Commentary: The carnist conundrum

There's a new buzzword gaining traction among the vegetarian activist community: carnism.

Actually, it's a term that's been around awhile, since it was first coined by psychologist Melanie Joy several years ago and garnered visibility in her 2010 book "Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs and Wear Cows." But it's now become a topic du jour at conference sessions and discussion groups when animal activists get together at their annual "hate-the-meat-industry" meetings.

Carnism is defined as a belief system in which it's considered an ethical choice to consume flesh of non-human animals the opposite of vegetarianism, obviously.

Joy uses the term to avoid identifying people who eat meat as carnivores, or omnivores. Carnivore refers to the obligatory diet of an animal, while carnists, on the other hand, make the decision to consume meat despite being capable of meeting their nutritional needs with a meat-free diet. According to her, the term "meat eater" is inaccurate because it represents the behavior as if it were divorced from a belief system. That's why, she writes, vegans are not referred to as "plant eaters" or herbivores.

Feeling guilty yet?

Classifying the creatures

In her book, Joy discusses "schema," or the various psychological frameworks we use to organize ideas, beliefs and perceptions. "We have schema for every subject, including animals," she writes. "We classify animals, for example, as predator, prey, pest, pet or food." (What, she couldn't go with "protein" to compete the alliteration?)

She opens her book with a vignette about a hostess waxing eloquent about the recipe for the stew her dinner guests were enjoying, with the punch line being, "You start with five pounds of well-marinated golden retriever meat . . ."


That leads to a diatribe on how when we're confronted with meat from an animal that we've classified as inedible, "We immediately picture the living animal from which it came, and we're disgusted by the notion of eating it."

True enough. I was recently reading the memoirs of a couple of Americans who served as Peace Corps volunteers in Africa, and they talked about being offered roasted locusts and termites to eat as delicacies. Neither of those sounded very appetizing to me definitely members of my inedible schema but truth is, the pair ate them to save face with the villagers with whom they were living and found them to be rather tasty, if a bit on the crunchy side.

I guess that classifies those Africans, who were eating insects as a valuable source of otherwise scarce protein, by the way, as dreaded carnists: people who voluntarily eat meat, even though, according to a well-fed, well-educated and (we can assume) well-compensated psychologist, that's just not necessary.

Having heard all the arguments against meat-eating over the years it's abusive, it's unnatural, it's unhealthy, it's environmentally destructive the one that persists, in one form or another, can best be described very simply: We shouldn't eat meat because we no longer need it. We moderns now have vegetarian alternatives, so we should give up our "carnist" ways and embrace the enlightenment that comes from choosing plants, not animals, to occupy the center of our plates.

Assuming we have plates, and assuming that we enjoy enough variety that we even have to consider dividing said plate into central and peripheral zones. Because there are more than a billion people on Earth who don't and can't make that calculation.

Look, I understand the people who connect spiritual enlightenment with a vegetarian diet. For centuries, medieval monks practiced what amounts to veganism to support their sexless, spartan existence. If modern folks want to reprise that lifestyle, God bless "em.

I also don't have a problem with activists who are truly concerned about animal welfare and are working toward goals they believe are noble and good. I disagree with their philosophy, their tactics and their targets, but I can respect their commitment.

And I can see how well-intentioned, otherwise intelligent people can get swept up in the "meat causes global warning" campaign, people who earnestly want to believe that if they just skip the pepperoni on their Monday night pizzas, that somehow that will solve the crisis. Climate change is complex, connected as it is to a plethora of problems related to our post-industrial civilization not to mention the added impact of five billion people added to the global population in the last century. If skipping meat for one meal a week could effect a monumental change in the environmental challenges we face, I'd do it, too.

But what I can't abide is the notion that choosing a diet of animal foods, one that has sustained all of humanity in every era, on every continent and in every climate is now to be considered a psychological sickness? No way.

None of us are going to start eating golden retrievers anytime soon, but that doesn't make eating beef, pork, chicken or any other animal food a reason to seek therapy.

Certainly not at the behest of somebody who doesn't bother to consider history, nutrition or the impetus of sheer survival as worthy of consideration when they she sits down to her meal of processed soy protein, air-freighted produce and tropical food ingredients, and then considers herself superior to a African villager consuming a hearty entree of roasted termites.

Dan Murphy is a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator