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September 2001
From 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 women’s 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 standpoint—vegetarianism—is, 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 the 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 proponents. 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 carnists 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 of carnism.

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.


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