of sentences to represent the opposite of veganism and vegans. And I think “carnism” does the job well enough. It makes the narrative of our struggle clearer: carnism made carnists out of us until veganism liberated us making us vegans.
Carnism is more tangible than speciesism. It dictates what people should do, as opposed to suggesting what people should think. Because of it, you can blame this belief system for what is going on, and you can openly challenge it. Some may argue that speciesism is an unfortunate part of the human psyche — or human nature — and as such, it cannot be totally eliminated, just controlled. But carnism is not. It is a cultural phenomenon, is a belief system that can be challenged and replaced by a better one (veganism). It’s a far more useful concept for the vegan revolution, as it illuminates the “enemy’s face” in the confusing misty dark battle theatre we all find ourselves fighting in.
Some vegans do not like this term, though. They claim that it does not mean the opposite of veganism, but the opposite of vegetarianism. They take Dr. Joy’s definition literally and say that it only refers to eating animal flesh, not the exploitation of animals. Or they don’t like it because they say this belief system is not invisible, but very obvious. I find these objections weak, and I will tell you why.
Dr. Joy also founded a charity called Beyond Carnism. On their website, we read: “Carnism is essentially the opposite of veganism. ‘Carn’ means ‘flesh’ or ‘of the flesh’ and ‘ism’ refers to a belief system…we believe that meaningful social change requires a two-pronged strategic approach, which entails weakening the oppressive system (carnism) and strengthening the system that challenges it (veganism).” Dr. Joy did not define it as the opposite of vegetarianism, but the opposite of veganism. And veganism covers all animal exploitation, not just diet. Carnism is therefore the ideology of animal exploitation.
However, here is where carnism-skeptics have a point. Disappointingly — I must say — Dr. Joy often talks of veganism as if it only means a diet. I am sure she is well aware that the definition created by the Vegan Society covers all animal exploitation. But yet, she often only focuses on the vegan diet. No big deal, though. If she narrowly focuses on an aspect of veganism to better fit the narrative of what she wants to talk about, I will widen my focus on carnism to fit mine.
Carnism as defined seems to be referring mainly to “consumption”, but consumption is just a type of exploitation. So, when I read this part of her definition, “[it] conditions people to eat certain animals”, I don’t’ take it as this is the only thing this belief system does. I interpret it as this being, perhaps, the most defining thing it does. The most symbolic, emblematic or archetypical thing it does, if you will. But I take it to represent all animal exploitation. Why? Because there is not a separate belief system that tells us which animals we can consume secretions from. Or another telling us which animals we can wear. Or another telling us which animals we can use as transport. It’s all the same ideology and belief system, taught in the same way, believed by the same people, based on the same values (i.e., non-human animals are property, are inferior to humans, they can be exploited following certain rules, and their will, intentions, aspirations, and suffering matter little). For me, carnism is the opposite of veganism in the true sense of the word, and this is how I use it.
In my interpretation of it, I go even further than just mentioning it occasionally. In my book “Ethical Vegan” I discuss the different types of “veggie” people I think there are, but I also had a go in classifying those from “the other side”. I divide everyone into carnist, omnivorous and vegetarians, and the latter into typical vegetarians, pre vegans, vegans and post-vegans. I divide omnivorous into reducetarians, pescatarians and flexitarians. And then I divide carnists into vegan-ignorant, vegan-deniers and veganphobes.
If carnism was a classical political ideology as communism is, a vegetarian would be a discreet silent dissident, an omnivorous would be a convinced follower of its official policies, and a carnist would be a member of the ruling carnist party (being veganphobes the most fanatical party commissars actively persecuting the rebel “vegans”). But is not, really. It’s a much more subtle ideology than that, as it is much more dominant and widespread.
I agree that the carnism ideology is not really invisible, but I understand why this term is used in the definition. Although we can witness people following it — and indoctrinating others on it — it is not done with the same awareness that other beliefs are spread. Firstly, they don’t give it a name. The term carnist — or any equivalent— is not used by carnists. Secondly, they don’t teach it as a separate concrete ideology. There are no University degrees in carnism, no lessons in carnism at schools, or competitions for the best carnist in the village. Thirdly, they don’t build institutions exclusively aimed to defend the ideology. There are no churches of carnism or carnist political parties.
Carnism is everywhere, but in an implicit form, not always explicit. It is not formalized as other ideologies are. It is not structured and regulated as other belief systems are. Being the dominant ideology in all current human cultures we know, it doesn’t need it. It operates organically as a false “common sense” baseline by infiltrating any aspect of society and becoming part of its structure. Like an “invisible” smell stinking the whole place up. This is why it’s so sinister. This is why it’s so difficult to get rid of.
Freedom from Carnism
Let’s go back to the first question I presented in this article. Remember the day you became a vegan? How different were you as a person compared with the day before? How much did you change? Not that much, if you think about it. You did change how you define yourself — and perhaps you added a new identity to the ones you had already collected — and you decided that from then on, every time you face a choice, you would choose differently than before. But deep down, did you change that much? Were you evil the day before and now you saw yourself as a saint? Were you ignorant the day before and now you thought you were wise?
If the indoctrination of carnism is so powerful and difficult to get rid of, did we manage to cleanse ourselves from it completely the day we decided that, from then on, we would uphold the philosophy of veganism? If you think you did, you may be in denial. If you think that years of millennia-backed indoctrination from pretty much everyone who ever taught you would disappear overnight without a trace, you may well still be a marionette of carnism, and not even realize it. It takes years to get rid of carnist indoctrination completely. I have been an ethical vegan for twenty years, and I am still trying.
If you are a vegan who was not brought up as a vegan from a vegan family, look close enough at your behaviour and attitude, and you will find relics of carnism lingering all over the place. If you are honest enough, you will recognize them. Let’s look at some of them.
Carnism in Vegan Food
The carnist ideology dictates that meat, dairy and eggs are not only food fit for human consumption but are indispensable healthy food people cannot live without. Food that makes you strong. Food that makes you normal — as it considers humans are carnivores. On the other side, the vegan ideology tells you the opposite: meat, dairy and eggs are not food for humans, are unhealthy, you can thrive without them, and are unnatural considering the frugivorous adaptation of our species. The vegan belief system champions the eating of plants and fungi instead.
How do you know if vegans are still “food carnists”? If they believe the carnist indoctrination, and still think that eating meat, dairy and eggs are necessary for them. Yes, perhaps plant-based versions of these, but still with the same names, colours, smells, tastes and textures. If vegans are so addicted to these carnist foods that still need to eat burgers, sausages, cheese, omelettes, tuna melts, fried chicken, ice cream, bacon and eggs every day (albeit vegan versions), you know that carnism still has a stronghold of them. So strong, they would not mind buying all these from an animal meat butcher such as Burger King or McDonald’s. So strong, that they will rejoice when scientists would make animal meat burgers from cow’s cells rather than full cows, preserving the integrity of the meat concept as a suitable form of protein for human consumption (one of the main carnist principles).
A vegan who eats cultured meat, eggs and dairy coming from live animal cells rather than live animal organisms, but rejects wholemeal food made from natural plants and fungi claiming that they are nutritionally insufficient and taste worse, is a full carnist propagandist in my book.
You can also see the remains of carnism when vegans complain too much if they are told they should not use the term “cheese” for their vegan version, or the term “burger” or “sausage” for their vegan versions. Although I think that, in a vegan world, all the terms used to describe the foods carnism created from animals will most likely become politically incorrect, it’s interesting to see how new vegans seem very upset if they imagine a world where they could not use such terms anymore. Almost as if they think they would not be able to enjoy food if it is not named with carnist terms. Almost as if they think that food with other names is not really food, as carnist claim. And to complicate things further, let’s add the term plant-based to confuse everything and divide the non-carnists.
Over the twenty years, I have been an ethical vegan, I progressed in getting rid of these food carnist remnants still sticking themselves on my food choices. I don’t eat vegan burgers anymore (other than just trying them when a new one comes up), but I haven’t managed to wean myself completely from vegan sausages and plant-based cheese. But compared with my first ten years, I have improved a lot in this regard (and since the pandemic started, even more). But sometimes it’s difficult to get rid of this residual carnism because vegan businesses themselves do not help.
Carnism in Vegan Catering
One of the main problems is the proliferation of all these tempting vegan eateries and shops that imitate as close as possible their carnist counterparts. The Vegetarian Butcher from the Netherlands is the perfect epitome of this. But there are others. The Temple of Seitan in London is a pretty close imitation of KFC. Beyond Meat and Impossible Burger produce plant-based meat that would fool any meat-eater as they have managed to reproduce the exact sensory experience of eating dead animals. In fact, if all these food trends based on perfecting the imitation of carnist food continue, at one point it could become impossible to tell the difference between carnist food and vegan food (so, adding bits from slaughtered animals could resume without anyone noticing it).
Ok, you may say I am exaggerating, as all the current imitation trends are only there to help transitioning new vegans and to disrupt animal agriculture by producing alternative cheaper versions of their products. You may say that by increasing the number of vegan options offered and making them more mainstream they are making the lives of vegans easier. You can even say that Beyond Meat and Impossible Burger are mission-based companies “from our side” operating on a capitalist paradigm producing alternative products which are actually aimed at reducetarians and flexitarians, not at vegans. That may be true, and they may be having an important impact. But why do I still see experienced vegans consuming them?
Producing healthy food from plants that looks like is made of plants is currently cheaper, not only than meat alternatives, but also than animal cells cultured food or sophisticated meat imitations. Cheaper and more accessible, as you don’t need to wait for any scientist to invent anything, or any entrepreneur to scale it commercially. And minimally processed plant-made food has a lower carbon footprint than plant-based meat and dairy imitations. Wholemeal food from plants and fungi are also healthier than most imitations of carnist food, as it contains less fat and salt, and more fiber and vitamins. We do already have tasty healthy nutritious food we can grow everywhere, especially when animal agriculture will stop using most of our crops. And we can make delicious salads, stews, rice, dhals, pasta, soups, slaws, sandwiches, bowls, chilies, noodles, wraps, pastries, and curries from them. We already have vegan food that doesn’t look like carnist food.
With so much carnist-looking food bombarding us all the time, it is not surprising that, in some people, carnism may end up pushing veganism out. Then is when they become post-vegans. They may begin to justify animal exploitation and resume consuming some animal products. They may still use the term vegan to describe themselves (such as with ostrovegan if they eat bivalves, beegan if they eat honey, or veggan if they eat eggs) but they have abandoned veganism. Why did they do it? Because they still think you cannot live without consuming some animal products. In other words, they “fell from grace” and now openly agree with the carnist mantra, again.
Carnism in the Language of Vegans
Talking about mantras, you can also see residual carnism in the words people use. What is commonly known as “speciesist language”. Referring to a non-human animal as “it”, “that” or “which” as opposed to “she”, “he” or “who”, is an example found in English (but not in many other languages which use gender pronouns even for inanimate objects). This is something that even I sometimes inadvertently do when speaking — but I don’t think any of these disrespectful pronouns sneak into my writing anymore.
Or the use of idioms, expressions and proverbs that originated from clear animal exploitation activities. For instance, “kill two birds with one stone”, “be the guinea pig”, or “bring home the bacon”. PETA has suggested a bunch of vegan-friendly alternatives for all these (i.e., “Feed two birds with one scone”, etc.), but, to be honest, I have never seen a vegan using them spontaneously in a conversation.
We also have the speciesist slurs, as derogatory expressions using animals as if they mean something “bad”. For instance, “chicken” meaning “coward”, “rat” meaning “snitch”, “pig” meaning repulsive, and so on. However, this is something I hardly ever see vegans do, so the very few who still use these words with these meanings may be suffering from a particularly severe flare of “carnitis”.
Another form of carnist language is the euphemisms carnism created to disguise the animal origin of some food. Calling bulls “beef” or pigs “pork” are classic examples. Or using “white meat” to mean the flesh of birds; or “seafood” referring to crustaceans and marine molluscs. Also, treating individual animals as parts of “goods” or “assets” by erasing their existence through collective nouns is another example. For instance, using “fish”, “sheep” or “cattle” as plural nouns (and the worst of all, “livestock”). Some vegans still use these terms — and I sometimes, regrettably, also do.
There are other more subtle and indirect relics of carnist language I bet you may not have thought about it until now. For instance, referring to someone as “Sir”. As you know, this is a polite way of addressing a man, especially one in a position of authority. But it is also the title of men with a knighthood, which in the Middle Ages was only conferred upon mounted warriors. So, a knight is a worrier who mounts a horse, which is a clear carnist activity most ethical vegans do not condone. Therefore, Sir refers to Knight, which refers to a rider, which refers to horse exploitation. In Spanish, this is more explicit, as Sir is translated as Caballero, being caballo the Spanish for a horse.
All this carnist language usage is something that doesn’t bother me as much as it bothers other vegans, but it is nevertheless a sign of lingering carnism, and at one point in the future, when we are closer to the vegan world, we may have to deal with it properly.
However, there is a type of carnist language that does bother me as I still see it widely used by many vegans. How they refer to cats and dogs. Some still use the term “pet” as opposed to the politically correct form “companion animal”, which is far more respectful and egalitarian. But even those who do not use it say things like “my dog”, or “I am the cat’s owner”, which is clearly a carnist expression as carnism is the ideology which states sentient beings can be the property of humans. You may even find angry comments from a vegan saying “don’t’ call my dog ‘it’, she is a ‘she’”, not realizing that “my” is a far greater vegan sin than the “it”. It shows how cognitive dissonances that allowed carnist rules to operate freely without fear of contradiction are still active when we become vegans.
Carnism in the Attitude of Vegans
You may no longer eat cheese and burgers, or use “it” referring to a non-human animal, but are you free from carnism if you are still stuck into discriminative, cruel, and violent attitudes?
An important carnist tenet is that inferior “types” of beings can be treated in hatred or contempt, and therefore there is nothing wrong in exploiting them. This is what misogynists do with women. This is what racists do with people from other races. Therefore, if you call yourself a vegan but oppress and exploit others because of the “type” they belong to (be gender, sexual orientation, race, religion, or species), you are still operating under carnist terms.
Dr Melanie Joy has another useful word — and book — to describe this: powerarchy. She says that “All ‘powerarchies’ (patriarchy, classism, racism, an abusive relationship or work culture, etc.) share the same basic structure and, more importantly, reflect the same mentality: the belief in a hierarchy of moral worth, that some individuals or groups are more worthy of moral consideration, or being treated with respect, than others.”
I agree. I see sometimes attitudes in vegans that make me think they feel “morally superior” to non-vegans. Or, on the flip side, they think the human species is inferior, evil, or somehow different from the rest of animal species. For me, treating Homo sapiens as a “special” species (either positively or negatively) is a form of speciesism, and acting on this approach behaving as either a human supremacist or a misanthrope betrays the presence of carnist indoctrination. That’s when the intersectional approach may help. It’s a good tool for removing stubborn carnist stains in your character that you didn’t even realise you had.
Any aggressive violent behaviour — or the justification of violence as a means to an end — may be also a relic of carnism you can sometimes see in some extreme militant vegans. Ahimsa, the ancient Sanskrit term meaning “do no harm”, is the most basic principle behind the philosophy of veganism. It applies to everything that can be harmed (yourself, other humans, other sentient beings, and the environment where they all live). Therefore, I believe a vegan who thinks that physical or verbal violence against another sentient being is a good tactic to eliminate the culture of harming others is a contradictory vegan who is still a victim of carnist indoctrination.
Becoming vegan is a big deal. Perhaps it is the most important and responsible decision one can make. But becoming vegan does not happen overnight, and it never stops. In this journey — yes, it is a journey as it is a process that takes you from one place to another by your own volition, overcoming obstacles and discovering new landscapes — you get better at being vegan. You learn more about how to tell apart a vegan-friendly product from an unfriendly one; you get better at vegan outreach becoming more persuasive and effective; but you also can remove more and more lingering relics of carnism you still carry. By constantly dusting carnism off from your life, you become a more coherent vegan.
In the end, if vegans manage to control enough their residual carnism so they do not consume or buy animal products and they don’t behave like carnists most of the time, is not the end of the world if they have not entirely eliminated all carnism from their behaviour.
But once you have become vegan, your journey hasn’t ended. We still need you. If we want to get a vegan world, it would not be enough to make everyone vegan. We would have to change the infrastructure, the vocabulary, the language usage, the commerce rules, the governing institutions, politics, legislation, and everything else so to ensure that carnism doesn’t return. Therefore, your contributing role as a vegan should include trying to eliminate any carnist residual from your life, no matter how harmless it may look now.
Having grown up in a carnist world, we are all carnists, at least in part. Only if we recognised carnism when we see it, we will be able to neutralise its power. The vegan world could finally flourish only when carnism is safely buried in our individual and collective conscience under tons of compassion and respect for others.
Let’s begin building it from the inside out.