Academic and animal protection activist Melanie Joy (Ph.D., Ed.M.) took time out of her busy speaking tour schedule to chat to Julia Maurus about writing, ideology and the controversy of eating horse meat.
What do you think of the idea of eating horse meat? And why do you feel that way?
Based on her experience with mainstream audiences, Dr Melanie Joy would expect your reaction to horse meat to be the same as if you were served marinated golden retriever. As an academic researching psychology and sociology, she developed a theory identifying the belief system that has conditioned us to eat certain animals and not others. It is this theory, called ‘carnism’, which she introduces in her book Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows (Conari Press, 2010), and which explains why in some cultures it is acceptable to eat horse meat and in others it is abhorrent.
In 2013, horse meat was discovered in products labelled as 100% beef and sold in Sweden, the United Kingdom and France, causing public outcry. Ultimately media coverage treated the news as an issue of food fraud rather than food safety: horse meat is not harmful to health and is eaten in many countries, but is considered a taboo food in others, including Australia and the United Kingdom (whereas pig meat is a taboo food in Muslim and Jewish communities).
Reporting on the horse meat scandal in 2013, the BBC noted that in some countries, horse meat is cheaper than other meats. However, ‘[o]n the Continent the price of horsemeat is much higher, as viande de cheval is a recognised dish in France. Horsemeat is also eaten in Italy and is consumed in vast quantities in China.’ The Japanese dish basashi is raw, sliced horse meat.
Joy points out that as the scandal unfolded, people asked, ‘How did this happen?’ and ‘How can we avoid this in the future?’
‘The one question that was never asked was, “Why are we opposed to eating horse meat in the first place?” This shows us how entrenched carnism is. In meat-eating cultures around the world people typically don’t think about why they find the flesh of some animals disgusting and the flesh of other animals appetizing, or why they eat any animals at all. Carnism conditions us not only to eat the flesh, eggs, and dairy of other animals but also to not question why we do.’
The horse meat scandal, she says, is a good opportunity to look at our relationship with animals. ‘It is a relationship that is fraught with contradictions. Aside from some physiological differences, there is no difference between horses and cows: both species have intelligence, sentience, consciousness. The real difference is not intrinsically within these creatures but in our human perceptions of them and the moral value we afford them.’
Joy grew up as an animal lover and a meat-eater (although she stopped eating fish at four years old after going on a fishing trip with her father). As a young adult she became increasingly uncomfortable about eating meat, and after getting sick from eating a contaminated hamburger she sought to learn more about meat production. This triggered a profound paradigm shift: what she once saw as food she now saw as a dead animal. She hasn’t eaten meat since.
Wanting to understand what had caused this shift of consciousness, she entered a doctoral programme in psychology and interviewed vegans, vegetarians, meat-eaters and meat-cutters. Everyone she interviewed demonstrated that, to eat or process animals, they had to numb themselves psychologically, disconnecting themselves from the reality that they were dealing with a dead animal. Joy found that humans have a natural emotional connection to animals but are culturally conditioned to suspend empathy when faced with the reality of the animal agriculture industry.
Carnism uses as a springboard concepts introduced in the 1970s by Australian philosopher Peter Singer, whose work focuses on the sentience of animals and popularised the term ‘speciesism’ (whereby meat consumption is justified based on an animal hierarchy).
Joy, who became a professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston and now runs Beyond Carnism, says that carnism is a violent ideology which sustains itself through a set of social and psychological defence mechanisms: the products of slaughter are renamed (‘pig’ becomes ‘pork’), the slaughter process is removed from and invisible to the general public, and it is normal to refer to an animal as ‘it’ rather than ‘he’ or ‘she’. Mainstream food culture propounds the belief that eating animals is normal, natural and necessary.
‘These “carnistic defences” hide the contradictions between our values and behaviours and allow us to make exceptions to what we would normally consider unethical.’
Having conceptualised this invisible belief system, the next step for Joy was to expose carnism to the widest possible audience. Even before finishing her Ph.D., Joy had written Why we love dogs…, but its form was very different from the version that went on to be picked as a top book by television host (and vegan) Ellen DeGeneres.
‘I submitted [the original version] to small niche publishers but it wasn’t the right time, it wasn’t refined, it was theoretical and needed a research grounding.’
Later, she had the idea of taking the chapters of her completed thesis and rewriting them in less academic language.
‘I researched transforming a thesis into a popular book and one of the things I became aware of was that it isn’t just a new version of a thesis, it’s really a work in and of itself. So I really started from scratch.’
Joy hired a freelance editor for guidance.
‘I wanted regular feedback and help to create structure around the writing process. It was tremendously helpful. I had structure and felt that I was less alone in the process. In my opinion, the best way to improve one’s writing is to get critical feedback.’
She didn’t take the editing process personally because, while writing her thesis, she had learned to divorce herself and her ego from her words.
‘Previously as a writer I was too attached to my words. The whole motivation for writing Why we love dogs… was to try to make the world a better place for human and non-human beings, so I was focused much less on what the book meant to me. It forced me to always think about my audience. I asked myself: “If I were a reader, how would I experience this? Would I want to take this in?”’
From concept to publication, Why we love dogs… was a decade in the making. Today, it is available in nine languages and Joy has given presentations on carnism to audiences on five continents, including Australia.
‘I’ve had a tremendous response to my work, from mainstream media as well as the audiences I speak to. Most people genuinely do care—about animals, justice and the truth. They’re grateful to learn about the ways in which their food choices have been guided by an invisible hand and about how they can make more just choices. Eating animals is a social justice issue, not simply a matter of personal ethics.’
In the interest of full disclosure: yes, I (the interviewer) am vegetarian. I am often asked why. In the past I have always answered this question by explaining my reasons for not eating animals. No doubt carnism explains why I never thought to conclude my response with: ‘Why do you eat animals?’
You can read more about carnism and watch Joy’s presentation at <www.carnism.org>.
The original version of this article was published as ‘Writer at Work: Dr Melanie Joy’ in The Australian Writer issue 385 (September–November 2014).