Nuggets From Melanie Joy's Call
Posted by Rahul Brown on Nov 21, 2018
Like many of us, Dr. Melanie Joy, a Harvard-educated psychologist, professor, and vegan activist, grew up without giving too much mind to a behavior that most human beings share: eating animals, and eating some animals rather than others. Have you ever wondered why you can eat a turkey bowl of chili, or hot dog but still love your cat or feel your heart melt at the sight of a baby lamb? This is the question that, after a serious bout of illness causing a stark turnaround in attitude toward eating meat, led Dr. Joy on a nearly two-decades-long quest for an answer. That answer culminated in a now increasingly popular term and concept: carnism. Also arose one of the main motivations of Dr. Joy’s work: raising awareness. “Simply becoming aware […] allows us to reclaim our rationality and freedom of choice and to become more active participants in creating a more humane and just world,” believes Dr. Joy.
We'll post the transcript of the call soon, but till then, some of the nuggets that stood out from the call ...
- Birju: What was the genesis of your interest in justice? Any seeds from early days?
Melanie: I’ve thought a lot on my process over the years. Social transformation is interrelated with inner transformation. Its all a reflection of how we relate to one another. We have a remarkable ability to compartmentalize. Earliest seeds of my journey come from my father. He was a musician and avid fisherman. I used to love to go on his boat with him. One day, my child fisher pole line became taut. My parents helped me reel the fish. It turned out to be a traumatic memory for me. I remember looking at that fish and seeing it flopping back and forth with my parents cheering—and I remember feeling not happy with them. I felt sad, confused. I had just killed another being. I just couldn’t understand the discomfort that was happening with me. That kind of fish was my favorite food before. Yet from after that day, I couldn’t eat any fish any more—my body would just reject it. My role models taught me in the golden rule—yet they were also coaching me to violate that in other ways. They taught me to care about animals, and also to eat animals. It wasn’t until many years later that I started to make these connections.
B: How did you translate those formative experiences into psychology. Many people take experiences like that and translate into work in the world vs psychology. How did that lens become an important one for you?
M: I always cared about animals. My dog was like my brother. But I did grow up eating meat and dairy. I wasn’t aware of the deeply political reality of my choices. When I was 22 I ate a contaminated burger that put me in the hospital. That was the last time I ate beef, but it wasn’t because of animals—it just made me sick. It became important to me to use my life to offset suffering. I knew my whole life that I wanted to reduce suffering in the world. I cared a lot about human rights issues. I became a vegetarian by accident. In learning about my new diet, I stumbled upon shocking information and was traumatized by the plight of farmed animals. The sheer numbers were unfathomable. I was so shocked. I wanted to tell my family. My family was very progressive—they care about issues with people. But nobody I was talking to wanted to hear what I had to say. They would say things like “Don’t tell me that, you will ruin my meal.” Here is where this paradox began. People cared about animals, but all of a sudden there was this commitment to stop thinking and feeling—coupled with a projection on to me. That was what lead me to ask what is happening here psychologically. I had sort of awakening when I made some food choices. I was curious how I had remained so blind before I made my own choice. So the psychology of violence became interesting. What makes us turn away from farm animal suffering is also what makes us turn away from human animal suffering.
B: It sounds like that vein of inquiry has been a bit of a backbone for you. What were the discoveries on they psychology of violence?
M: At the time I had a suspicion there was some psychological gymnastics happening. And I wanted to crack the code of what was happening. Then I started looking into this from the lens of relationship. It started with my psychology dissertation. I did a lot of interviews around what lets us harm people around Robert Liston’s work who studied Nazi doctors. How could doctors who took the Hypoocratic Oath do horrible things and then return to be normal dads and husbands. He thought it was psychic numbing. I wanted to find out what that was. So I interviewed butchers and meat eaters, and I found everyone had inconsistent attitudes toward animals. They were uncomfortable with the idea of hurting domestic animals. I found there was a psychological mechanism that caused them to disconnect from what they were doing. That’s when I understood that its an ideology. I named that ideology Carnism. It’s the system that allows us to do that.
B: David Foster Wallace – naming the story of how fish relate to water? Carnism sounds like our water. Is that right?
M: Yes, carnism is a dominant ideology. Its woven into society and all our systems. We’re born into this system and inevitably internalize it. We look at the world through that lens. Its organized around these pscyh defense mechanism that act against our core values without realizing what we’re doing.
B: Can you talk about how this cognitive dissonance manifests?
M: Carnism prevents us from feeling this dissonance. When we see a hamburger, we feel like wanting to eat it. But if it was a golden retriever burger, we’d be disgusted. Carnism distorts our perceptions to see authentically. Because we’re socialized in a certain way to see animals from a certain distance—from the reality of our experience. Some say that we’re meant to actually kill animals, currently and historically. There is truth in this. Humans have a remarkable ability to compartmentalize. We also killed other humans without the same mental impact as today. We become desensitized when we see it over and over again. Factory farm workers do become traumatized over time.
B: How does what you describe—carnism—how does it relate to other areas of justice? Is it a lynch pin?
M: Great question. I started looking at carnistic systems. It was related to other systems of oppressions. The mentality that enabled this was the same. It depends on making itself stronger that veganism. It uses two types of systems: primary defenses—ones that exist to validate carnism (or sexism) i.e eating animals is normal natural and necessary; and secondary systems work to invalidate veganism. They teach us to believe us that not eating animals is the wrong thing to do. They construct negative stereotypes of anyone who challenges the system. Could also say it applies to anyone who challenges other dominant systems like patriarchy. I started to be getting curious about how to deconstruct these systems. Then I started to look at all –isms around any form of violence. With carnism that its obvious, but patriarchy and racism are structured similarly. We can think of them as spokes on a wheel. The hub is the dysfunctional form of relating to power. All these systems require the same elements to stay intact.
B: How does this land for you personally? How do these systems play out in you?
M: In my later writing, I have been very curious on how I relate. Relationships are central with my life. When I interact with my husband, do these reflect the types of values that I promote in the world? Does it create greater relational resilience? More closeness and secure attachment? As I grow in my relationship with my husband and staff. Much of my growth has happening in my relationship. Everything I do comes through a relational lens. I pay attention to disconnects in my relationships. Trying to develop this inner observer—to notice your emotions and thoughts as they unfold to the best of your ability so you don’t get hijacked by them. There is a bridge between my work on carnism and my work now—the meta-ism. I’ve named it power-archy. The psychology of power. What does a healthy relationship look like and how does this get reflected and reinforced on the inter and intra personal and collective level. The same principle applies.
B: What kind of practices are you employing that we might be able to take on?
M: Learning effective communication is very transformative. Tools for effective communication are important. Do to this well, we have to be self observers. We’re in communication every moment and its not about just stringing the right words together. The goal of communication is that we’re not telepathic. The goal is to reach mutual understanding. That takes self awareness. To learn value of the process more than the content is important. People respond to the process more than the content. You would probably forget the content but remember how you felt. When I interact, I pause to reflect. Am I feeling curious, compassionate? How do I feel in this interaction? Do I feel contempt? That’s moral superiority. The most dangerous position to put themselves in. Developing this awareness has been so important. Our ego makes us want to be right and to win. For many people they just want to be right. We’ve been born into a deeply dysfunctional and toxic world. If we can clean up our communication, we do ourselves a great gift. Committing to the process is so important. The Achilles heel of human functioning is shame. Its so deeply destructive emotion and does such damage to our connection. I know how destructive it is to judge and shame that I try to stay mindful of this.
B: What you just touched on is a really long conversation in and of itself. Grateful you touched on carnism yet you can tie it to the universality of the human condition. So thank you.
M: Compassion begets compassion. Oppression reflects relational dysfunction. If we can interrupt dysfunction and replace it with relationality. Does this behavior reflect my integrity? Meaning is this a reflection of my values of compassion and justice. If we can commit to that, without being perfectionistic, we automatically increase relationality. We honor the dignity of others. That means we recognize the inherent worth of other beings.
B: I use the phrase ‘simple, not easy’. Transaction is the sign of a broken relationship. Discerning between simple and easy is key.
M: Perfect is the enemy of the good. I encourage people to be as vegan as possible. Embrace the idea that its not that you are vegan or not. One can be a vegan ally. Someone that transforms the idea of carnism even if you are not fully vegan.
B: Eating animals is complex. So black & white is easy to point out. What about all the grey area? You could parse options all day. How do you integrate these grey slices into your work?
M: We need to differentiate between those who have to eat animals and those who like to. To override our natural impulse, we need to use these psych mechanism I’ve previously discussed. Many people in the world can make food choices freely. When a behavior becomes a choice, it takes on an ethical dimension. At this point in time, more people can choose to not eat animals. All vegan food isn’t non-violent, but typically less violent. This is not to say that veganism is THE solution, but any solution is incomplete without veganism. Killing other beings to live satisfying lives for ourselves can’t work. There will be complicated questions to unravel. Humane meat—‘happy meat’-- is important for us to talk about us. It’s a carnistic myth made by big ag as more became aware of the violence embedded in it. Most of us would consider it cruel to kill a golder retriever but if its another species we don’t think about it.
B: Are you familiar with Yuval Harari?
M: Yes he wrote the forward to my new book in Hebrew.
B: He’s been getting more play in Silicon Valley. We ask questions about animals because humans may not be at the top of the totem pole, are we the next ‘animals’? How does that technosphere stuff land for you?
M: Tech is not inherently good or bad. Clean meat may be what you’re alluding to that may speed up the evolution of abolishing carnsim. We care more about animals today because we can. If you look at atrocities, it requires convincing the population that atrocity is necessary for survival. I can’t say much about humans being the next ‘animals’ if we give rise to something ‘superior’.
B: What are your reflections on blindspots? What are activist are not seeing these days that is important for progress? What areas are good to develop to grow in skillfulness?
M: Need to be careful to now allow the content to override a healthy relational process. Talking about social justice doesn’t give us license to communicate any way we want. Some people use the same rhetoric that hold toxic moral positioning in the same process that they are speaking to transform. We have to bring presence and relationality and compassion to honor dignity in our communication and awareness raising (including our own) is respecting intrinsic worth. Its having fundamental respect for who we are. The opposite of ego. Can’t get caught up in moral perfectionism.
B: Those who I know—If I understood their psychology, its recognizing a fear that we’d become passive if we took this to an extreme. How to not be passive?
M: I’m not talk about pacifism. I talk about how we go about being active. Most of our activism is awareness raising and advocacy. If we come to our work from a place of trauma—with us or against us—then we create more enemies that way. If come from presence and compassion. Stay anchored in compassion as we hold people accountable without damaging their dignity. Speak to the person behind the privilege. We engage with people’s defenses as the person.
B: Where is your own growth happening in coming times?
M: I had a clearer picture of my future in the past. Life can take unpredictable turns. Im a huge fan of Eckhart Tolle. He says your ability to be present is the greatest predictor of whether your life will turn out according to you wishes. I how have 3 books coming out next year. I can see myself going more deeply into the relational work. More mindfulness work.
B: How would you frame this to folks from different political ideologies? How are you engaging with conflict with folks don’t resonate with your fundamental premises?
M: In my carnism work, I have seen vegans do lean leftish. There is a fundamental difference between people on the left and right is that left people think in terms of systems of power. People on the right are not used to thinking of organized systems in general, or systems of embedded power imbalance. Conversation lends itself to people on the left. Compassion and justice inform people across the spectrum. Shaming harms dignity for everyone and that reduces rational thinking.
Rahul: Is clean meat transformation for carnism?
Melanie: Behavior change precedes attitudinal change in study after study. Its important to stop the violence first to give people space to reflect on the system of violence and then make conscious choices.
R: Is there a dominant system of money that is like the ‘water’ of carnism? The psychology of power inside how we organize around money?
M: Interesting question. I don’t think there is an ultimate powerarchy. Its not helpful to see oppression as rungs on a ladder. Think of it as spokes to a hub. Its important to move in a direction of reducing power imbalance on restoring dignity born of compassion.
Lots of gratitude to all the behind-the-scenes volunteers that made this call happen!