Melanie Joy, Carnism Awareness Action Network (CAAN)



Part I: Melanie Joy

Melanie Joy, Ph.D., Ed.M. is the founder and president of Carnism Awareness & Action Network (CAAN). Dr. Joy is a Harvard-educated psychologist, professor of psychology and sociology at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, celebrated speaker, and the author of the award-winning primer on carnism Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows. She has written a number of articles on psychology, animal protection, and social justice and she has been featured on programs including the BBC, National Public Radio, PBS, ABC Australia, and Good Morning Croatia, and in Slovenia’s Jana, the Austrian Der Standard and the Italian Le Scienze. Dr. Joy has given her critically acclaimed carnism presentation across the United States as well as internationally. Dr. Joy is also the author of Strategic Action for Animals.


Hello everybody! It’s time for It’s All About Food. I am Caryn Hartglass, the founder of the nonprofit Responsible Eating and Living (REAL). I wanted to tell you that October is the time for our REAL Appeal at Responsible Eating and Living. We are a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization. If you know about us, you’ve been to our Web site You can find out lots of information about REAL eating and living, responsible eating and living. Visit our Donate Button there. You can read our REAL Appeal, find out what we’re up to, and if you are so moved you can support us because we only do what we do with help from people like you. OK, that’s the REAL Appeal,


Let’s move on. I want to talk to my first guest, Melanie Joy. She’s the founder and president of Carnism Awareness and Action Network (CAAN). Dr. Joy is a Harvard-educated psychologist, professor of psychology and sociology at the University of Massachusetts in Boston, celebrated speaker, and the author of the award-winning primer on carnism: Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows. She has written a number of articles on psychology, animal protection, and social justice. She has been featured on programs including the BBC, National Public Radio, PBS, ABC Australia, and Good Morning Croatia, and in Slovenia’s Jana, the Austrian Der Standard, and the Italian Le Scienze. Dr. Joy has given her critically acclaimed carnism presentation across the United States as well as internationally. She’s also the author of Strategic Action for Animals.


(Caryn) Welcome to It’s All About Food!

(Melanie) Hi! Thank you so much for having me.

(Caryn) Yeah, this is going to be a fun half-hour talking about carnism.

(Melanie) Well, I always enjoy talking about carnism. I suppose I should explain just what carnism is before we start talking about it.

(Caryn) Please do.

(Melanie) The way I like to explain what carnism is, is by using an example. If you could just imagine that you are a guest at a dinner table at a dinner party and your host has just served you a delicious beef stew and, in fact, you find that the stew is so delicious that you ask the host for her recipe. She replies that the secret is in the meat: you need to start out with three pounds of extra lean Golden Retriever.

(Caryn) Boi-oi-oi-oi-oing…

(Melanie) Most people’s, at least in this culture, response is an example of carnism. Carnism is the invisible belief system or ideology that conditions us to eat certain animals. It’s essentially the opposite of veganism. We tend to believe that it’s only vegans and vegetarians who bring their beliefs to the dinner table but most of us don’t learn to eat pigs but not dogs, for example, because we don’t have a belief system when it comes to eating animals. Really, when eating animals is not a necessity for survival, which is the case in much of the world today, then it’s a choice and choices always stem from beliefs.

(Caryn) It’s interesting. I’m sure when you describe that scenario of people around the table…you have this fantastic video that people can see right on your Web site,, that little trailer introducing your book and that scenario you just described and the reaction for most people is nausea when they think about eating something that they’re not used to eating. It’s fascinating to me because if you go around the world, there are people that eat dogs. There are people that eat bugs. There are people that eat all kinds of things. It doesn’t make it a good, but people do it and they’re somehow trained to do so.

(Melanie) Yes. That’s absolutely right. The response is one of disgust. And not only do we see different disgust responses, or I should say responses of disgust, to different types of foods around the world but we can also experience this ourselves. For instance, most people today who are vegan and who do find the flesh of all animals disgusting quite likely did not feel that way when they were growing up. Most people who become vegan become vegan after they’ve made a conscious choice to stop eating animals. It’s really striking because in meat-eating cultures around the world, people tend to have a tiny handful of animals out of thousands of possible species that they’ve learned to classify as edible. All the rest we learn to classify as inedible and often we find them disgusting and even offensive to consume. So even though the type of species consumed changes from culture to culture, all cultures tend to have this disgust response. As you mentioned, what happens is we essentially learn how—you alluded to this somehow—we learn how not to be disgusted. I would suggest in my research on the psychology of eating animals—strongly suggest, as well as other people reassert—that we really do have a natural empathy for animals. Most people truly do not want to cause animals to suffer, let alone participating in that suffering. Most people do not feel comfortable with the idea of harming animals. And yet, most of us grow up learning to eat animals, often multiple times a day. So our natural empathic response becomes blocked by this invisible belief system that essentially guides our food choices like an invisible hand shaping the very way that we think or don’t think and feel or don’t feel about eating animals. Carnism is structured in such a way to block our awareness and shut down our empathy when it comes to those animals who we have learned to classify as edible, as food.

(Caryn) I don’t know if it’s because of carnism, because of people’s acceptance of eating animals, or something bigger, but most people don’t know what’s in their food. Occasionally we have these different sensational things that come out in the media. The most recent that comes to mind is the Pink Slime where they’re using what they call this lean beef where they’re taking off the fat with ammonium hydroxide and putting it back into meat just to extend it so that they can make more of it for less. People seemed really repulsed by this and yet there are so many different products that are manufactured and made with all kinds of things that we shouldn’t be consuming and most people accept this and don’t think about it.

(Melanie) What’s really interesting is that ideologies such as carnism…you know, carnism is arguably a system of oppression. It’s truly organized around violence. Meat cannot be procured without killing. We’re talking about ten billion animals per year—land animals alone, in the United States alone—are slaughtered in a way that would make even the most stoic of us cringe were we to witness this—for their flesh and other body parts. Ideologies such as carnism that rely on violence that are organized around violence and oppressing one group for the benefit of another need to use a set of social and psychological defense mechanisms so that humane people can participate in inhumane practices without fully realizing what they’re doing. These defense mechanisms are institutionalized. They are woven through the very structure of society and they also become internalized. You can see a myriad of examples of the ways in which we learn to psychologically distance ourselves from our food when it comes to eating animals and the products procured from their bodies. We look at a packaged piece of hamburger, for instance, and we don’t see somebody, we see something. We are just distanced. We use…the language that we use to describe our food. You know, we don’t call it cow flesh, we call it beef. So there are a host of different ways that we disconnect and sometimes what happens is that these defenses are pierced by something. Something makes it onto the news, some sort of an abuse that becomes recognized in a CAFO or a factory farm and it makes the 11:00 news. Then people start to feel uncomfortable about what they’re eating. Pink Slime is another example. Something pierces that veil of denial or disconnect or one of the defenses that we’ve learned to erect.

(Caryn) And then a handful of people get it.

(Melanie) Well, you know, it’s interesting. I can say that I personally grew up eating animals for much of my life, like most of us. I know that for me personally, I was exposed. Most people who become vegan at some point in time have been exposed to information. The information is out there; it’s all around us. And, also, we need to be exposed various times in a variety of ways before we actually are ready to make that connection.

(Caryn) Absolutely.

(Melanie) And most people do care about animals. Most people are fundamentally humanitarian in their values.

(Caryn) Yeah, that’s so true.

(Melanie) People do not make that connection, or as you would say, “get,” it—the connection between the flesh on their plate and the living being it once was. That connection between slaughtering somebody, taking the life of somebody—a life, you know, taking somebody’s life, a life that mattered to them—simply because we like the way their thighs taste. Most of us don’t make that connection until we’re in a position in our lives psychologically and socially and practically. In order to make the changes that will inevitably follow, we need to be in a position where we really feel secure enough to do that.

(Caryn) There’s a lot of reactions that people make—something that I don’t like to do is read comments on articles that are online. The New York Times puts up an article or some other prominent newspaper and there’s a lot of conversation about veganism, vegan diets, celebrities that are vegans, whether it’s better to be one or the other—and then you read the comments. There are some that are so angry. Vegans can be called close-minded. Vegans can be called fanatics, all different kinds of things. I actually think the people that are using these words are what they are calling other people.

(Melanie) One way that oppressive systems that dominate institutionalized ideologies, such as carnism, maintain themselves is by pathologizing those who challenge the oppressive status quo. There’s a lot of projection involved. I’ve met people who are staunchly committed to maintain…they’re meat loyalists to a degree that’s quite surprising in some ways and they’re quite resistant to taking in some of this information. As you point out, often this experience is turned around and projected onto vegans. But this is the way that…and this is not true for everybody. Many people, especially today, are becoming very open to this issue and really do want to learn about the impact of their choices on themselves and their world. One of the ways that we shut down critical dialogue that challenges the oppressive status quo is by pathologizing those who challenge it. Malcolm X is a good example. He was called biased and extremist when he challenged the biases and extreme practices of the dominant racist culture. We see similar phenomena happening with vegans today. If we shoot the messenger, we don’t have to take seriously the implications of his or her message.

(Caryn) I’m one of the believers that racism, homophobism, sexism, speciesism—all of these forms of exploitation are really the same thing. I’m a big picture kind of person but many people tend to want to focus on one small piece. For some reason they can’t move entirely over so some people will be gay rights proponents or they’ll be working towards…people of color, supporting minority rights, or something and they seem somewhat offended when you want to give animals rights.

(Melanie) Well, yeah. There are various reasons for that. I think there’s a difference between where you focus your energy and your work and what kind of a consciousness you uphold while you’re doing that work. I mean, we only have so much time and energy and we can’t be working equally hard for every single cause out there, obviously.

(Caryn) Oh, do I need to learn that one.

(Melanie) But we can bring with us a consciousness of liberation and a consciousness of liberation is the opposite of a consciousness of oppression. When we’re striving to transform any form of oppression, it’s so important to keep in mind what Martin Luther King said, which is, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” What that means is that it’s vital—and this is part of our mission at CAAN (Carnism Awareness and Action Network)—that we look at the ways in which all oppressions are interconnected and reinforcing. Otherwise we’ll simply trade one form of oppression for another. And it’s important also, I think, to recognize that when we compare oppressions, there can be a lot of defensiveness around this as you pointed out. People don’t want to be compared to animals, for instance, just as some proponents of feminism a number of years ago didn’t want to be compared to people of color. This just reflects the various ways in which we all can compartmentalize. We’re constantly working to have a broader analysis or, in my opinion, we should be constantly working to have a broader analysis. And we all have blind spots when we’re born into carnism, a system that is so deeply entrenched—this sub-ideology of speciesism where we learn to value the human species morally and place ourselves so far above those members of all other species. Then we find it offensive to be compared to somebody who is not human, which is simply a reflection of our own internalized oppressive view of the world that we’ve inherited. When we’re talking about the interlocking oppressions, one way to get around this understandable defensiveness—because many people have it for many different reasons in many different areas…it’s important to point out that the experience of each set of victims will always be somewhat unique. We’re not saying that anybody’s suffering is identical to anybody else’s suffering. But what is vital for us to recognize is that the ideologies or the systems themselves are structurally similar and that’s because the mentality that enables these ideologies is the same: the mentality of domination and subjugation; the mentality of privilege and oppression. It’s a “might makes right” mentality. Ultimately, I believe that if we seek to cultivate a truly just and humane world then it’s essential that we incorporate all oppressive “isms” into our analysis, including carnism, because eating animals is not simply a matter of personal ethics it is the inevitable end result of a deeply entrenched oppressive-ism. Eating animals is really a social justice issue.

(Caryn) You came out with your book a couple of years ago. I can’t believe it’s been that long already. A lot’s happened since then. So the response was really pretty tremendous, wasn’t it?

(Melanie) It has been. I’m on the second year of a speaking tour now, a national speaking tour, that was sponsored by Farm Sanctuary, the nation’s leading farmed-animal protection organization, that’s now really expanded into an international speaking tour. I’ve traveled around giving my presentation on carnism to mixed groups, largely non-vegan audiences, and the response has been just overwhelmingly positive everywhere I’ve been, including fairly rural Croatia. I find this to be testament to the fact that the time is right to have this kind of conversation. People really do care. I almost never meet a person who doesn’t cringe when faced with the images of animal suffering and I almost never meet a person who doesn’t truly want to live a life that reflects their core values, their authentic thoughts, not the kind of thoughts and values and feelings that they’ve been conditioned to have. Most people want to make choices that are in their own best interest and in the interest of others and carnism socializes us to act against our own best interests and the interests of others. So it’s tremendously empowering for people to really recognize the truth—not simply about animal agriculture but about carnism, the system that has conditioned and shaped our preferences and thoughts and feelings since we were old enough to be weaned.

(Caryn) Have you spoken enough to have formed an impression…is it any different outside of the United States the reaction to this concept? I know like in Europe, for example, they seem to be a little bit more progressive when it comes to their food system. There are plenty of flaws but they’re more against genetically modified food and trying to keep things local and there are some things they make more of an effort to protect.

(Melanie) Well, I do speak to a lot of progressive audiences in the United States too, so I think it’s a little bit difficult to compare entire countries because within these countries the groups that I’m speaking to are largely more progressive-minded groups anyway. One of the things that I find, that I’ve really been working to address a bit more fully, is what many progressives—self-identified progressives—would consider a sustainable way of eating or eating so-called “humane” animal products. And that’s something that is discussed in Europe but it’s also discussed in the United States quite a bit. In general, the reaction is quite similar everywhere that I’ve spoken so far. But I think it’s very important to point out when we’re talking (that) most people do start considering eating animal products that come from what we call sustainable farms or “humane production”—I don’t want to say “humane factory farms” but they’re humanely produced. And I think it’s really important to really have this conversation within the context of carnism because once we step outside of the system, we can analyze and examine these practices, I think, a bit more objectively. So, for instance, most people—in the United States anyway and in much of the world—would not condone killing a perfectly healthy six-month-old Golden Retriever simply because her legs taste good. And yet most people who support so-called “humane” meat or “sustainable” meat, do in fact participate in exactly the same practice. It’s just that it happens to be directed towards somebody of a different species. I think it’s really important to acknowledge that carnism influences and conditions the way that we view and relate to other beings and the consumption of their bodies in very deep ways. Even though we may change the way that we understand our food, or change the way that some animals were raised, it doesn’t necessarily change the fact that somebody is being created for the sole purpose of being killed for the sole purpose of pleasing the palette of someone who doesn’t actually need to be eating their body.

(Caryn) Have you come up with variations of the word in different languages?

(Melanie) Well, there are…people are writing and presenting about carnism in Europe right now, which is wonderful. I don’t remember how to pronounce it in Slovenian. The book is in Croatian and it’s in Slovenian. I don’t remember how to pronounce it there. It’s “karnism” with a “k” in Germany. “Carnisme” with an “e” in France and in French. But, yes, there are a number of different ways of writing and pronouncing it.

(Caryn) Well, I definitely support adding words to our vocabulary. We know that we evolve so much more when we have more words to explain more things. We’ve seen this in times when dictators or people that try to control a community…one of the things that they might do is take away their books, take away some of their language, because that helps to (What’s the word I’m looking for? It’s not a good thing)…And so, it’s good to have more language to describe different things. Carnism is a good one. It’s a great Scrabble word except that it’s probably not accepted yet on the online version.

(Melanie) I hadn’t thought about that when I coined the word but that is a point. I’d like to see it as a Scrabble word one day. And you’re absolutely right: our words shape our reality—our perception of reality. By not naming carnism, we don’t see it and when we don’t see it, we can’t question it, we can’t challenge it, we grow up believing that eating animals is a given rather than a choice.

(Caryn) Yeah. Now let’s talk about what you’re doing with your Carnism Awareness and Action Network. You’re developing task forces; you have some ambitious plans. What’s going on?

(Melanie) Well, our goal—really our mission—is to raise awareness of and challenge carnism and CAAN acts as a hub of international carnism awareness activity. We have a few things that we’re focusing on right now that we’re very excited about. We are the first organization, the only organization to my knowledge, to focus on direct institutional change and not only individual outreach. Our infrastructure is constructed to systematically and strategically target institutionalized oppression, institutionalized carnism, which is challenging the institutions that validate animal agriculture. Animal agriculture is one institution but that institution would not exist if not for all the other social institutions that enabled it. So to this end, we’ve been developing carnism awareness task forces, which are groups of professionals and those going into the professions working together to raise awareness of and challenge carnism within their fields. In such a way we’re working to transform the system from within and not simply from the outside.

(Caryn) So, what are some of the examples? Like universities? Because there are a lot of universities that do research to support animal agriculture.

(Melanie) Well, yes. We have…educators would be an example. University students would be an example of working within education. We have our Mental Health Professionals Task Force, which, for instance, challenges carnistic bias in the institution, in the profession. For example, it’s still not terribly uncommon today for a young woman’s choice to become vegan to be considered symptomatic of potential eating disorders—so to challenge carnistic bias in research, develop new research, looking at post-traumatic stress as people experience this. For instance, we’ve had a number of people contact us and myself over the years who have been either raised around animals being killed, activists who are seriously traumatized from witnessing the violence of carnism and animal agriculture…so our task forces are working on examining the impact of this particular type of carnism-induced trauma on people and writing about that. So really raising awareness, giving presentations, cultivating new research, and challenging current research within the institutions is what our task forces are going to be doing.

(Caryn) There are just so many things that are connected not just to eating animals but to exploitation of animals. It’s that block. You know, I was just reading a book…a friend of mine wrote a book about a dog she used to have and how important that little dog was to her life and how much she learned. But throughout the book she talks about how she mistreated the dog and in hindsight she realizes this. But people that really love their animals will do things to them and not realize that they’re cruel.

(Melanie) Right. And people who love people will do things to them and not realize that they’re cruel.

(Caryn) Exactly. Why do we do those things? You’re the psychologist.

(Melanie) We do the best we can. A lot of this is about really our relationship with other animals (that) is not terribly different than our relationship with other humans in that it reflects our current state of mind, our current state of consciousness, our own self-awareness, our own commitment to being empathic and connected. And these qualities, the very qualities that we need to cultivate to be our best selves in our relationships with other humans are the same qualities that will help us to treat other animals with compassion. We can approach our lives and the world with: curiosity and open minds and compassion and open hearts, the courage to practice these convictions, a commitment to practice integrity, which is really living our values. Or we can move through the world in a very different way, which is a mindset of disconnection and self-focus—and not-in-a-good-way self-focus altering those around us. And that second way of moving through the world is really the foundation of prejudice. The same psychology, the same psychological mechanisms that enable us to harm other humans enable us to harm other animals. Compassion begets compassion.

(Caryn) I believe that a piece of our problem—a significant piece—is what we see and hear in the media, in the mainstream media. Was there a response to your concept of carnism in the mainstream world—positive or negative?

(Melanie) There has…most of the interviews that I’ve done have been in progressive circles. I have had…in general there has been quite a positive response. I mean, there has been some defensiveness and I would be lying if I didn’t say that. But overall the response has been largely positive. I find…and this is also just in my day-to-day life when I’m on an airplane and sitting next to someone and they’re asking where I’m going. It’s the same thing. Most people I find when they hear the title of my book, Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows, that opens up a conversation. Most people are genuinely curious because we have that—most of us who grew up in carnistic culture have that—knowing without knowing. On one level we’re aware that somebody has to die for our plate whenever we eat animals or the products procured from their bodies, and on another level we just don’t connect the dots. And there’s this cognitive moral dissonance, this disconnect, this moral discomfort that most of us carry around, and a curiosity around that. So I find that people do…if you can have these conversations in ways that are not attacking or blaming, and approach the situation with curiosity and compassion, then you can have really wonderful, rich, productive conversations.

(Caryn) We have just like thirty seconds left. What shall we tell everyone? Go to Read Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows? What else?

(Melanie) At Carnism Awareness and Action Network, our goal is not to simply change people, our goal is to raise awareness so that people can make their choices freely because without awareness there is no free choice. We exist to support people who are still eating animals and to support people who are vegan activists and advocates to help them feel more grounded in their choices and more empowered in their lives and have more sustainable lives as individuals and as activists. So we really want to be a resource for everybody who wants to learn more and become a part of the solution to carnism.

(Caryn) I like it. Thank you so much Melanie Joy for joining me today on It’s All About Food!

(Melanie) Thank you! It’s been my pleasure.

(Caryn) OK. I’m Caryn Hartglass and this is the first part of our program. We’re going to take a break and we’ll be right back.


Transcribed by Jennie Steinhagen, 01/23/2013

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