Carnivore to Carnist: Liberating the Language of Meat
By Melanie Joy
Language has always played a key role in liberation,
a fact well known by both those who benefit from and those oppressed
by the status quo. The civil rights movement would no doubt have had
an even harder struggle had African-Americans not retired the epithets
nigger and boy, just as feminists have realized that, for the womens
movement to progress, the less discriminatory Ms. should replace Mrs.
and Miss, and gender-neutral titles such as police officer and spokesperson
should supplant patriarchal designations. The animal rights movement,
as well, has relied on the restructuring of language to shift consciousness
regarding nonhuman animals: pets have become companion animals, something
is now someone, and it has become she or he.
Words have historically been used to sustain and legitimize the social
construction of violence. Violence is only considered violence when
it is directed at the dominant group; when carried out toward others,
it is relabeled so as to become morally acceptable and legitimized.
It was no coincidence that the Nazis developed a comprehensive lexicon
with which, for example, they could simply perform ramp duty, selections,
and euthanasia rather than murder Jews. Similarly, prisoners are not
killed, they are executed or punished. Soldiers do not murder other
humans, they waste the enemy. And violence toward nonhuman animals is
referred to instead as vivisection, dissection, euthanasia, experimentation,
sport, and meat production. This reshaping of language camouflages violence
against a background of social norms, making the participation in violence
an unconscious given rather than a conscious choice.
Despite linguistic advances for animal rights, what is perhaps the greatest
threat to nonhuman animals still rests beneath a veil of linguistic
deception. Meat production and consumption, the most far-reaching and
widely supported form of nonhuman animal exploitation, remains an unnamed
ideology. And an ideology unnamed can consume its host like a hidden
tumor. Until we recognize that, at least in the industrialized world,
meat production and consumption are choices, and that these choices
are based upon a philosophical position, we cannot hope to deter the
mass slaughter of nonhumans and move toward animal liberation. Large-scale
human meat-eating rests on the speciesist assumption that humans are
superior to other animals and that therefore, sacrificing nonhumans
for the human palate is ethical and legitimate.
We have, however, recognized that the opposing dietary standpointvegetarianismis,
indeed, an ideology. For this reason, we do not call vegetarians plant-eaters
or non-meat-eaters because we understand that vegetarianism,
though its principles are manifested in the act of abstaining from
consumption of flesh, is actually a philosophy in which the subjugation
of other animals is considered unnecessary and unjust.
This inequality of ideological identification demonstrates our collective
meat bias. It is, in fact, quite common to label only those beliefs
which run counter to the dominant culture. We assume that it is not
necessary to assign a term to ourselves when we adhere to the mainstream
way of thinking, as though its prevalence makes it an intrinsic part
of life rather than a widely held opinion. Meat-eating, though culturally
dominant, reflects a choice that is not espoused by everybody.
Some people refer to meat-eaters as carnivores; yet, human meat-eaters
are actually omnivores, as they consume both flesh and plants. Moreover,
the terms carnivore and omnivore suggest a biological predisposition
toward flesh, while contemporary, wide-scale meat-eating is not a physiological
necessity but an ideological choice; the millions of healthy vegetarians
who have persisted throughout the centuries are testament to this. Neither
carnivore or omnivore expresses the beliefs beneath the behavior.
For the reasons listed above, I have chosen to employ the terms carnism
and carnist to the ideology of meat production/consumption and its
Carnism stems from the Latin carn, meaning flesh or body, and is the
root in carnage. Fleshist might have been appropriate, but flesh has
fewer connotations suggestive of slaughter and this label may be too
disconcerting and removed from the socially-accepted carnivore for
to be willing to apply to themselves. And the term meatist reinforces
the social construction of meat in which meat is perceived
as synonymous with food.
By naming the belief system which underlies the acts of meat production
and consumption we are better able to acknowledge that slaughtering
nonhuman animals for human consumption is not a given but a choice;
a choice that is based upon an ideology in which the domination and
exploitation of other animals is considered a natural human privilege.
To say I eat meat or I am a meat-eater denotes
an action devoid of a philosophical viewpoint, whereas to say I
am a carnist, describes a choice, an identification with a particular
belief system. Using the verb, eat, in the labels meat-eater or even
flesh-eater places the focus of the consumption of other animals on
what one does, rather than what one is.
Language is a powerful tool in shaping values and beliefs. Because language
both reflects and reinforces culture, the words we use will either challenge
or bolster the status quo. This is why, for example, technicians in
laboratories are taught not to name the animals on whom they experiment,
lest they begin to perceive the tool or subject as a being. This is
also why slaughterhouse workers refer to the animals whom they slaughter
by their inanimate names, even before they are killed: chickens are
called broilers, hens are layers, bulls are beef. By turning beings
into objects it becomes possible to treat their bodies accordingly.
The restructuring of language is crucial to the vegetarian movement.
Our society masks murder beneath an elaborate lexicon that turns corpses
into cuisine. The naming of carnism is another step toward nonhuman
animal liberation; it enables vegetarianism to challenge not only the
practice of meat production and consumption, but also the ideology upon
which such acts stand. In this way, the primary objective of vegetarianism
becomes not simply the eradication of meat-eating, but the abolition
Melanie Joy is a doctoral candidate in psychology and is currently
writing a book on the psychology of meat production and consumption.
She is also an English professor and has been active in the animal rights
movement for over a decade.