How can one pet a dog with their left hand and hold a chicken drumstick in their right hand?

Most people will go through their whole lives without realising that what they eat in one hand once belonged to a sensitive and intelligent animal just like the dog they lovingly pet with the other hand. They don’t think about the connection between eggs, milk, and meat on their plate nor the living beings these products come from.

At the same time, these are often people who are compassionate, who have a sense of justice, and who love animals and would not personally hurt them, but they still eat meat. They simply don’t want to hear what vegans are telling them, or if they do, they attribute it to the spread of vegan propaganda or make weak justifications for eating meat. What’s going on there? How is it possible that intelligent and compassionate people don’t want to engage in critical thinking when it comes to this topic, and don’t want to see the connection between the food they eat and sentient beings?

Even though some people acknowledge all the facts about the harmfulness of meat to one’s health, the impact of the meat industry on the environment, and have even seen slaughterhouse horror movies, they still go to McDonald’s. These incompatible notions are really a question for psychologists to explain. People seem to block out information that may challenge their beliefs when it comes to eating meat. While exploring the psychology behind eating animals, Dr. Melanie Joy realised that there is an ideology that conditions people to eat meat and its name is carnism.

What is carnism?

Carnism is an invisible belief system according to which it is natural, necessary, and normal to eat the meat of certain animals. Carnism is such a deeply rooted part of our life and culture that people do not question the morality and harmfulness of eating meat at all. The first step in changing an ideology is to precisely recognise and name it.

By definition of carnism, psychologist Melanie Joy actually destroyed its greatest power, which is invisibility. Now it is clearer why people love animals and still eat them; it is because they have been programmed that way since early childhood. Children are raised not to see the connection between a cow and a burger, or nuggets and chicken. One of the reasons why people choose to eat meat is not only the desire to fit into society, but also the fear that they will be excluded from their social community if they are different. They have learned that either the majority opinion is the one to follow or they have not been raised to think critically. People have learned to rely on traditions and customs without even questioning their meaning.

The question therein is: what psychological and sociological mechanisms are built into that oppressive system to make it so effective? All systems of oppression including speciesism, racism, and carnism rests on a hierarchy of moral value, which means that some groups or individuals are more valuable and deserve more appreciation and respect than others. When we occupy a position of privilege and power in one of the systems, we tend to be offensive towards anything that raises our awareness of the privileged position we hold. Some of us fear change and the unknown. However, others become aware of the ideology that has dominated them, and that ideology loses its power over them. When people realise that they have been manipulated through the meat industry and the media, then that manipulation system is no longer effective.

Vegan anger at the world

Is it hard for vegans not to have a misanthropic attitude towards meat eaters and not to be angry and frustrated when they see the injustice done to animals? Psychologist Dr. Melanie Joy concludes that anger is a sign that our moral compass is working and anger is a normal response to injustice, therefore vegans should not feel bad if they are angry. What is important is to be able to redirect that anger into constructive energy in order to do what we can to change the world for the better. It’s hard to be indifferent when we see human arrogance, ignorance, and greed destroying the planet, but vegans need to learn to handle that anger in a healthy way, or anger will consume them, as Dr. Melanie Joy warns.

The trap that vegans often fall into is by putting themselves in a position of moral superiority and perceiving others as bad and inferior. Dr. Joy advises vegans not to give up on changing people and the environment, but at the same time not to judge people and accept them as they are. It is also important that vegans know how to set boundaries in order to protect their mental health, especially if they are very sensitive, because it is easy to drown in a sea of sadness and despair if they are constantly exposed to depressing situations and facts. Once we are aware of injustice, we notice, see, and hear it everywhere.

Vegan activists also have to allow themselves to switch off sometimes because they often feel obligated to do something about every issue hurting animals. It is important for the vegan movement that activists are reasonable and mentally healthy beings who are not broken by what they are fighting against. It is also good to know when not to waste energy on advocating vegan values, when people are simply not ready to hear the message you want to convey to them, and wisdom is needed in both how and when to convey the vegan message. When we don’t know how to talk in a healthy way, every discussion ends up as an argument. The point of sharing knowledge is to teach others in order to create a better world for both humans and animals.