Challenging Carnism

by D. R. Hildebrand

Challenging Carnism

Earlier this month I read about a student in Great Britain who was eating, what he believed to be, the wing, or the breast, or the thigh of a chicken, at a KFC.  He happened to pull the flesh apart, and saw something that looked like a brain.  He grew nauseated, photographed the specimen, and posted it on his Facebook page.  Eventually, KFC identified it to be a kidney, and apologized.

I posted the story on my own Facebook page and asked, both sarcastically and in seriousness, what the big deal was—that we should know by now that in a world in which “food producers” have zero interest in ethics or expectations, but rather in turning sentient creatures into a profit, there will be no shortage of mistakes.  One person disagreed and replied, “By your logic, if you get a piece of bark in your orange juice, you should have realized that oranges grow on trees.”

The point, as is often the case among omnivores, was either deflected or missed: if you opt to eat a breast or a rib or any part of an animal, what prevents you from eating any other part as well?  A foot, a stomach, an egg?  Eating one body part and not another is a mere cultural contrivance, not a natural law or inherent truth.  There is no universal norm stating that kidneys are taboo while wings, breasts, and thighs are acceptable.  In some societies people consume hearts, livers, blood, and urine.  Only in desperation do people eat bark.  If I mistakenly bought a grapefruit instead of an orange I would only care because I happen to enjoy the latter more than the former, not because I have been programmed by a self-serving system that declares one to be repulsive and the other ideal.  In the end, kidneys, like nearly all body parts, are edible.  Most bark is not.  And kidneys are necessary to one’s being, whereas oranges fall if not plucked.

Coincidentally, horse meat was then found where there should have been cow.  All over the UK there is outrage and shock that twenty-nine percent of the beef they call burgers is that of horses: “People should be able to go into the supermarket,” one Labour politician said, “and be confident that what they are buying for their families is legal and safe.”  That it is what?  Legal and safe?  Why is horse meat neither legal nor safe when the pigs we deem “dirty” are a staple at breakfast?  What is so fundamentally different about the flesh of a horse than that of a cow, a sheep, a dog?

Nothing.  And herein lies the issue: meat-eaters are not flabbergasted by the sale and production of horse per se, for they eat the flesh of countless species; neither are they sickened at the notion of eating a chicken’s kidney, for they eat hot dogs made of penises and eye balls and much more.  Meat-eaters are upset because they have been challenged.  They have been challenged to face their inconsistencies.  They have been challenged to confront their choices.  By eating animals and parts of animals that they have been programmed to believe they absolutely never should, they have been challenged to ask why they eat some and not others, or any, for that matter, at all.  And they hate this.  They hate to be challenged when they could much more easily be ignorant.  They cannot answer the questions because there is none that makes sense.

Melanie Joy, professor and author of the book Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows, gave a remarkably lucid interview with Andrew Cohen on essentially this topic, this carnist view of animals and the dampened emotions on which it stands.  “Carnism,” Joy explains, “teaches us not to feel.”  It is the invisible belief system that conditions us to eat certain sentient creatures and not others.  Interestingly, Joy is not concerned with why vegans abstain from eating animals, but rather why omnivores choose to eat the specific animals they do.

Few omnivores are either used to, or comfortable with, this sort of framing of the discussion.  Vegans make the weird choices.  Vegans have the explaining to do.  The fact of the matter is, while we all make choices, few meat-eaters can explain why they make their specific choices.  They don’t know why they eat cows and not horses.  They don’t know why they eat breasts and not kidneys.  The carnist view is so dominant and so entrenched that they see it as good enough that they are part of the norm.  Even their go-to answer, “Because I just like the taste, damn it!” is not valid here because Brits were eating innumerable horses without any display of revulsion; and kidneys, from what I have read, are supposed to be delicious.

Continuing to challenge meat-eaters to defend their choices is essential to raising the awareness about which Joy speaks.  It is not cognitive awareness, for we all know the horrors of slaughter.  Rather, it is emotional awareness, “taking it into your heart,” as Joy says, and reflecting on it, processing it, and responding to it with action.  Defending veganism is effortless.  It is all logic.  Defending carnism is the opposite.  It is complete absurdity.  No carnist should ever be excused from this defense, simply because the challenge is too great.

Written by D. R. Hildebrand

David, who models under his middle name, Raphael, is represented by New York Models. His first book, Walking Marina, is an exposé of the male modeling industry, and is a commentary on beauty. David’s websiteFollow David on Facebook and Twitter.

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  • Meat Guy

    As an omnivore with many devout vegan friends, I definitely agree with some of the comments you addressed here.

    Still, I can’t help but notice that there are some surprising (and rather blatant) generalizations here. For instance, take your thoughts on animal parts. Brain, eyes, heart, liver, intestines—I’ve tried pretty much all of them from some surprising animals. As I am involved in a lot of service work overseas, it was kind ofinevitable. And I completely grasp and understand that these parts are delicacies to many people. And to them, I say you go glen coco! Still, I prefer to be a much bigger fan of the breasts and thighs.
    Is it engrained that there are certain parts of animals we should and
    should not eat? Definitely. Does that mean all us meat eaters are sheep and
    can’t question our decisions? No.

    I happen to believe every facet of one’s life merits challenging. Indoctrination is a very scary thing. On your comments about which
    animals we decide to eat, the same thing goes. Are eating a pig, cow, dog, or horse fundamentally different? Of course not. In each case, an animal is being killed for the benefit of a human being. Like I mentioned previously, I’ve tried a LOT of animals. I just happen to like eating cows, pigs, and chickens (alligator and jellyfish is also pretty tasty as well).

    “They hate to be challenged when they could much more easily be ignorant.”

    Don’t you think that statement is a tad bit harsh? It’s easy to assume that all meat eaters are ignorant. That doesn’t, however, make it a valid claim.

    I am a meat eater. Yes, I get my meat from a local farm cooperative (and help support the wonderful family who are in charge of that establishment). Are animals being killed for benefit? Indeed they are! However, I just
    happen to believe that a life full of frolicking in the field with a quick end
    is preferable to one suffering in a confined crate and forcefed. Free range or
    not, those animals are still ultimately being killed. I accept and acknowledge
    that fact.

    I apologize for this fragmented argument! I’ve been reading Faulkner lately and this stream of consciousness thing seems to be catching on! Regardless, I just wanted to humbly and hopefully respectfully present my opinions.

    To be frank, I found your article to be kind of insulting. Like I mentioned, I have a lot of vegan friends and I completely empathize when they are forced to deal with close-minded individuals. It can be frustrating, I am sure. Still, I don’t like to label vegans all under one umbrella and make outrageous statements about their choices. They are people too. And the only way we can better understand one another and hopefully make a better world is by having a meaningful discussion (free of assumptions and accusations).

    Thanks so much for your time!

    • D. R. Hildebrand

      Meat Guy, I am absolutely making generalizations. I’m sure there are omnivores out there who are questioning their choices. They are not, however, speaking up. This hose meat issue is STILL going on, daily, in the international media, and no one is asking the most basic of questions: What is so fundamentally different about cows and horses that the former get slaughtered millions of times a day without the bat of an eye and the latter get front-page news for weeks on end? If the questions and conclusion are insulting it is, in my opinion, not that they are inherently so but because the respondent is merely flustered by them. The bottom line is that we choose to cuddle up with some species while choosing to kill others, and for no other reason than because it’s what we know. If we stopped and SERIOUSLY examined our choices, SERIOUSLY asked ourselves what in the world we are doing and why, we would very likely make some huge and uncomfortable changes.

      • Meat Guy

        Thanks so much for getting back to me. I really appreciate it. Please forgive me if I was at all unclear. I never found the questions you ask to be insulting. In fact, I’m glad that you’re asking them! People should carefully consider every choice they make, What I found insulting was the whole ” omnivores would much rather be content with ignorance” comment.

        But besides that, i don’t think you can claim that people aren’t speaking up about whether or not they should eat meat. The omnivore’s dilemma may not be the best example, but it does have an entire section on the ethics of killing animals ( Pollan does bring up Singer and some other interesting arguments to the table). Furthermore, any google search will show you that there is an ongoing debate (as there has been for a while) on whether or not eating meat is an ethical thing–with a good amount of people on the fence.

        As to your question: “What is so fundamentally different about cows and horses that the former get slaughtered millions of times a day without the bat of an eye and the latter get front-page news for weeks on end?”

        You’ve answered it. I’ve answered it in my past response. It is of course, because of cultural values that are ingrained in us to value one animal as a “beloved pet” not see it as food.

        Since we’ve got that established, now what? Now the issue becomes how to make people consider this paradox. Now the issue become having that conversation. If people are exposed to this issue in a way where they and their beliefs are respected, will they change their eating habits or views on eating meat? Indeed, they might! But my original point remains. Try having a dialogue with those who have asked questions about being omnivores. They are there. Don’t insult their intelligence by assuming that they are incapable of self-reflection. That was merely the intent of my first response.

        I will reiterate the thoughts I mentioned in my first response. Like I said, you have a carnist here who completely acknowledges that there is no fundamental difference between eating a horse and cow, dog and pig, kitten, and chicken. In terms of discerning which parts of eaten and why, once again, I have eaten most of them and decided to eat the parts that taste the best. You have a carnist here who has asked those questions and is completely content with the answers he makes in response to them.

        Also, do you mind if I ask you why you are vegan? Is it because you value all sentient life and believe that they have an inherent value that we have no right to take for our own selfish reasons?

        Or is it more along the lines of how environmentally destructive and harmful the meat industry is? Perhaps health reasons?

        I’m just curious. I love talking to my vegan friends about their choices (Which I completely respect).

        You state: “If we stopped and SERIOUSLY examined our choices, SERIOUSLY asked ourselves what in the world we are doing and why, we would very likely make some huge and uncomfortable change.” Well, I’m not sure you can make that kind of statement until talking to the other part of “we”. (That means the carnists). .

        Like I said, you happen to have one right here who has pretty much addressed every question you came up with. Furthermore you have one who is interested in having this worthwhile dialogue.

        Thanks so much.

  • NicholeD

    Great post but one small sticking point – horse meat is illegal to eat because horses are routinely given drugs that make their meat “unsafe” for consumption. Since horses typically have several owners, and since some of the drugs that they are given cannot be detected in the meat, this makes horse meat almost impossible to regulate.

    I know because I recently read an article all about it when a restaurant in New York made the claim that horse meat tartar would be on the menu. There was an uproar about it, largely around the fact that horse meat is unsafe.

    However, to agree with you, this is a little ironic given the chemical garbage that is routine and “legally” pumped into cows, lambs, fish, poultry, etc.

  • Shane Palus

    Interesting point. Its animal cruelty if you kill a dog or cat. But its legal to slaughter cows and chickens by thousands every day. Check out my post 5 Ways To Easily Go Raw at

  • sylvia

    Christ on a cracker, THANK YOU! I hate when someone thinks it’s “wrong” to eat venison because it’s “like eating Bambi”, or that there’s some kind of difference between eating a body part you recognize vs one you cannot, or one that you are unfamiliar with. Eating Bessie is the same as eating Rover, Mittens, Polly, etc. (just part of the reason I don’t eat meat). We are very spoiled and sheltered in “first world” countries and don’t like to look into, let alone accept the origins and relativity of our food. Of course, those aspects are often hidden from us in the first place, but that’s a different story… ::coughKFCcoughcough::

    Anyway, great work. I remain humbled and proud of my choices in what I consume.

  • Evelina

    Great piece, even more than usual!

    All this brings back to my mind a famous quote. George Bernard Shaw wrote more than one century ago (The Vegetarian, 15 January 1898) “Oh, come! That boot is on the other leg. Why should you call me to account for eating decently? If I battened on the scorched corpses of animals, you might well ask me why I did that.”

    Things haven’t changed so much since then. Carnists are still “allowed” to act by default, vegans are “forced” to explain and justify themselves. As you write, we have plenty of strong arguments (plus, as I always say, being vegan make one’s brain work!) and they have none.

    You’re right, we should make a point to overturn that, and to challenge carnists to give a (sensible, if they only could!) reason for their choices – and realize theirs are actually choices – and a thought to what they do, everyday. It can be
    powerful indeed!

    I read Melanie Joy’s book when it was released in English and I was very happy to know that it was translated into Italian; she also came in Italy for a promotional tour (and received the “Empty Cage Award” by her Italian publisher). Unfortunately I didn’t manage to go to her speeches but I’m sure she touched hearts and minds in my country too!

    • D. R. Hildebrand

      Evelina, so glad you liked it. Everything in life is relative to something else so until we make ourselves the challengers we will remain the challenged. Sometime in college, after answering why I don’t eat animals, I’d reverse the scenario and ask my inquisitor: why DO you eat animals? It was as if I, like many of us, knew that this thing carnism existed, without Dr. Joy having yet coined the word.

  • Nate

    Very nice entry – I will definitely be referring some Carnist* friends to this

    • D. R. Hildebrand

      Thanks, Nate, and may we all do a better job adopting the word carnist into daily vocabulary. It’s imperative to raising awareness and creating change.

  • Adam

    great piece.. I immediately thought of Dr. Joy and her work on carnism when I heard the story of the KFC kidney ordeal.. it’s so interesting and so frustrating at the same time.. you hit it on the head in the last paragraph, defending veganism is effortless, carnism is indeed completely absurd

    • D. R. Hildebrand

      Thanks for the comment, Adam. As a community we need to start turning the table and asking carnists to defend their choices. We have to remind them that they ARE making choices–inconsistent and absurd ones to be specific.