As vegans, our goal is not simply to get people to stop eating animals; we aim to bring about a revolutionary shift in social consciousness to transform a culture of violence and oppression to one of nonviolence and liberation. Our goal is to catalyze a revolution to change the course of history.
History is shaped not by weapons, or tyrants, or rebellions. History is shaped by stories. Beneath every oppression and every revolution are narratives that guide them: we cannot invade and take up arms against another without first believing the story that the other is our enemy who must be conquered, just as we cannot stand together in protest of violent invasions without believing the story that the war is unjust.
Dominant narratives are the stories told by the dominant culture; they define our reality and guide our lives like an invisible hand. And when the dominant culture is oppressive, so, too, are its narratives. Such narratives are fictions, constructed to delude people into supporting the dominant way of life even though that way of life runs counter to what they would otherwise support, and to silence the voices of people who seek to tell the truth. Thus, social change is made possible by those who challenge the dominant narratives, replacing fictions with facts by bearing witness to and speaking out against oppression. Revolutions that change the course of history are made possible by those who speak truth to power.
Learning from History: A Case Study of Feminism
Only by examining history can we hope to change its course, and there is much to learn from the revolutionaries who came before us. The twentieth-century feminist movement offers a particularly useful example.
Throughout much of the twentieth century, women were considered inferior to men and thus destined for a life of domestic servitude. Many women suffered lives of tedium and isolation, cut off from the vibrant social world around them, yet they obligingly submitted to their fate.
Then, in the 1960s, something happened. Women began talking with each other about their experiences, and over time, these conversations led to the establishment of formal discussion groups. And as more and more women shared their stories, they discovered that many of them were experiencing the same problems, such as being verbally and physically abused by their husbands. The women thus realized that they were not inferior; they were oppressed. Sharing their stories empowered women to speak out against their oppression – to speak truth to power – and helped launch the modern women’s liberation movement, a global movement that changed the course of history.
There are important lessons in this story for those of us who seek social transformation:
Stories shape our lives, and our world, for better or worse.
When women believed the stories told by the dominant, sexist culture – when they looked at the world through the eyes of (sexist) males – they believed that their own personal deficiencies, rather than external power structures, were to blame for their lower social status.
Stories can be fiction or fact.
The dominant story of sexist culture – that women were inferior because they were overly emotional, weak, and irrational – was based on gross distortions of the truth about women’s true nature and experience. It was a fiction. True stories, on the other hand, reflect the authentic truth of our experience.
Widespread stories reflect (and reinforce) a widespread belief system, or ideology.
The story that women were inferior to men did not come out of nowhere; it reflected the widespread ideology of sexism. And the more men and women alike bought into this fiction, the more they reinforced the sexist system, playing out and thus confirming the stereotypes of dominant males and submissive females.
When we change our stories, we change our lives, and our world.
As vegans, we are largely aware of the fictions spun by the dominant, animal-eating culture; our advocacy is organized around providing alternative, truthful stories. But there are some dominant stories that many vegans remain unaware of, and these stories can cause us to feel disempowered and despairing and they can seriously undermine our advocacy. When we become aware of these stories, though, we can rewrite them, and transform our despair into inspiration and empower ourselves and our movement.
Carnism and the Dominant, Animal-Eating Narrative
To understand the dominant, animal-eating narrative, we need to understand the ideology that breeds its various stories. Most people, vegans and non-vegans alike, still believe that there is no ideology of the dominant, animal-eating culture. We tend to assume that only vegans (and vegetarians) bring their beliefs to the dinner table. But when eating animals is not a necessity for survival, it is a choice – and choices always stem from beliefs.
Carnism is the invisible ideology that conditions people to eat animals. Carnism has been written about extensively elsewhere; here I will simply summarize its key features as they relate to its narratives. Carnism is a dominant ideology; it is invisible and is woven through the very structure of society, constructing norms, laws, beliefs, behaviors, etc. and becoming internalized, shaping the very way we think and feel about eating animals. In other words, we look at the world through the lens of carnism, as a society and as individuals. Carnism is also an oppressive ideology; eating animals is organized around a powerful, socially privileged group (humans) using another group (farmed animals) for their own ends. In short, carnism is a system of oppression.
However, most people who participate in carnism – who eat animals – care about animals and don’t want them to suffer. So carnism, like other oppressive ideologies, must use a set of social and psychological defense mechanisms to enable humane people to participate in inhumane practices without fully realizing what they are doing. In short, carnism teaches us how not to think and feel when it comes to eating animals. These carnistic defenses create and maintain the stories that support the ideology in a feedback loop:
ideology → defenses (tell stories) → distort perceptions → block feelings → enable behaviors → reinforce ideology
carnism → objectification (“animals are things”) → perceive a turkey as something, rather than someone → numb emotions → eat turkeys → reinforce carnism
Of course, there is a much simpler way to describe the fictions promulgated by the dominant culture: propaganda.
Carnistic Defenses: Primary and Secondary
There are two kinds of carnistic defenses: primary and secondary. All defenses exist to distort reality, to promote fiction as fact. In general, primary defenses are “pro-carnism;” they exist to validate carnism. The stories they tell are that “eating animals is the right thing to do” – that, for example, “milk does a body good.” Secondary defenses, on the other hand, are “anti-vegan;” they exist to invalidate veganism. The stories they tell are that “not eating animals is the wrong thing to do” – that, for instance, plant protein is inferior to animal protein. Primary defenses distort the truth about farmed animals (“pigs are stupid, lazy, dirty”) and proponents of carnism (“people need to eat animals”), and secondary defenses distort the truth about vegans and veganism (“vegans are unhealthy”).
Primary Defenses and Narratives: Pro-Carnism Fictions
Denial is the main defense of carnism; if we deny there is a problem in the first place, then we don’t have to do anything about it. Denial is expressed largely through invisibility, and the main way carnism remains invisible is by remaining unnamed: if we don’t name it, we can’t even think about it or question it, so eating animals appears to be a given rather than a choice. And of course the victims of the system are kept out of sight and therefore conveniently out of public consciousness. The stories that primary denial tells are “there is no belief system” and “there is no problem.”
Another carnistic defense is justification. Justification tells many stories, many myths, all of which fall under the Three Ns of Justification: “eating animals is normal, natural, and necessary.” Not surprisingly, these same myths have been used to justify oppressive practices throughout human history, from slavery to heterosexual supremacy.
And finally, carnism uses a set of defenses that distort our perceptions of farmed animals and their flesh and excretions. We thus view farmed animals as objects (“chickens are commodities”) and abstractions (“a pig is a pig and all pigs are the same”), and we place animals in rigid categories in our minds so we can harbor very different feelings and carry out very different behaviors toward different species (“dogs are friends and family; cows are food”).
Many vegans have an intuitive understanding of primary carnistic defenses. We recognize that others are looking at the world through the lens of carnism, so that much of our activism focuses on challenging carnistic fictions, telling the truth. For instance, consider FARM’s 10 Billion Lives Tour (making the invisible visible), the efforts of medical practitioners to demonstrate that eating animals is neither natural nor necessary for health (debunking two of the Ns of Justification), Mercy for Animals’ campaign asking why we love some animals but eat others (challenging categories), and Farm Sanctuary’s Someone, not Something project (validating the individuality of farmed animals).
Secondary Defenses and Narratives: Backlash and the Vegan Casualties of Carnism
Though vegans often have a sense of how primary defenses influence non-vegans, many vegans do not realize that we, too, are looking at the world through the lens of carnism – from within the sphere of secondary defenses. To understand this point, try to envision carnistic defenses in concentric circles, with primary defenses in the center, surrounded by a circle of secondary defenses. So even though vegans have largely stepped out of the sphere of primary defenses, we remain within the system. In other words, we often believe in some or all of the stories told by secondary defenses.
Secondary carnistic defenses exist to invalidate the stories that challenge carnism. They accomplish this end by invalidating: vegans, vegan ideology and practice, and the vegan movement. And secondary defenses are a part of a backlash against veganism; a backlash is a reaction of the dominant culture when its power is threatened. (For example, when the women’s liberation movement began to achieve widespread support, the term “feminist,” once proudly embraced by many women and men alike, was turned into a slur by the dominant sexist culture.) Thus, secondary defenses evolve and intensify as a movement evolves and intensifies, and they are a sign of the movement’s success, not its failure.
Projection: Shooting the Messenger
Projection exists to invalidate vegans, and thus our message. Projection tells the story that “vegans are wrong.” If we shoot the messenger, we don’t have to take seriously the implications of her or his message.
One kind of projection has to do with the qualities of carnistic culture. Vegans may be portrayed as possessing the undesirable qualities of the culture so, for instance, we’re seen as “biased” and “extremist” when we challenge the biases and extreme practices of the dominant culture and we are accused of “propagandizing” when we challenge carnistic propaganda. Or we may be portrayed as lacking the desirable qualities of the culture so, for instance, we’re seen as “overly emotional” and “sensationalist” when we challenge the apathy and numbing of the dominant culture.
When we don’t recognize these projections for what they are, we may believe the negative messages we hear about ourselves and question the truth of our own stories. For instance, we may believe the myth that our emotions are excessive, instead of recognizing that our emotional reaction – our sadness, grief, anger, etc. – to the atrocity that is animal agriculture is in fact healthful, appropriate, and legitimate. When it comes to eating animals, the world needs more emotion, not less. Another consequence of not recognizing these carnistic projections is that we can end up projecting right back onto non-vegans and become enmeshed in a battle of projections rather than engaged in a productive dialogue about the real issue.
Another kind of projection is that which reduces vegans to shallow stereotypes. For instance, if we express our anger at the social injustice that is carnism, we are militant human haters; if we advocate peace and compassion we are tofu-loving, tree-hugging hippies. (Of course, there is nothing wrong with being a hippie. But there is a problem with being reduced to a one-dimensional stereotype.) When we don’t recognize these projections, we can end up acting them out in a self-fulfilling prophecy, confirming the distorted stories of carnistic culture.
Carnistic culture also often projects onto vegans an image of omnipotence, suggesting that we only have a right to our ideology if we can live up to an impossible ideal. So, for instance, we are expected to be paragons of health: I cannot count the number of vegans who have told me that they never let non-vegans know when they’re sick out of fear that their illness will be used to discredit their veganism. Or, we are expected to be paragons of virtue, with the moral consistency of the Buddha: we’re hypocrites if we wear a used wool sweater….but we’re extremists if we don’t. We are also expected to be experts on everything: agricultural economics; organic, veganic, hydroponic mushroom farming; quantum physics. It’s as if we don’t have a right to advocate veganism if we don’t have all the solutions to the problem of carnism. And when we of course don’t live up to these projections, it becomes an excuse to invalidate everything we stand for. What pressure on us! We end up tokenized, treated as the token vegan, the ambassador for the entire movement.
If we buy into the fictitious story that we can and should be perfect and that we are solely responsible for the success or failure of the movement, then when we don’t turn everyone around us vegan we can feel like we have failed the animals, that we are responsible for animal suffering; in our vegan minds we become animal murderers. Talk about role reversal! This is how secondary defenses work: they turn the problem of carnism around and pin it on vegans. Sometimes, though, vegans react to this projection of omnipotence by believing that they are indeed all-powerful, or that their particular brand of veganism is the perfect ideal. And they project onto other vegans that the other vegans are imperfect and “wrong.” Such righteousness often leads to fundamentalism and ideological rigidity, a problem that plagues activists in many social movements.
A final carnistic projection is that of the pathological (unhealthy) vegan. Fortunately, the image of the scrawny, sickly vegan is in rapid decline. However, it is still not uncommon for a psychologist to, for instance, assume that a young woman’s veganism is reflective of an eating disorder. Pathologizing those who challenge the status quo has been a common method of maintaining oppressive systems throughout history; for instance, before the abolition of human slavery in the U.S., slaves who attempted escape were diagnosed with the mental illness drapetomania.
Secondary Justification: Neocarnism
While primary justification tells the stories that eating animals is normal, natural, and necessary, secondary justification tells the stories that not eating animals is abnormal, unnatural, and unnecessary. Secondary justification is a carnistic defense that ironically puts vegans on the defensive, as it places the burden of truth on us. Vegans often find themselves in the position of justifying why they do not eat animals, rather than non-vegans explaining why they do.
Interestingly, each of the secondary justifications has morphed into an entirely new ideology, which I refer to as neocarnism. I believe that, thanks to the tireless work of vegan advocates and the advent of the Internet, denial (the main defense of carnism) has been sufficiently destabilized. Many people today are no longer able to deny at least the most egregious practices of animal agriculture. So justification has taken on a more important role in maintaining the system. The emergence of neocarnism (e.g., “happy meat,” “local/sustainable meat”), which I have written about elsewhere, frustrates vegans but is in fact a sign of progress.
Secondary Denial: Carnistic Injustice and Vegan Oppression
And finally, we come full circle to denial. Primary denial, as mentioned, tells the story that “there is no belief system.” Secondary denial, however, takes this one step further. Because if we believe that people who eat animals are operating outside of a belief system – and a dominant belief system in particular – then we believe that there is no dominant (“majority”) group and, therefore, there is no subordinate (“minority”) group.[i] So, one story that secondary denial tells is that “vegans are not an ideological minority group.”[ii]
When vegans do not recognize that we are ideological minorities we can end up accepting and even internalizing carnistic prejudice. For instance, thousands of vegans with whom I have spoken have told me how they are mocked (or otherwise treated in a hostile manner) for no reason other than the fact that they are vegan – that they belong to a social minority group – which, by definition, is harassment. And these vegans feel unable to defend themselves. They either stand up for themselves and their beliefs and risk, for instance, being accused of lacking a sense of humor, or they force themselves to laugh along with the “joke,” thus participating in their own degradation. Denying that vegans are ideological minorities is a powerful way of silencing those of us who challenge carnistic stories. So when we recognize secondary denial for what it is we are better able to stand up for ourselves, and to educate non-vegans, many of whom are no doubt completely unaware of their carnistic prejudice.
As ideological minorities, vegans are also de-individualized by the dominant culture, a phenomenon experienced by members of all non-dominant groups. In other words, vegans are seen as a homogeneous group (“all vegans are the same”) rather than as distinct individuals. We become reduced to nothing other than our ideology. And if we buy into this story that we are and should be homogeneous, then we see our differences as weaknesses rather than as the strengths that they are. The truth is that vegans are no less diverse than non-vegans, nor should we be.
Another story that secondary denial tells is that “there is no oppression.” If we believe that there is no belief system and there is no oppression, then we also believe that “there is no system of oppression,” that eating animals is simply a matter of personal ethics – a personal choice – rather than the inevitable end result of a deeply entrenched ism. (Imagine believing that owning African slaves had nothing to do with racism!) Thus, any attempt to reduce or eliminate oppression is seen as infringing on one’s “freedom of choice.” And these stories lead us to believe another story, that “eating animals is not a social justice issue” and, therefore, that “the vegan movement is not a bona fide social justice movement.” When vegans and non-vegans alike believe such fictions, we can fail to see that the vegan movement is part of a long tradition of social movements that have changed the world. And the vegan movement remains disconnected from the other social movements that it is naturally aligned with and must unite with if we hope to bring about the kind of widespread, revolutionary transformation toward which we are all working.
When we believe that there is no system of oppression – no systematic, widespread violence – then we also believe the myth that “animal agriculture is not an atrocity,” a mass trauma. And we therefore fail to see the roles we all play in the traumatization; we don’t recognize, for instance, animals as victims, animal agribusinesses as perpetrators, and vegans as witnesses. Much could be written about the impact of “carnism-induced trauma” but one point is particularly important for vegans to be aware of: as witnesses we are also victims. Secondary Traumatic Stress Disorder (STSD) is virtually identical to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) except that it is caused by witnessing – rather than being a direct victim of – trauma. There are scores of vegans who, as a result of witnessing the violence of carnism, suffer from depression, anxiety, intrusive thoughts, irritability, nightmares, a loss of faith in themselves and others, survivor guilt (guilt for not doing “enough” to help animals), burnout, etc. – all potential symptoms of STSD. Yet the vast majority of vegans – and psychologists they may seek out – do not recognize these symptoms as inevitable, legitimate reactions to trauma, and they are therefore not in a position to appropriately treat or prevent them.
Sometimes secondary denial tells the story that “there is no vegan movement.” Or, it obscures the true power and scope of the movement, telling the story that “the vegan movement is weak and ineffective,” thus diminishing individual vegans’ perception of their power to make a difference. (In this way, secondary denial is like primary denial in that it makes invisible the facts that would weaken the system.) Vegans can end up feeling that the problem is so huge, and their impact so trivial, that they become demoralized by what seems an impossible challenge.
The stories of secondary carnistic defenses can cause vegans to feel disconnected from each other and the movement. They can make us feel isolated, silenced, confused, frustrated, and disempowered. They destroy solidarity and erode hope and as such are powerful tools to help maintain carnism. And as long as we remain unaware of the myths of secondary carnistic defenses, we will likely perpetuate, rather than debunk, them; we practice reactive, rather than proactive, veganism.
Reactive Veganism: The Dynamics of Internalized Oppression and Privilege
When we are reactive, we are looking at the world through the lens of carnistic defenses and reacting to its stories. When members of minority groups believe the stories told about them by the dominant culture, they have internalized the oppression of that culture. And the stories of the dominant culture are invariably that the needs and experiences of the minority group are less valid and important than those of the majority group. For instance, if a vegan at a family dinner requests that the cheese be kept off the salad or the butter be kept out of the mashed potatoes, this need – which is simple to accommodate and would make a significant difference for the vegan – is often seen as far less important than the “need” to have a traditional meal.
When members of majority groups believe the messages of the dominant culture – that their needs and experiences are more valid and important than those of the minority group – they have internalized the privilege afforded them by the culture. This mentality is often reflected in a sense of entitlement, and a righteous anger may be triggered when one’s needs aren’t given priority over others’. For example, many non-vegans can feel “controlled” when asked to dine at a restaurant that doesn’t serve animals, claiming that there is “nothing” for them to eat on the menu. And yet these same individuals may without compunction make arrangements for a vegan to dine with them at a steakhouse without consulting the vegan or considering the inconvenience and offense such a situation may provoke.
Of course, most non-vegans have no awareness of their carnistic privilege; they have simply absorbed, and are replaying, the fictitious stories of carnistic culture. And similarly, most vegans are unaware of their internalized oppression. However, many vegans do sense, on some level, a contradiction between what we know to be true (that we have a right to be seen and treated as equals) and what we have learned to believe is true (that others’ needs supersede ours). So we can, for instance, find ourselves apologizing for “inconveniencing” others while at the same time resenting the fact that we are making such apologies.
Shame and Grandiosity
Internalized oppression leads to shame, the feeling of being “less-than.” We feel shame when we look at ourselves through others’ eyes and believe their version of reality over our own (“Your needs/beliefs/values, etc. are less valid than mine/ours.”). Our shame may prevent us from standing up for ourselves when, for example, we are called “hypersensitive,” or it may lead us to apologize for things we shouldn’t be sorry for.
Sometimes we may react to our shame by flipping into its opposite state, grandiosity, which is the feeling of being “better-than.” We thus refuse to look at ourselves through the eyes of others at all or to take in any information that challenges our existing ideas. When we are in a state of grandiosity, we can end up shaming others, acting as a mirror of carnistic culture. For instance, we may project stereotypes onto non-vegans (seeing them as “apathetic, selfish animal eaters”) or otherwise invalidate their experience (Non-vegan: “I love animals.” Vegan: “No you don’t; you eat them.”).
Beyond Carnistic Fictions: Practicing Proactive Veganism
The good news is that, when we recognize carnistic stories, we can change our relationship to them. We can practice proactive, rather than reactive, veganism. When we practice proactive veganism, we resist the carnistic fictions and we hold onto the truth of our experience without invalidating others.
Practicing proactive veganism means that we seek, speak, and live our truth with integrity toward ourselves and others. We thus practice the “Cs” of a balanced mind and heart: We approach situations with curiosity – an open mind – and compassion – an open heart. We seek clarity, looking deeply within ourselves and connecting with those whose integrity we trust, to hold onto our authentic truth, our own story. And we cultivate the courage to bring the other Cs into our lives and our world. Proactive veganism is embodied veganism. It is our philosophy lived out in our bodies, in our minute-to-minute lives. It is the practice of the Cs toward ourselves, others, and our world and it enables us to forgive ourselves, and others, when we inevitably end up engaging in the dynamics of a universal system in which we are all enmeshed. Practicing proactive veganism also helps diminish the anger which plagues so many vegans, as it requires us to be empathic – and empathy is the antidote to anger. (For practical tips on practicing the Cs, I highly recommend learning the principles of nonviolent communication).
When we recognize carnistic stories, we can transform our shame to pride, a prerequisite for activists in all social movements: consider, for example, Black Pride, Gay Pride, and, now, Veggie Pride. True pride is the opposite of shame/grandiosity; it is not feeling less-than, or better-than; it is the recognition that all individuals – vegans, non-vegans, animals – possess equal inherent worth. And as vegans, we have much to be proud of. We stand firmly against the overwhelming pressures to conform to the dominant culture, we refuse to accept the fictions of ubiquitous carnistic propaganda, and we withstand the incessant seductions to fall back asleep and follow the path of least resistance.
Ultimately, when we recognize carnistic fictions, we neither underestimate nor overestimate their power. As a powerful man – Hitler – once said, “Make the lie big, make it simple, keep saying it, and eventually they will believe it.” And as an even more powerful man – Gandhi – once said, “All through history the way of truth [has] always won. There have been tyrants and murderers…but in the end, they always fall. Think of it – always.”
And Gandhi was right. Indeed, perhaps the greatest carnistic lie of all is the story that people don’t care – that people eat animals not because their hearts and minds have been manipulated by a culture that is antithetical to their core values and has coerced them into acting against their own interests and the interests of others, but because they don’t care. I have had the privilege of speaking to thousands of non-vegans around the world, giving my carnism presentation to packed halls and to standing ovations, and the stories I hear from attendees are radically different from those of the dominant culture. Here are just a few of the countless quotes from evaluation forms I collect after a presentation:
“My life changed tonight. I cracked open. My heart cracked open. I’ll never have a bite of animal flesh again, ever.” ~Bellevue, WA
“I wasn’t vegan before, now I really should be…You were successful! Thank you!” ~Zagreb, Croatia
“I can’t make excuses anymore. Thank you for making the invisible visible.” ~Albuquerque, NM
“My values and sense of myself are different than following a system [that teaches us to] eat animals…Definitely I have to make some changes. Definitely.” ~Maribor, Slovenia
“Although the film of slaughtered animals almost made me vomit…the overall message got through to me, about how we are all really just under a sort of ‘group pressure.’ Now I have real doubts about ever eating meat again.” ~Stockholm, Sweden
“I came to this presentation very skeptical and thinking I may leave unchanged. But I feel…I feel extremely aware and changed.” ~San Francisco, CA
So, despite what the carnistic narratives would have us believe, there is reason to be extremely hopeful. The truth is that people care about animals, and they care about the truth. The truth is that the vegan movement is growing exponentially, in myriad countries around the world: As vegans, we are a part of something much greater than our individual selves; we are a part of a social movement that I believe will one day be looked back upon as one of the most transformational movements in human history. The truth is that each and every one of us is making a difference; what we stand for as vegans is the greatest threat to the carnistic powers that be. The truth is that, by speaking truth to power, we are changing the course of history.