The Carnists in Your Closet

It’s not often that someone gets up in front of a room full of people, points out their hypocrisies, and then receives a standing ovation. People don’t like their inconsistencies to be highlighted, but when it’s done right, it’s powerful.

Melanie Joy’s Tedx Talk “Beyond Carnism and Toward Rational, Authentic Food Choices” tackles the psychology of eating animals, and does it well.

Labrador steak courtesy:
Labrador steak courtesy:

Why is eating animals so prevalent? Why is it considered radical to exclude animals from your diet? How is it that we believe animals should be treated well, while simultaneously raising them for food in tortuous facilities? Why do we pet our dogs and shake our fists at people who are cruel to them, when meanwhile, we eat a pig that was just as sentient as, and even more intelligent than, our pets? Why do we root for a single animal when it escapes from a slaughter truck, but condone the mass killing on an everyday basis with our diets?

All these questions become blatantly irrational as soon as one becomes vegan. But, these same questions also cause the most frustration when it comes to talking about veganism with those who still eat animals.

puppy and pig

I had a recent conversation with a co-worker who said her best argument for eating beef but not her dog was that “a dog is a dog, and a cow is a cow.” Clearly, there is no real logic behind that argument, but it is a prevalent one. We aren’t born preferring one animal over another, so what leads people to believe that justification, and why is that idea so widespread?

The challenge we face in effective vegan outreach is getting people to realize that their perspective might not be a result of their own thinking, but rather, a result of what Joy calls a dominant (so widespread that it is normalized), violent (meat can’t be procured without violence) ideology. 

Carnism is the invisible belief system or ideology that conditions people to eat certain animals.

farm ethics

Joy’s education and studies led her to discover that eating animals is an everyday behavior that requires us to “distort our thoughts, numb our feelings, and act against our core values.” This distortion is exactly what allows people to love a dog, but justify eating a lamb, cow, chicken, or pig.

Dominant, violent ideologies thrive because of cognitive distortion. In other words, we are taught that farmed animals are not sentient, that they are a product, that they are lesser. This explains why, despite knowing her argument was a bad one, my co-worker truly believed that “a cow is (just) a cow”. To her, her dog was something greater.

When I gave up meat at the age of 15, I was perplexed by how quickly my ideas about eating animals changed. While just a few months before I had been scarfing down a steak, I now felt nauseous at the very idea of having any type of animal flesh in my mouth.

words and actions

When I eventually transitioned to veganism, I found I no longer missed the cheese that I had previously cherished so deeply—I simply did not view it as food. “I didn’t see different things, I saw the same things differently,” Joy explains. “Everywhere I turned I saw people putting the bodies of dead animals in their mouths as if nothing at all were wrong.”

So how is this behavior justified? All dominant, violent belief systems are shaped by the three main “N’s of justification.” Eating animals is supposedly:

  1. Normal
  2. Natural
  3. Necessary

Joy points out that use of the 3 N’s might sound familiar. Slavery, male dominance, and heterosexual supremacy, for example, all are justified using ‘normal, natural, and necessary.’ Kind of scary when we look at it that way, isn’t it?


Veganism depends on proper outreach, and that means making the unaware aware. To create that, we have to understand the huge obstacles that hinder otherwise rational and compassionate people from making irrational, inhumane choices.

So why does this schism happen—what causes normally kind and gentle every day people to take part in this barbaric cycle? It’s not because most humans completely lack compassion. Joy explains that carnism has been institutionalized and pressed upon all of us from birth. And, like all great awakenings, only awareness exposes the atrocities society has normalized.

Unfortunately for me, I hadn’t seen Joy’s speech before the maddening conversation with my co-worker. I was able to keep my cool while listening to her (self-admittedly) irrational argument about farmed animals being ‘different’ than companion animals, but I definitely lacked the proper tools to address the hypocrisy.


Next time it comes up, I’ll plan to shoot off a quick e-mail to her with the link to Joy’s speech along with a message: “Thought you’d find this interesting after our conversation! I’d love to hear your thoughts on it.” I wonder where my co-worker’s new awareness of carnism might lead her. Good people can be oblivious to the narrow lens through which they view the world, and it takes other good people to help them realize.


6 thoughts on “The Carnists in Your Closet

  1. Caitlin you write such great articles! It’s so interesting to hear the other side of the topic. I do eat some meat, but sparingly. I try really hard to order sofritas, tofu, falafel, etc. It’s hard because I am Mexican and I grew up eating meat. Whether, it’s posole, carnitas, or carne asada, it has always been involved with family gatherings. It’s been a part of birthdays, funerals, anniversaries, and quinceñeras. It’s deeply rooted in the Hispanic culture. I do think one day I could be able to go completely vegan, but I have to work my way up.

    In the mean time, I continue to be more conscious and enjoy reading your articles. Even though you don’t respect my views on being a sometimes meat eater, I hope you know I respect you as a friend! Xoxoxo

    1. Mels, I appreciate you reading my stuff so much! I recently read a book called Eating Animals which I loved because it addressed how giving up animal products is hard because food is such a cultural, nostalgic thing. Changing eating habits means changing our traditions and telling our stories about food differently. I totally understand that reality. It is what held me back from transitioning to veganism for awhile. I still have personal respect for every person regardless of lifestyle–especially my friends. And even more so that you read my writing despite it being directly in opposition to your everyday life; that’s something I will forever respect and appreciate.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s