The following is the transcript of Dr. Melanie Joy’s, an American social psychologist and vegan activist, talk on Beyond Carnism and Toward Rational, Authentic Food Choices at TEDxMünchen.
Listen to the MP3 Audio here: Beyond Carnism and toward Rational, Authentic Food Choices by Melanie Joy at TEDxMünchen
Every day we engage in a behavior that is completely contrary to how we would optimally function. And I’m not talking about a modern technological practice such as posting embarrassing snapshots of one’s unsuspecting partner on Facebook. I’m talking about an integral human behavior. I’m talking about a deeply intimate behavior.
Every day we engage in a behavior that requires us to distort our thoughts, numb our feelings and act against our core values, and which enables a global atrocity that can make even the most stoic of us weep in sorrow. And every day we could choose not to engage in this behavior, except we don’t realize that it’s irrational. We don’t see that it’s destructive and we don’t even know we have a choice.
How can some of the most frequent and important choices we make, appear not to be choices at all? How can the irrationality and destruction of a widespread behavior be virtually invisible? These are the questions I asked when I began my nearly two decades of research on the psychology of eating animals. And what I discovered was not at all what I had expected.
As it turns out, there’s a distinct underlying factor that both drives our behavior and prevents us from recognizing its irrationality and the destruction it causes. I identified and codified this factor and I’m here to share my findings with you. And the good news is that simply becoming aware of this factor enables us to reclaim our rationality and freedom of choice and become more active participants in creating a humane and just world.
My journey of discovery began in 1968, 25 years before I set foot in my first Harvard lecture. And nearly fifty years before I received the Ahimsa Award at the British House of Commons for my work on global non-violence. I’m 48. Thank you.
My family adopted a puppy we named Fritz. Now, Fritz was my first dog and he was also my first friend. We did everything together. We played together. We napped together. And we even vomited together once during a sickening road trip. And Fritz was also my first heartbreak when he died at the age of 13 of liver cancer. What I didn’t realize back then was that my connection with Fritz would lead to a discovery that would transform my worldview.
So I cared about Fritz and I’m not unique. Most of us care about animals. We teach our children to be kind to animals. Our hearts leap when we witness them at play. We recognize the injustice and feel outraged when they are abused. We empathize with animals. We share their fear, their joy, their sorrow. And how many of you have cared about a certain animal in your life? Just raise your hand. Now look around the room. That’s a whole lot of caring.
So to explain how my connection with my dog led me to this stage, I’d like to do a thought experiment. Imagine that you’re a guest at a dinner party and your host serves you a dish that looks like this. Consider whether you’d find this delicious or disgusting. For those who would find it delicious, imagine you find it so delicious that you ask your host for the recipe. And she replies the secret is in the meat. You use three pounds of well-seasoned — Golden Retriever.
Now take a moment to reflect on your thoughts and feelings. Chances are, what you had just thought of as food, you now think of as a dead animal. What you just felt was delicious, you now feel is disgusting. Chances are, your experience of the meat dramatically changed. Even though nothing about the meat itself actually changed.
So what changed? Well, what changed is your perception of the meat. When it comes to eating animals our perception is shaped largely, if not entirely, by our culture. In meat-eating cultures around the world, out of over 7 million animal species, people tend to classify only a handful as edible. All the rest are inedible and disgusting.
So the question is, why are we not disgusted by the select species we have learned to think of as edible? And why don’t we ever ask why? Have you ever wondered why you might eat certain animals but not others? Have you ever wondered why you haven’t wondered?
For much of my life I never wondered about my choice to eat certain animals because I never even knew I had a choice. No one had ever asked me if I believed in eating animals. Eating animals was just a given. So, I never thought about how strange it was that I could pet my dog with one hand, while I ate a pork chop with the other. A pork chop that had once been an animal who was at least as sentient and intelligent as my dog. And frankly I didn’t want to think about this contradiction; it was just easier not to.
It wasn’t until 1989 that I started asking why. I had been hospitalized after eating what would be my very last hamburger. A burger that was contaminated with the dangerous bacteria campylobacter. After being so sick I swore off meat. And then something interesting happened.
When I stopped eating animals I had a paradigm shift. In other words, I didn’t see different things, I saw the same things differently. Beef stew seemed no different than golden retriever stew. And everywhere I turned I saw people putting the bodies of dead animals into their mouth as though nothing at all were wrong. So I became very curious as to how rational caring people, like myself, could just stop thinking and feeling.
Well, two advanced degrees later, I had my answer. And this is what I discovered: There is an invisible belief system or ideology that conditions us to eat certain animals. And I named the system: Carnism. We tend to assume that only vegans and vegetarians follow a belief system. But when eating animals is not a necessity — which is the case in much of the world today — then it is a choice. And choices always stem from beliefs.
Now carnism is a dominant ideology. Meaning that it’s so widespread, its doctrine is seen as a given rather than a choice. Eating animals is just the way things are. And it is a violent ideology. Meat cannot be procured without violence. And egg and dairy production cause extensive harm to animals. Ideologies such as carnism run counter to core human values — values such as compassion, justice and authenticity. And so they need to use defense mechanisms that distort our thoughts and numb our feelings so that we act against our values without fully realizing what we are doing.