Understanding Why America Loves Animals, But Eats Them

An interview with author Melanie Joy about why Americans can eat meat and love their pets.

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By Bonnie Erbe, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

A new book asks the question in the title, Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows, and then attempts to supply answers from a psychological perspective. Author and psychologist Melanie Joy has some pretty surprising answers to that question, one that I must admit plagues me every day. I was in a natural food grocery store just the other night, watching another female shopper garbed in a mink coat. I was tempted to go up to her and ask her if she realized she was covered in dead animals? Reason got the best of me, but Dr. Joy's book has some intelligent explanations of how we can love our dogs and eat our cows.

Dr. Joy was interviewed by To the Contrary Associate Producer Danielle Brinkley and the interview will air on my PBS program, To the Contrary with Bonnie Erbé:

MELANIE JOY, PhD:

The easiest way for me to answer that question is with an illustration. So imagine that you are at a fancy dinner party. You're sitting at a beautiful table, you're enjoying the conversation, you're drinking the fine wine, you're eating a delicious beef stew and in fact this stew is so delicious that you ask your host for the recipe, and flattered she replies, "The secret ingredient is the meat. You use three pounds of well-marinated golden retriever." Now stop for a minute and think about your thoughts and feelings upon hearing that. Chances are the meat on your plate no longer looks appetizing, but looks like a dead animal. Your reaction is an example of what I call carnism.

Producer Brinkley: Psychologist Melanie Joy coined the term carnism to explain Americans' love affair with dogs and hamburgers. She says carnism is an invisible belief system ingrained in us from birth.

MELANIE JOY, PhD:

In order to eat meat we need to disconnect psychologically and emotionally from the truth of our experience. We need to numb ourselves. Like many Americans, when I was growing up I had a dog who I loved like a family member and like most Americans I grew up eating meat, often multiple times a day and I never thought about how I could pet Corky and eat my burger and not recognize the inconsistency in attitudes and behavior towards animals, so I had this knowing without knowing.

Producer Brinkley: Dr. Joy says carnism has a lot in common with other isms, especially sexism.

MELANIE JOY, PhD:

The system itself is structurally similar to other systems that are built around exploitation, in that it uses one group, in this case its animals, in particular farmed animals to serve the interests of another group. And it uses certain defenses to prevent humane people from recognizing what they're doing when they're participating in the system...It is coercive in that it prevents the average person from being aware of what they're contributing to, what they're participating in, and prejudices they may have in the process...There's a growing body of literature looking at the connection between meat and masculinity and it's very interesting. Eco-feminists are feminists who examine the way in which patriarchy, male dominance has seen women, animals, and nature as meant to be domesticated, consumed, and owned by men.

BONNIE VO:

But Dr. Joy stresses her intention is not to lecture people on why they shouldn't eat meat and says her book is geared toward vegetarians and meat eaters alike.

MELANIE JOY, PhD:

It's about why people do eat meat...I wanted to raise awareness of people, of carnists, people who are eating meat so that they could make informed choices as citizens and consumers, because without awareness there is no free choice...I wrote the book for vegetarians because I wanted vegetarians to be able to feel more grounded and empowered in their own choices. I wanted vegetarians to be able to feel more compassion towards carnists and the carnists in their lives—to have an understanding that asking somebody to stop eating meat isn't simply asking for a change in behavior. It's asking for a shift of consciousness and people don't typically make this change until they're psychologically ready.

Producer Brinkley: Dr. Joy says carnism makes people forget the fact that eating an animal, regardless of what kind it is, may not be in line with their morals and values. She believes once recognized, Americans will be less likely to believe only certain animals are edible.

MELANIE JOY, PhD:

I do believe that when people become aware of carnism, that they will make choices that are in the best interest of themselves, other animals, and the planet. Most people care about animals. Most people do not want to cause animals to suffer. I've been teaching and speaking about meat production for two decades now and not once have I come across a person who doesn't cringe when they're exposed to images of animals in pain. People care.