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Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows: An Interview with Melanie Joy, Ph.D

Melanie Joy, Ph. D., is a psychologist, professor, and author who teaches psychology and sociology at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. She has also authored numerous articles on psychology, animal advocacy, and social justice, which have been published in academic and popular journals and magazines. She has been interviewed for magazines, books, and radio on her work, including the prestigious Le Scienze, the Italian edition of Scientific American and National Public Radio.

Melanie’s groundbreaking new book, Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows, explores the invisible system that shapes our perception of the meat we eat, so that we love some animals and eat others without knowing why. Unlike the many books that explain why we shouldn't eat meat, Joy's book explains why we do eat meat – and thus how we can make more informed choices as citizens and consumers. Melanie’s book has received some amazing reviews, including a feature on Ellen DeGeneres’ site earlier this year!

While I’m not currently a vegetarian, I’ve been doing a lot of reading lately about the connection between our diet and our health, after one of my best friends passed away from colon cancer in April. I was really excited to discuss this fascinating topic with Melanie.

Shelly Rachanow: When did you first become interested in exploring our relationship with animals?

Melanie Joy: Like many Americans, I grew up with a dog who I loved like a family member. And like most Americans, I grew up eating meat, often multiple times a day. I never thought how strange it was that I could pet my dog while I ate my hamburger without recognizing the profound inconsistencies in my attitudes and behaviors toward animals. I had that “knowing without knowing” – on one level, I was aware that whenever I sat down to a meal of meat an animal had to die for my plate. Yet on another level I preferred not to know, not to connect the dots. So I lived with an internal, largely unconscious, moral discomfort; there was a gap in my consciousness when it came to eating meat. It was my experience of becoming aware of this gap, and working to close it, that led me to explore our relationship with animals and, ultimately, to write my book.

Shelly Rachanow: What do you want people to understand about carnism?

Melanie Joy: Carnism is the invisible belief system that conditions us to eat (certain) animals. This system has a profound impact on our thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and values; it’s the invisible hand that guides us when we eat meat and other animal products. Essentially, carnism teaches how not to feel; it blocks our awareness and empathy toward the animals we eat by maintaining the gap in our consciousness. For instance, consider how you might feel if you were told that the lamb stew you’d just eaten was actually kitten stew. Even though lambs, like kittens, are babies, chances are you’d be disgusted at the idea of eating baby cats while you’re not disgusted at the idea of eating baby sheep—simply because you’ve been conditioned from the moment you were weaned not to think or feel when you’re served certain kinds of meat.

Carnism is the reason humane people can participate in inhumane practices without realizing what they’re doing. The whole system is set up to keep us from thinking for ourselves; when it comes to eating animals, most of us don’t even realize we’re making a choice, following the dictates of a deeply ingrained belief system. We’ve been taught that it’s only vegetarians who bring their beliefs to the dinner table. But when eating animals isn’t a necessity (as is the case in the majority of the world today), it is a choice—and choices always stem from beliefs.

I want people to become aware of carnism—how it’s structured, the mechanisms it uses to perpetuate itself—so that they can make their choices freely. Because without awareness, there is no free choice.

Shelly Rachanow: Why did you write this book?

Melanie Joy: I wrote my book because carnism hurts all of us: animals, humans, and the environment. Meat, egg, and dairy production cause extensive, intensive, and unnecessary animal suffering; consumption of animal products is a leading cause of disease and death in the western world; and animal agribusiness is the number one cause of global environmental degradation. And carnism will continue to thrive until enough people can step outside of the system to see through their own eyes, rather than through the eyes of carnism.

I wanted to write a book that would appeal to meat eaters, a book not simply about why people shouldn’t eat meat, but why they do eat meat. I wanted a book that would invite meat eaters into the conversation rather than preach at them. I wanted people to understand the specific psychological and social defense mechanisms carnism uses to maintain itself, so that they could be less vulnerable to these defenses and more likely to become conscientious objectors to the system.

I wrote my book because people need and deserve to know the truth—not just the truth about meat production, but the truth about carnism—so they can make choices that are in the best interest of themselves, animals, and the planet.

Shelly Rachanow: Do you think it’s unnatural for people to eat meat, even though we’ve done so for centuries?

Melanie Joy: It’s true that we’ve eaten meat for centuries, but it’s also true that never in the history of humankind have we eaten anywhere near the amount or type of animal products we consume today; there’s absolutely nothing natural about contemporary meat production and consumption. And there’s an ongoing debate about whether humans are natural herbivores or omnivores.

But I think we need to examine the true meaning of this question—which I’m very glad you asked. More often than not, the question of whether it’s natural to eat animals is actually a question of whether it’s justifiable to eat them. We’ve been taught that if eating animals is “natural” then we are justified in continuing to do so. We see eating animals as something we’re “meant” to do and can therefore give ourselves permission not to reflect on the ethics of our actions. In other words, we end up viewing meat eating as a given rather than a choice.

So we need to be careful to distinguish between natural and justifiable. Consider, for instance, how murder, rape, infanticide, and cannibalism are as longstanding and therefore as “natural” as eating animals, and yet we don’t invoke the history of these acts as a justification for them. I think a more productive way of looking at the issue of eating animals is not whether we’ve eaten them historically, but whether meat consumption is necessary. And for the vast majority of us (the exception being those without the economic means to make their food choices freely), we don’t eat meat because we need to; we eat meat because we choose to.

Shelly Rachanow: What is one thing you’d like readers to take away from your book?

Melanie Joy: My hope is that readers will become aware of facts that can change their lives and help change our world. I want readers to leave my book with an awareness of a truth that had been hidden from them. Much of the power carnism has over us is due to its invisibility; unveiling carnism empowers us to step outside the system, and stepping outside the system is like waking from a dream.

Shelly Rachanow: And last, the “If Women Ran the World Blog” question for everyone: What would you do if you ran the world?

Melanie Joy: Oh, wow. That’s a tough one! I honestly wouldn’t want to run the world, so it’s a bit difficult to imagine being in that situation. But if I somehow found myself in this position, I think the first thing I’d do is surround myself with people from diverse cultures and disciplines, with diverse viewpoints and experiences. These people would be committed to their own integrity and would espouse the qualities I believe are fundamental to the kind of world I’d be proud to say I’d had a hand in shaping—qualities that are, perhaps not surprisingly, the opposite of those carnism is based on. So together we’d work to shape a global paradigm based on empathy rather than apathy, compassion rather than complacency, awareness rather than ignorance, authenticity rather than dishonesty. I’d want to help create a world that encourages all human beings to become their highest selves, a world that doesn’t need anyone to run it.

To learn more about Melanie’s work, visit her at http://www.melaniejoy.org/.


  1. Great conversation. In January, I moved to California and noticed within the first month I had stopped eating meat. I didn't call myself a vegetarian, just made the switch. I found I have eaten chicken twice and it was out of habit. I ate at a healthy chain restaurant and automatically ordered my favorite salad with chicken. It was a habit! Thanks for this great dialogue and opportunity to shift perspective.

  2. This is an EXCELLENT book and one that is way overdue. Explaining meat-eating from a social psychology view is both a scholarly and humanistic way to understand such behavior. People are always questioning why people do NOT eat meat, it's about time the focus was on why people DO. Everyone should read Dr. Joy's book.

  3. Thank you, Andrea and Rhea, for your comments. I agree this is such an important topic for people to consider and I hope people will read Dr. Joy's book.