I wanted to understand the psychological mechanisms that allow us to carry out violence toward other beings, human and nonhuman, specifically as they pertained to meat eating. And what I discovered was that the very same psychological mechanisms that allow us to harm other humans enable us to harm nonhumans. Of course, people’s feelings about animals don’t exist in a vacuum, so I started analyzing the broader social system of which we’re all a part. That’s what led me to identify what I call “carnism.”
To help explain carnism, I often tell people this story: Imagine that you’re a guest at a dinner party and you’re eating a delicious beef stew. It’s so delicious, in fact, that you ask your host for the recipe. Flattered, she replies, “The secret is in the meat: You need to start out with three pounds of well-marinated golden retriever.” Your reaction to that story—the repulsion—is an example of carnism. Carnism is the invisible belief system that conditions us to eat certain animals. It’s a dominant system that’s institutionalized and structural in America and abroad. People tend to assume it’s only vegans and vegetarians who bring their beliefs to the dinner table. But the fact is that most people in America, for example, eat pigs and not dogs exactly because they do have a belief system; it’s just that their belief system has been invisible.
When you’re born into this dominant, carnistic culture, you inevitably absorb the system’s logic as your own. In other words, we learn to see the world through the lens of carnism. Carnism conditions us to disconnect psychologically and emotionally from the truth of our experience when we eat meat (and other animal products). It allows us to disconnect the meat on our plate from the living being it once was. When people sit down to a plate of beef stew, they’re not thinking about the cow that it came from. They’re not saying, “I’m eating a dead animal.” They’re saying, “I’m eating food,” and therefore they’re feeling no disgust. However, if that same person were fed a guinea pig or swan, they would likely not be able to help but envision a living being, and feel repulsed eating that animal.