Image Source: Jo-Anne McArthur/We Animals
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.