by Melanie Joy, Ph.D.
Conari Press, 2010.
“We don’t see things as they are; we see things as we are.” ~ Anais Nin
“What we consider normal is, in fact, nothing more than the beliefs and behaviors of the majority.” ~ Melanie Joy
Right on the first page 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 dog meat (which would repulse most Americans). 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 her book 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 “normal and natural” – it’s “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. One of the strategies Joy outlines as a means for people to defend their choices she calls The Cognitive Trio. These are:
- Objectification – Viewing animals as things, objectifying them – through language, legislation, media, etc. – allows us to exploit them with little or no moral discomfort.|
- Deindividualization – Viewing animals as just a member of their group – seeing them as having only characteristics of their group (a sheep is a sheep is a sheep), rather being an individual with individual wants, needs and interests – allows us to see animals in the abstract, providing distance.
- Dichotomization – Viewing animals in simple, black and white, inflexible categories (edible vs. inedible; smart vs. dumb; pet vs. pest, etc.) allows us to feel justified in our exploitation of certain species.
Joy also provides a brief overview of the treatment of farmed animals, the environmental impact, and the “collateral damage” of the impact on people of raising and eating animals; she also lets the voices of “carnists” speak for themselves in their struggle to reconcile their choices with their deepest values, through quotes and excerpts from interviews she conducted with numerous people, from slaughterhouse workers to students.
Why We Love Dogs concludes with a call to stand as a witness to the extensive suffering inherent in industrial animal agriculture. As she says, "Virtually every atrocity in the history of humankind was enabled by a populace that turned away from a reality that seemed too painful to face, while virtually every revolution for peace and justice has been made possible by a group of people who chose to bear witness and demanded that others bear witness as well." Joy also offers suggested resources for more information and for taking action.
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.
Regardless of how you feel about eating animals, 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.”
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