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.