Bestselling author and Harvard-trained psychologist Melanie Joy says the 10 years following the publication of her provocative book “Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows: An Introduction to Carnism” have brought significant changes in how humans think about animals.
What she doesn’t say, but I will, is that Joy’s groundbreaking book played a pivotal role in causing ideas to shift.
Last month, publisher Red Wheel released an anniversary edition. The updated book includes a new forward, a new afterword, and other updates.
Yet the overall message has stayed the same: Carnism is an invisible belief system that protects and enshrines a series of cultural myths allowing us to think eating particular animals is normal, natural and necessary while eating others is abnormal, disgusting and wrong. Like other violent ideologies, carnism is illogical and works best when nobody talks about it.
Joy, who named the belief system carnism long before she penned the book, writes: “The first step in deconstructing eating animals, then, is deconstructing the invisibility of the system.”
To do so, Joy has traveled to more than 50 countries to speak about the book since its original publication. In 2011, she spoke at the Portland Public Library. In 2013, she was given the Ahimsa Award by the Institute of Jainology, based in India and England. It’s an honor shared by a small group who include Nelson Mandela and the Dalai Lama.
“Why We Love Dogs” continues to influence current thinking. In December, Vox put “Why We Love Dogs” at the top of its list of “19 books from the 2010s we can’t stop thinking about.” In January, Joy talked with The Washington Post about “Why that vegan meal at the Golden Globes set off so many critics.” And this summer one of three winning essays (out of 1,242 submissions) in The New York Times’ annual Student Editorial Contest was headlined “Bringing Ethics to Your Plate” and cited the book in its second paragraph.
I was able to connect with Joy at her home in Berlin, Germany, via Zoom and she agreed that “since 2010, when the first edition was published, the awareness of what an atrocity animal agriculture is has really grown.”
She points to a number of factors raising people’s consciousness, including the increased availability of vegan food and the impossible-to-ignore body of scientific research that has accumulated during the decade linking an animal-based diet with climate change and a plant-based diet with disease prevention and reversal. Joy said this year the COVID-19 pandemic has further opened eyes to the consequences of animal confinement systems and their role in spreading zoonotic disease.
“In the past few months, more people have become aware that animal agriculture and wet markets are leading drivers of pandemics,’ Joy said. “This combination of more awareness and easier access to more vegan options has made more people increasingly uncomfortable, morally, with eating animals.”
In“Why We Love Dogs,” Joy writes that these uncomfortable feelings well up as our natural empathy for animals and the fact that we eat them clash in our minds. “Our values and our behaviors are incongruent, and this incongruence causes us a certain degree of moral discomfort,” Joy writes.
When this happens we are faced with a choice: Either change our behavior (stop eating animals) or change our perceptions (stop thinking about the animals). Carnism allows us to alter our perceptions without even thinking about it.
That’s because carnism offers each of us a set of psychological defense mechanisms allowing us to maintain the fiction that we’re kind to animals and we eat them. We remind ourselves of the myths that say animal flesh is needed for vigor and its consumption is natural even though even though “most of us would find it cruel to slaughter a happy, healthy, golden retriever simply because people like the way her thighs taste – yet when the exact same thing is done to individuals of other species, we are expected to consider it humane.” We reassure ourselves that it’s necessary to sort baby animals into distinct categories such as “pets” and “good for eating.”
Joy chronicles how major societal institutions work to bolster and reinforce these fictions, and writes that science, religion and history are particularly effective promoters of the “natural” myth. Recently, I’ve encountered how well history supports the myth of the supremacy of animal-eating as I’ve researched Maine’s vegetarian history and discovered it is rich, interesting and mostly ignored.
Joy takes aim at the role politicians and governments play in propping up these myths with funding and a bureaucratic blind eye. She writes that carnism’s hold on politics has reduced society to “having the freedom to choose among products that sicken our bodies and pollute the planet.” In August, Vice President Mike Pence put carnism on national display when he spoke to supporters at the Iowa State Fairgrounds and branded his Democratic opponents Joe Biden and Kamala Harris as radicals who want to “cut America’s meat.”
The rise of the marketing term “humanely-raised” is something Joy labels neo-carnism, and says it has emerged in response to the growing popularity of vegan eating and the threat it poses to the carnist ideology. Joy writes: “If farmed animal welfare were truly a possibility (which it is not, given that the very existence of farmed animals is in itself antithetical to their welfare — farmed animals have been created by and for humans and are by definition exploited), then veganism would be needed.”
Joy likens carnism to the 1999 film “The Matrix,” and she writes “the matrix of carnism can only imprison our minds and hearts as long as … we are willing participants. It can only block the truth as long as we can tolerate living a lie.”
A video that Joy’s organization, Beyond Carnism, recently produced opens with a tight shot of a man eating a golden retriever burger. This is one burger that makes many carnivores flinch. The idea is to make a crack in the viewers’ carnist armor to let them perceive burgers with fresh eyes.
“The good news,” Joy says in the video, “is that once we catch onto carnism everything changes. It’s not that we see different things. We see the same things differently.”
Including the burgers on our plate.
Avery Yale Kamila is a food writer who lives in Portland. She can be reached at