Most people you know – including, perhaps, you – think nothing of eating meat, wearing wool, betting on the horses or going to the zoo. Until very recently I very happily inhaled cheeseburgers like they were going out of fashion, bought leather shoes and loved going to aquariums. All of my family, my husband and most of my friends eat meat and cheese and eggs and it can be hard – once you’ve made the connection between animals and meat and learnt about the scary effects of animal agriculture – not to scream “ARRGH WHAT THE HECKINS ARE YOU ALL DOING?!” But if you are a vegan you, probably, don’t want to be dismissed as judgy/angry/whiny. A meme I saw that says “being vegan is like being the main character in a horror movie who saw a demon and you’re trying to warn everyone but no one believes you” captures it so well.
But why won’t anyone believe you? Well, I guess because of carnism. *Puts on glasses, opens powerpoint and clears throat* The term carnism was coined by social psychologist Melanie Joy in 2001 and popularized by her book Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows.
Carnism explores people’s relation to animals – the prevailing ideology that conditions people to support the use and consumption of animal products, especially meat. Carnism is presented as a dominant belief system supported by a variety of defense mechanisms and mostly unchallenged assumptions. Central to the ideology is the acceptance of meat-eating as “natural”, “normal”, “necessary”, and (sometimes) “nice”.
Unlike Melanie I am not a social psychologist, so you should probably stop reading this blog and read her book instead. But if you’re still with me, let me explain how I see this carnism shit going down:
Permit me a quick thought experiment. You’ve been on a long, exhausting walk and arrive at your friend’s house. You sit on their comfy sofa and they present you with a glass of milk and a plate of biscuits. This is just what I’m after you think and tuck in happily. Only after you’ve finished eating does your friend say ‘how do you like that milk? It was dog’s milk’. Or perhaps giraffe milk or cat milk. Did your stomach do a bit of a wobble? Does the idea of a glass of cat’s milk seem a bit, well, gross? And weird? Does it really feel natural to drink the milk that was produced by another animal for their baby? Does it really seem natural that we pay farmers to artificially inseminate dairy cows and milk them until they’re spent so we can continue to drink milk once we’ve been weaned off our mother’s milk/formula milk? Because now I’m on the other side of it, it seems seriously creepy and bizarre.
There is no getting away from the fact that in our society it is currently normal to eat meat. Visit your local supermarket, walk around a train station, look at the majority of packed lunches in your office fridge and it’s abundantly clear that eating meat in the UK – where I live – is normal. However the veneer of normality is thin. Cracks appear when we look at what’s normal for people in other countries and contrast it with what we say we believe in and what we do back home. When I went back-packing around Cambodia I spent a few hours on the back of a guy’s motorcycle as we toured around jungles and temples. We got on to talking about the food we both ate. I described how I would eat chicken, beef, lamb and pork, and that that, was pretty much it. I remember being flabbergasted and a bit appalled when he talked about eating bats, insects, rats, tarantulas and all kinds of other creatures I could barely comprehend consuming. He was totally bemused that the meat I chose to eat was so limited. What’s normal in one culture is clearly very different in another but our behavior is only thrown into sharp relief now and again.
During the Lychee and Dog Meat Festival – where people gather in Yulin to sample dog meat hotpot, lychee fruits and local liquor – it’s estimated around 10,000 dogs and cats are killed and eaten over ten days. The idea that the animals we have living with us at home – members of our families who we know to be clever, kind, sentient creatures – can be exploited and killed is heartbreaking. I’ve seen celebrities – like Ricky Gervais – condemn Yulin in the strongest possible terms, but he is, as I understand it, not a vegetarian. How can he square the notion that it’s wrong to eat a dog, but ok to eat a pig when pigs are equally as intelligent and just as capable of feeling fear and pain. Once you realise that what you eat is part of a cultural construct and that cultural constructs are fallible it is much easier to dismiss giving up animal products as some cranky, weird activity.
This is one heck of a hot-topic. This year we’ve seen the release of the The Beyond Burger™ (the world’s first plant-based burger that looks, cooks, and tastes like a fresh beef burger), more awareness of vegan athletes who are “smashing it” and Arnold Schwarzenegger – the gaddamn Terminator – calling on people to eat less meat. The American Dietetic Association have said that “appropriately planned vegetarian or vegan diets are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases. Well-planned vegetarian/vegan diets are appropriate for individuals during all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, and adolescence, and for athletes.” But there are opposing voices who say that it’s impossible to gain the nutrients – protein, zinc and the B12 vitamin in particular – without eating animals or products derived from animals. I guess the easiest way to rebut that is to see the growing number of people who not just live, but thrive, on a vegan diet. The lower rates of colon cancer, the lower blood pressure, and lower rates of hypertension and type 2 diabetes are certainly persuasive reasons to reduce your meat-intake even if you can’t give up entirely.
So far I’m 10 months in to eating no meat and 7 months in to eating no animal products and I can tell you I feel better than ever. I do take a multi-vitamin, mostly because even though most days I eat stacks of fruit, veggies, pulses and beans there are the odd days (YES WHEN I’M HUNGOVER) when I subsist on self-loathing, hash browns, beans and Linda McCartney sausages so I like knowing that the vitamin tablet always has my back.
Whilst the argument rages on about whether or not eating animals is necessary for the individual – this feature here is one I constantly update with all the breaking news about why animal agriculture is downright scary for the planet and human health – I’ll just carry on eating veggies and feeling great.
This is the most pernicious argument for me to argue with. Now when I see meat I do a little wretch inside – it gives off serious Chainsaw Massacre vibes for me now – but melted cheese still looks good to me as does milk chocolate. Also I can still vividly remember how much I loved the smell of roast chicken. I can remember the first time I had crispy duck pancakes from a Chinese restaurant in Birmingham and thinking it was a taste sensation. This one Mac and Cheese I ate in Detroit sent me into drool-y delirium – it tasted so good. So, I swear I do understand that when people say meat tastes nice they totally mean it.
I’ve worked out that in my lifetime I’ve eaten around:
I never really liked seafood or game but I’ll have also have eaten a couple of lobster, a handful of oysters, a bunch of prawns, a few ducks and the odd bit of kangaroo. No doubt I’ll have eaten horse at some point too.
Some of those meals were wholly non-descript, some of them made me sick (I’m looking at you oyster-of-doom I ate in 2015) and some of them I probably actively disliked. But most of them I will have eaten greedily and happily. But, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, there is so much more to food than just what goes on in your mouth and your gut. The pleasure I derive from knowing that the meals I eat will cause the minimal amount of suffering for other animals vastly, *Donald Trump voice* YUGELY, outweighs the fleeting joy I had from eating animal products.
At first I stuggled with veganism – as I outlined here – because I was suddenly painfully aware of the system I’d been supporting my whole life, but now I know I’m doing something positive about it, and that nothing tastes as good as being kind and peaceful feels. Now that I’ve aligned my actions with my beliefs it feels nice. It feels really really nice.