Saybrook psychologist questions the normalcy of eating meat

By Shamontiel Vaughn

Dr. Melanie Joy didn’t become a vegan until her 20s. But during her psychological studies at Harvard and Saybrook University, she pondered what it is that makes humans think it’s normal to kill and/or eat animal products. And why it is that so many vegans and vegetarians have a tough time holding onto relationships with nonvegans after their perspective on animal agriculture changes. In her third book, which releases the last week of November, she tackles these topics and more.

Dr. Melanie Joy

“Every day we engage in a behavior that requires us to distort our thoughts, numb our feelings, and act against our core values,” Joy, a Saybrook alumna, said during a TEDx Talk she gave in February 2015.

That “integral, human behavior” Joy is speaking of is eating and wearing animal products. The author of three books—Strategic Action for Animals: A Handbook on Strategic Movement Building, Organizing, and Activism for Animal Liberation and Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows: An Introduction to Carnism, and a November 2017 release Beyond Beliefs: A Guide to Improving Relationships and Communication for Vegans, Vegetarians, and Meat Eaters—has traveled to 39 countries on six continents to speak about this topic: carnism.

According to her nonprofit organization’s official site, Beyond Carnism, carnism is defined as “the invisible belief system, or ideology, that conditions people to eat certain animals. Carnism is essentially the opposite of veganism, as ‘carn’ means ‘flesh’ or ‘of the flesh’ and ‘ism’ refers to a belief system.”

Her second book Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows emerged from her Ph.D. dissertation in psychology.

“Action for Animals” book

“When I found the Saybrook program, which had a focus on Social Transformation and also Ecopsychology, I was very interested in the courses,” Joy says. “That’s what made me go to Saybrook. I had not developed my theory of carnism. I was just interested in how it was possible for compassionate, rational people to turn away from atrocities that are carried out toward humans and also nonhumans.”

Joy became a vegetarian at the age of 23 and a vegan a few years later. In her recent TEDx Talk in 2015 and at speaking events, she’s received “a tremendous positive response” via emails and social media comments regarding the topic. Through one of Beyond Carnism’s programs, Center for Effective Vegan Advocacy, people can attend trainings and workshops to learn more about the nonprofit and effective communication for animal activism. However, Joy is aware that not everybody may be as open to hearing about animal agriculture and carnism, specifically when it comes to seeing graphic imagery.

“It is important for people to be aware of what’s happening to animals,” Joy says. “And it’s important to share graphic material. However, how this material is shared matters very much, and so there are certain situations and events in which it would be less appropriate to show it. If the event was organized as kind of a get-together where people are casually eating and talking about veganism, that may not be the place to do so.

“It’s important to get people’s consent before sharing graphic imagery with them. Otherwise people can get traumatized by the imagery and become angry with the vegans who showed them the imagery rather than get angry at the companies that are exploiting animals.”

And if that happens, the larger goal to educate attendees about carnism may fall by the wayside.

“Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows” book

On Joy’s international tour, she also takes into account cultural differences when presenting her messages on carnism. When her second book Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows: An Introduction to Carnism” released in Hebrew, it was well-received by the Israeli public. But because Israeli people as a whole do not eat pork, the title was tweaked to The Cow in the Room.

“Although the type of animal consumed changes from culture to culture, with carnism, people have a similar experience regarding eating animals,” Joy says. “Some animals are meant to be food in their minds, and some animals are meant to be friends or family. And what I found is that the title of my book gets people to question why that is.”

In addition to violence against animals, Joy’s studies at Saybrook explored why people commit violence overall, including person to person.

“Why is it that atrocities happen in the world?” Joy asks. “Why is it that good people turn away from atrocities and enable them to continue? I was asking this question, thinking about wars and genocides for example. And also obviously about the environment and what’s been happening to animals under carnism and speciesism. What I found was the same psychological mechanisms that enable us to carry out violence toward humans enable us to carry out violence toward nonhumans, which is probably not surprising to most people. The goal of my book and the goal of my work has not been to tell people what they should or shouldn’t eat, but rather to talk about why we’re conditioned to see some animals one way and other animals another way.”

In Joy’s new book though, her goal is to help improve the relationships vegans and vegetarians have with nonvegans.

“Many vegans and vegetarians find themselves unable to communicate effectively with the nonvegans in their lives,” Joy says. “They feel that their relationships have become compromised. This kind of an ideological difference can put a tremendous strain on relationships. So the book is basically a how-to guide—what are the principles of a healthy relationship, and specifically for people in veg/nonveg relationships: how to navigate conversations and potential conflicts so that you can strengthen your connection and communicate more openly and effectively.”

Joy, who has resided in Germany since 2014, will have a book launch in Los Angeles on August 8. For more information about Beyond Carnism or her other books, visit her website.


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