Elevate Difference

Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs and Wear Cows: An Introduction to Carnism

I will say it, here and now: I eat meat. Now that I have announced that, I fear that Melanie Joy will fly through my window to tell me how the meat industry recapitulates Nazism. Okay, I don’t really. But you catch my drift: this woman is serious.

As a person with very close vegetarian friends, and who has also purchased, prepared, eaten, and enjoyed seitan, quorn, and tofu, I would say that I have a decent understanding of vegetarianism without actually practicing it. I am not convinced, however, that Joy’s book offers much that is new to the vegetarian rhetoric.

The title led me to expect a book that delved into humankind’s history with animal relationships, that would try to scratch the surface of when and why certain animals took on specific functions in our lives and others didn’t. But rather than that, this book is focused on the psychology that “allows” humans to be comfortable with meat eating. To talk about this topic, Joy has made up a word for meat-eaters: carnists. She defines carnism as “the belief system that enables us to eat some animals and not others.” Throughout the work, Joy examines how the carnist mindset and the meat industry work together to keep animals as a dinner item despite various displeasing realities connected with the practice. While doing this, Joy describes the inhumane conditions at slaughterhouses and factory farms, and the effect that the meat industry has on the Earth.

And I don’t dispute any of that. I believed it the first time I read it, in books such as Fast Food Nation and The Omnivore's Dilemma, which Joy quotes and references an obscene number of times in her 150-page book. So much of the book is gleaned from other works that it reads very much like a college thesis paper; I suspect it once was.

Despite her legitimate arguments regarding the disgusting and hidden reality of factory farms, Joy doesn’t take into account people who raise their own animals in perfectly humane conditions or who hunt legally, or people who have any number of health issues that make a vegetarian diet anywhere from impractical to dangerous. The meat debate is a huge topic that goes far beyond the dualism of carnism and vegetarianism, and Joy doesn’t come close to covering all the bases here.

As I implied before, this book also has an irritating tendency to mention Nazis a lot. While I understand the connection Joy’s trying to make on a cerebral level, something about describing meat eating—not cruel factory farm conditions or inhumane slaughterhouses, but just eating meat—as being akin to being a member or supporter of the Gestapo is just distasteful to me.

I do applaud Joy on her willingness to acknowledge the suffering of slaughterhouse workers and others whose employment in the meat industry is dangerous and taxing. Many times, when it comes to arguments against the meat industry, I feel as if workers are under attack for earning a paycheck and given no sympathy whatsoever for the dangerous work they do. This author doesn’t suggest that the fate of the human animal is less important than other animals, and I appreciate that.

Written by: Kelly Palka Gallagher, March 28th 2010

I'm really disappointed in this review. It quibbles (and nibbles) at the periphery of the book, rather than dealing with its substance head on.

All of the arguments the reviewer puts forth are red herrings. So the book mentions Nazism (laughably, only four times--the review would have us all think that Ms. Joy was ranting and raving about "Nazi" meat eaters)? So the book's title isn't to the reviewer's expectations (although I fail to see how the subtitle didn't clue the reviewer in on the book's actual subject)? So the book cites (gasp, the temerity of Ms. Joy, to cite her sources) others' work? Irritatingly, Eckhart Tolle's much-lauded A New Earth is basically an amalgamation of buddhism, continental philosophy (with a special sauce of Heidegger), and etc., but that's not the point. The point is that good--no, great--books often build their arguments by citing other sources. (I'm not saying Tolle's is great; it's not.) What separates them from mediocre books is that the works cited are marshaled in service to a larger, original idea--and that's where this review goes wrong.

The reviewer never really gets to the central argument of the book, does she? The shall we say "meat" of the book?

Nowhere, in any other book, paper, article, dissertation, or "thesis paper" (really?), does anyone propose to delineate how it is that politics and psychology and sociology intersect to create this vast system of pain and terror that inculcates us from diaper to grave, hoodwinking us into stunning submission and blindness. It's as if there's soma in the meat. Only there isn't. No Orwell necessary. The secret recipe is economic greed and the technology of obfuscation sprinkled with good old human denial (and other, more complicated psychic defenses that I'll leave for the paying guests to discover, when they read Ms. Joy's book).

And by completely ignoring that, choosing instead to gnaw the margins of Ms. Joy's work, the reviewer does cast her credibility in doubt. No, a person doesn't have to be a professional reviewer (but as a former professional reviewer, I can say it helps). But she has to actually deal with the content of the book.

@Carolyn -

/Sarcasm - I forgot that a less than glowing review - particularly one that doesn't coincide with your beliefs automatically indicates that the reviewer never actually READ the book. /end sarcasm

Please don't insult the FR by insinuating that they would post articles by reviewers who hadn't read the materials. I agree with you; this is an important book and yes, I don't agree with the reviewer, either, but you're dangerously close to reaching troll territory - thankfully you seem to have enough sense not to cross the threshold - but let's not skirt the line, shall we?

I knew she'd get shit for this review. I haven't read the book, but as a former vegetarian and current meat eater, it's piqued my interest because I don't think I undergo any "psychological gymnastics" in order to eat meat.

I'm sure there are people who don't think this is possible, but there are those of us out there who have an understanding of where our food comes from and are able to eat meat- guilt free, but that doesn't mean we don't respect the animal that died for our meal. I respect food and farmer's and cooking to such a degree that to rule out meat entirely is not something I'd reconsider at this point in my life. Perhaps in the future, who can say for sure?

That being said, I don't think there's a person with a brain or heart alive today that could possibly say a good thing about factory farming. I believe that's the real problem.

Anyhow, I'm going to read this book because once again, the FR has turned me on to something good.

In general, I think putting qualification boundaries on who writes what reviews breeds discrimination and devaluing of marginalized perspectives.

In response to the comment above (by one of the many Anons), if Carnism is about the psychology of meat-eating, then it is suitable for a meat-eater to review this book, as it is their mental processes about which the author is writing. Having a vegetarian review it would just bias it in a different way--albeit a way that might be more appealing to your and my vegetarian/vegan sensibilities.

I must take issue with this review. I have used this book in my political economy class, finding that it offers an important lens to practices of agribusiness. However, what concerns me most is the allusion to nazis, where the reviewer states that meat eaters are equated with nazis in this book. I worry when I read this in the feminist review. Today we hear the term nazi used to describe the politicians who just passed health care legislation. Yikes! This is very troubling. The term nazi is used in the book as an example of one of many ideologies used to carry out violence. Nor does it dominate the book. As a meat-eater I found the book gave me pause, and made me more reflective of my eating habits.

I've read this book and also take issue with this review. It's short-sighted and insulting to claim that the book may have been a college paper without looking up the author, who is in fact a professor who has written numerous journal articles and a previous book on similar subjects.

However, it concerns me that this sort of book might not reach an omnivore audience, as evidenced by this reviewer's (admittedly cynical) take on it. I'm all for people reviewing books outside of their expertise or lifestyle choices, but it's admittedly weird that a non-vegetarian reviewed this. But, if it didn't reach her, is it destined to be relegated to the vegans-only bookshelf?

Sorry- let me correct myself. When I said it was 208 pages, I meant 204.

I have to take issue with a lot of the things you've said here. With all due respect to your blog, this is an absurd review. First off, you say the title is misleading. But it says in the title, "An Introduction to Carnism: The Belief System that Allows Us to Eat Some Animals and Not Others". It's very clear from the start that this book is about carnism, a belief system or ideology. It seems you are criticizing the book for not being what you wanted it to be, not for what the book actually is.

Secondly, the author cites The Omnivore's Dilemma and Fast Food Nation in two chapters of seven, to point to their important research, not co-opt their ideas. Thirdly, the book is 208 pages long, not 150. Fourthly, if you go through and count-- I did, just now-- the author mentions Nazis four times in the entire book, among many other examples of insidious and violent belief systems in history. The book is about one of many of those insidious belief systems, including patriarchy, ecocide, and others, which the book cites as also using psychic numbing to mitigate. In no way, shape, or form does the author compare carnism to Naziism, or any variant of that. Rather, she writes about the dynamics that violent ideologies (and NOT just Naziism!) have in common. These are not equations, they are comparisons. No violence can be equated to any other violence, but if we do not pick out the threads (such as psychic numbing, dissociation, etc) that weave through all kinds of violent systems, we will never figure out how to undo them. As an avid feminist and anti-violence activist myself, I am relieved to see this kind of analysis, as opposed to one that singles out important issues as existing on their own, as their own islands.

In fact, the whole premise of the book is that meat-eaters are, like most of us, good and normal people who wish for non-violence, and this is why they must go through such psychological gymnastics to eat meat.

As for your claim that the book offers nothing new... actually, this is the only book that exists on the psychology of meat eating. I have been researching and participating in anti-violence movements for over a decade (both human and animal), and have not come across one single book that applies psychology to meat eating, let alone one that has named meat-eating as a belief system unto itself.

Did you actually read this book?

Here is a good video on meat: http://meat.org

"any number of health issues that make a vegetarian diet anywhere from impractical to dangerous." Such as?