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Uneasy Witness

Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows

Melanie Joy
Conari Press, 2009

Americans love animals. We surround ourselves with dogs and cats as our companions and take our children to petting zoos. As kids, we read books like Charlotte’s Web over and over, many of us aspiring to grow up and become veterinarians. Yet we also eat hamburgers and hotdogs for lunch and dinner. So what makes some animals dinner and others not? Is it merely that dogs and cats make great companions and we eat cows, pigs and chickens because they seem dirty and stupid?

In her thought-provoking book Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows, Dr. Melanie Joy, professor of sociology at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, seeks to answer this question. She argues that there’s a disconnect between our love of animals and our meat-laden diet of steak, pork chops and chicken nuggets. While people view vegans and vegetarians as those who conscientiously choose to forgo meat for health or ethical reasons, meat-eaters are not thought of in the same way. Since the majority of people do so, eating meat is seen as normal, needing no explanation. Yet Joy argues that eating meat is just as much a choice — we just don’t see it as one. “Carnism” is the term she coined to explain the ideology of those who eat meat:

Carnism is the belief system in which eating certain animals is considered ethical and appropriate. Carnists – people who eat meat – are not the same as carnivores. Carnivores are animals that are dependent on meat to survive … Carnists eat meat not because they need to, but because they choose to, and choices always stem from beliefs. Carnism’s invisibility accounts for why choices appear not to be choices at all.

With her identification of the term “carnism,” Joy strives to connect eating meat to other ideologies and doctrines, such as feminism. While I feel she accurately identifies the ideology, I’m ultimately reticent to call people who eat meat “carnists” as I never would want someone to label me. I chose to call myself a vegan; that epithet was not bestowed upon me by somebody else! But Joy still poses a groundbreaking way to view eating.

Joy discusses how the invisibility of our food system perpetrates “carnism.” So where does our food come from? We envision barns and red silos with cows in the pasture and chickens pecking. But the nightmarish reality differs drastically: our farming has become industrialized and mechanized. As Joy reports, ten billion animals are “raised, transported and slaughtered” each year. Corporations control farming, with animals overcrowded in filthy warehouses. While inspectors do investigate food production, Joy reveals that farms rely on their own corporate inspectors rather than federal workers. Factory farms seek secrecy, rarely allowing people to tour their plants, as authors Michael Pollan and Jonathan Safran Foer discuss in their books on the food industry. What information we have is due to undercover investigations from organizations like PETA and Mercy for Animals. Joy states:

The primary defense of the system is invisibility; invisibility reflects the defenses avoidance and denial and is the foundation on which all other mechanisms stand. Invisibility enables us, for example, to consume beef without envisioning the animal we’re eating; it cloaks our thoughts from ourselves. Invisibility also keeps us safely insulated from the unpleasant process of raising and killing animals for our food. The first step in deconstructing meat, then, is deconstructing the invisibility of the system, exposing the principles and practices of a system that has since its inception been in hiding.

In addition to being subjected to horrific living (and dying) conditions, Joy contends that animals are objectified through many ways, particularly through language, such as the way we classify meat: prime rib, filet mignon, pork instead of pig, beef instead of cow. Policies and laws also mandate that animals are viewed as property rather than living creatures. For example, if you commit animal abuse, the law (depending on your state) usually dictates that you’ve committed a crime analogous to the destruction of property. Joy writes, “By viewing animals as objects, we can treat their bodies accordingly, without the moral discomfort we might otherwise feel.” We don’t view animals as possessing individual personalities but rather as an “abstraction as a group.” But it’s common for a person to have an aversion to eating an animal that they have gotten to know. Joy shares how women in Ecuador bond with their chickens much in the same way Americans bond with their dogs. When we feel disgusted at the thought of eating dogs, we employ emotion rather than logic. Joy explains, “Typically, the more empathy we feel for an animal, the more immoral – and thus disgusted – we feel eating him or her.” But of course people are not rational; we respond to emotions and stories, not stats.

Joy states that slaughtered animals are not the only victims; people suffer from factory farming too. Those who live near farms deal with noxious fumes and toxic pollution from the abundance of animal waste. Farms are a breeding ground for diseases such as E. coli. So we as consumers risk our health for meat consumption. Incorporating psychology, Joy reveals how factory workers contend not only with unhygienic and unsafe work environments, including the risk of fractures and amputations, they also become desensitized to slaughter, often enduring depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Joy writes:

Not surprisingly, meatpacking is the single most dangerous factory job in the United States, and it is also the most violent. For instance, workers must wear hockey masks to prevent their teeth from getting kicked out by conscious animals being dragged along a conveyor belt…In fact, in 2005, for the first time ever, Human Rights Watch issued a report criticizing a single U.S. industry – the meat industry – for working conditions so appalling they violate basic human rights.

While invisibility is a factor in eating meat, rationalization is another. According to Joy, we rationalize many illogical things just to keep perpetuating the system of “carnism.” Joy calls these the “three N’s of justification: normal, natural, and necessary.” People commonly use the time/tradition argument to legitimize eating meat, yet Joy notes,

It is true that we have been eating meat as part of an omnivorous diet for at least two million years (though for the majority of this time our diet was still vegetarian). But to be fair, we must acknowledge that infanticide, murder, rape and cannibalism are at least as old as meat eating, and are therefore arguably as “natural” – and yet we don’t invoke the history of these acts as justification for them. As with other acts of violence, when it comes to eating meat, we must differentiate between natural and justifiable.

Joy argues that eating animals merely feels “natural” because we’ve been indoctrinated to think it is. She goes on to point out the pervasiveness of ideologies, how Africans were “naturally” used as slaves, Jews were “naturally” evil, and women were “naturally” subordinate to the men who denied them rights such as voting. Now I’m sure many people will read this and declare that of course eating meat is natural. Employing the term “natural,” and refuting that something is remains a tricky thing to try. Joy argues that we do not need meat in order to survive, hence humans are not true carnivores. But there is a difference between “natural” and “ethical.” For example, it may be natural for women to give birth but that doesn’t mean we must; we choose to procreate or not. With all of her examples, one could argue that all of those reprehensible acts are indeed natural to human behavior, but acting on those impulses wouldn’t be ethical. Joy’s argument would be far more effective if she made this vital distinction.

Part of our rationalization is telling ourselves that it’s okay to eat farm animals because they’re dumb (chickens), dirty (pigs) or ugly (turkeys). Joy discusses the emotional lives of animals. She shares the intelligence and sociability of chickens; how cows are communicative and social creatures who “nurture ongoing friendships” when not on a factory farm. But if we acknowledged these qualities, killing and eating the beings who possess them would be that much harder. Joy writes:

The question of sentience – the ability to feel pleasure and pain – has been at the center of arguments surrounding both human and animal welfare. Historically, members of vulnerable groups have been believed to have a higher tolerance for pain, an assumption often invoked to justify suffering. For instance, fifteenth century scientists would nail dogs to boards by their paws in order to cut them open and experiment on them while fully conscious, and they dismissed the dogs’ howling as simply a mechanical response…Similarly, until the early 1980s, American doctors performed major surgery on infants without using painkillers or any anesthetic; the babies’ cries were explained as mere instinctive reactions. And because African slaves were thought to feel less pain than whites, it was easier to justify the brutal experience of slavery. Because the experience of pain is subjective, it is easy to argue against the suffering of another. In other words, since we aren’t inside another’s body, we can only assume what he or she may be feeling…Our assumptions stem from our beliefs, and the very belief systems that enable us to inflict suffering on others actively work to keep themselves alive.

But most people don’t want to hurt animals or want them to suffer. People possess the capacity for an enormous amount of compassion. In an interview I conducted with Joy, she told me that she purposely began the title of her book with dogs to highlight that empathy. The entire factory farming industry is an affront to people’s compassionate nature.

Joy sets out to debunk the commonly held belief that eating meat is a necessity so we can get the healthy amount of protein. People often assume that meat is the best source of protein. Therefore, if you don’t eat meat, you must not get enough protein. But as Joy points out, protein can be found in many other sources besides animal products, foods such as beans, tofu, soy, whole grains and nuts. Vegan athletes like Ironman triathlete Brendan Brazier or bodybuilder Robert Cheeke show that with planning, you can be healthy on a meat-free diet. But Joy rightly makes the distinction that while here in the U.S. we have abundant access to the variety of foods needed to have a balanced diet without meat, certain other cultures may not. Joy also claims that it’s a myth that we need to eat meat so as not to be overrun by animals. Joy writes, “Of course, if we stopped eating meat, we’d stop producing the animals that become our meat in the first place, so we’d be safe from being overwhelmed by a burgeoning population of farmed animals.” Joy claims that “these justifications do more than just direct our actions. They alleviate the moral discomfort we might otherwise feel when eating meat.”

The anthropologist in me is always thinking about situations within their social context. So I was glad that Joy addresses food norms in different cultures. She provides examples of Nambikwara Indians in Brazil not eating domesticated animals, Americans not eating horses (as they do in France) or cockroaches (as they do in some parts of Asia) or pigeons (which are eaten in Egypt):

…While in some instances there may be a logical reason for a cultural taboo against consuming a particular type of animal, research suggests that more often, the opposite is true: cultures use explanations…as a way to rationalize their irrational choices of which animals to eat. In myriad cultures, many species of “edible” animals are perceived as inedible, which strongly suggests that cultural prejudice, rather than logic, determines which animals become classified as food…Emotion trumps reason.

But Joy doesn’t delve deeply into analyzing other cultures. It would have been particularly interesting if she had discussed the culture of India, as there are an enormous amount of vegetarians living there, or religious sects who abstain from eating meat such as Jains or strict Buddhists. Also, incorporation of research from anthropologist Marvin Harris’ book Cows, Pigs, Wars and Witches, in which he argues that food taboos are tied to economic conditions, would have bolstered her argument. I would have loved if she had taken the wonderful anecdotes and taken them a step further. Joy also questions Western society’s very notion of free will; that we choose our own paths, forge our lives, which is the crux of the American spirit. Joy ponders how much do we actually choose and how much has already been decided for us? She challenges:

Of course, nobody’s putting a gun to our heads when we eat meat, but they don’t have to. From the moment we were weaned, we were eating animals. Did you freely choose to eat your Gerber Turkey and Rice Dinner? How about when you were a child, eating your McDonald’s Happy Meal? And did you question your parents and teachers and doctors when they told you meat made you strong?…Carnism blocks interruptions in consciousness. It is impossible to exercise free will as long as we are operating from within the system. Free will requires consciousness, and our pervasive and deep-seated patterns of thought are unconscious; they are outside of our awareness and therefore outside of our control…We must step outside the system to find our lost empathy and make choices that reflect what we truly feel and believe, rather than what we’ve been taught to feel and believe.

Yet her argument would have been be stronger if she acknowledged that as an American, she herself is a product of the very mentality of choice and personal agency, in which her arguments rest on. Interestingly, Joy does not blame people but rather the system of “carnism” itself. Joy writes:

Under carnism, for instance, democracy has become defined as having the freedom to choose among products that sicken our bodies and pollute our planet, rather than the freedom to eat our food and breathe our air without the risk of being poisoned. But violent ideologies are inherently undemocratic, as they rely on deception, secrecy, concentrated power, and coercion – all practices that are incompatible with a free society.

I agree that the way we as a society envision eating and animals is contradictory and insidious. Yet it seems incongruous to blame the system and simultaneously hold people accountable to awaken their consciences and exercise their free will. Also, Joy doesn’t address those enlightened epicureans who are knowledgeable to the truths of factory farming and animal suffering yet continue to eat meat. It may seem to those of us who are vegan or vegetarian that our choices are a logical conclusion of empathy and awareness. However, there are many empathetic people in the world who do not choose a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle. And there are vegans/vegetarians who forgo meat for health reasons, rather than from any moral impetus. One does not necessarily preclude the other.

One of the sections of the book that moved me the most was Joy’s discussion of the importance of empathy, of “bearing witness.” Demonstrations, lectures and activism are all forms of witnessing. Besides being an inhibitor to recognizing animal cruelty, lack of empathy can also be an inhibitor to connection. At the recent screening for the documentary FRESH, a film about sustainable farmers, the film’s director spoke about how her generation and younger feel disconnected from each other and life. Joy promotes the same sentiment: we are disconnected, which blocks our self-awareness and our empathy, not only for animals but for humans as well. Joy proposes:

…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. The goal of all justice movements is to activate collective witnessing so that social practices reflect social values…Witnessing compels us to view ourselves as strands in the web of life, rather than as standing at the apex of the so-called food chain. Witnessing challenges our sense of human superiority; it forces us to acknowledge our interconnectedness with the rest of the natural world, an interconnectedness our species has made every effort to deny for thousands of years.

Joy’s controversial book walks the line between academic research and conversational tone. Why We Love Dogs will appeal to those entrenched in the vegan/vegetarian lifestyle and animal rights activism as well as people curious about the ideology of eating. I reviewed Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals several months ago. It was incredibly thorough and detailed, making a significant contribution to vegetarian discourse, yet I felt that Foer’s strident tone might alienate meat-eaters. Joy’s book while passionate is not incendiary. It’s refreshing in that it attempts to speak to everyone: meat-eaters, vegetarians and vegans.

A fantastic overview on eating meat and the food industry, Joy’s book points to a new paradigm of eating. But there are a few missteps. Joy uses the film The Matrix to illustrate how people aren’t aware of the truths of factory farming, how there’s an alternate reality beyond what we immediately see. While I appreciate the analogy, it feels awkwardly out of place, especially since there’s a satire called ‘The Meatrix,’ an animated film criticizing factory farming, that goes unmentioned in the book. Also, Joy tends to repeat terminology. In a class, I appreciate having concepts repeated as it makes it easier to remember them. As a professor, it would make sense if that’s what she’s doing here. Yet in print, it feels wildly redundant. As someone who shares Joy’s vegan ideology, I understand and applaud her message. And she covers a great deal of territory. However, if she had delved further into her explanations, her arguments would be even stronger. Nonetheless, they remain a valuable addition to the discourse on eating and the food industry.

Joy spurs us to question our existing viewpoint. And she is ultimately hopeful, believing in human compassion. People are becoming aware of the cruelty and the unsustainability of factory farming. It is wreaking havoc on the environment, our health and our consciences. But it’s not so easy to witness. As Joy states, it’s painful to see and acknowledge suffering, whether it be human or animal. But we also can “feel powerless to change suffering of such magnitude.” We assume that we are only one person…what difference can we make? Yet we can create change with each purchase we make at the grocery store or farmer’s market and each meal we eat in a restaurant. Joy spurs readers to think differently not only about what they eat, but about how they envision the world. We already love dogs; perhaps it’s time we show our love to other animals too.

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Megan Kearns lives in Boston and works at Harvard Kennedy School’s Women and Public Policy Program.