Veganism is a Tough Pill to Swallow. Here's Why.


“What would cause an entire society of people to leave their thinking caps at the door – and not even realize they’re doing so?” Harvard-educated UMass Boston psychology and sociology professor Melanie Joy, Ph.D., Ed.M. explores this question in her book Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows: An Introduction to Carnism

 This book could have been called “The Meatrix.” By reading it, you’ve taken the figurative red pill and you may never be the same.

 Although published in 2010, I read this at just the right time. Is the decision to reject needless animal use wherever possible and practical (veganism) just a “personal preference?” Is it an idealistic, arrogant, hypocritical, misguided, cult-like imposition on others?  What continues to stop so many people from ditching animal flesh and fluids in the age of information? To me, this book is like solving an unsolvable mystery, using real psychology, to explain the unexplainable.

I've highlighted some of the themes she delves into below. Whether or not you have the slightest interest in veganism, I encourage you to challenge your existing mindset and read on.

Joy's subsequent TED Talk based on her book, above, is amongst the top 1% viewed of all TED talks.

Mental Gymnastics

 The book begins by asking the viewer to imagine enjoying a roast at a dinner party, which you learn mid-bite is actually golden retriever. Even just reading this, you probably immediately feel disgusted and also are imagining the living dog, right?

“Even stranger, though,” writes Joy, “is the way we don’t react to the idea of eating cows” and the other species we perceive as edible. Most never picture the cow or feel repulsed when eating “beef.” Why is this? As she demonstrates, the answer is complex, yet far from abstract.

Humans are naturally averse to blood and killing unless we've been desensitized. Since we care about animals and don’t want them to suffer, a good amount of mental gymnastics are necessary in order to feel perfectly comfortable consuming them – or more specifically, consuming the tiny handful of species we have designated as edible.

To alleviate this inconsistency between our own deeply held values and our behaviors, Joy describes our three options:

  1. We can change our values to match our behaviors
  2. We can change our behaviors to match our values
  3. We can change our perception of our behaviors so they appear to match our values (hence the mental gymnastics)

It's the latter dominant unexamined, socially conditioned, misinformed, and/or uninformed default mode – which is anything but neutral and benign despite appearing so – which Joy defines as “carnism.” (This includes vegetarianism, which includes exploiting and killing animals for human use).

If you just automatically rolled your eyes at this new term, you are exactly the person whose mind will be most blown by Joy’s concepts. I promise. Previously, this dominant ideology had been invisible and unnamed, enabling our continued psychic numbing, denial, and avoidance of our own participation in violence against innocents on a positively epic scale.

“We send one species to the butcher and give our love and kindness to another apparently for no other reason than that it’s the way things are. When our attitudes and behaviors toward animals are so inconsistent, and this inconsistency is so unexamined, we can safely say we’ve been fed absurdities.”

Regardless of how absurd they are, the deeply entrenched beliefs and behaviors of the majority are seen as normal; a given rather than a choice. This is even the case for violent ideologies like the one Joy calls carnism. How can something that doesn’t even have a name be questioned, and when even calling it by a name is met with knee-jerk resistance and likely mockery?

To take it a step further, the carnist system actively keeps itself hidden due to the fact that its inner workings are so horrifying that most are altogether unwilling to witness them. (Witnessing includes taking the time to read, watch, or otherwise learn about standard animal farming and slaughter practices.) It's why we so often hear people say of the experience of the animals on their plates, "I don't want to know." That's understandable, because knowing might force us to do the following:

  • Acknowledge the painful reality of our own participation in suffering of such devastating magnitude
  • Feel powerless to change it
  • Challenge our identity as a human/perceived superiority over other animals

The paradox of the above is that we either agree or refuse to witness the suffering of these innocents for the same exact reason: because we care.

When people assert it’s possible to love animals yet eat them, they’re looking through the lens Joy describes. When we can’t bring ourselves to face the horrible truth about something we continue to justify and willingly enable, we can’t smell our own bullshit. 

The Horror

A large portion of the book goes into detail about the horrors inflicted on animals raised for their flesh and fluids (including dairy and eggs), which I won’t get into but which you could witness here in 12 minutes (Farm to Fridge, narrated by Oscar-nominee James Cromwell). If these practices and cost-cutting measures weren’t so inherently horrific, the meat industry wouldn’t go to such lengths to keep them hidden and people wouldn’t be so averse to witnessing or even discussing them.

But of course, even just the act of slaughtering the most “humanely raised” of animals (which routinely occurs for meat as well as dairy and egg production) is also horrifying to those who haven’t been desensitized, and therefore it’s also suppressed. 

To sum up this section, most animals used for food including fishes, dairy cows, and layer hens are put through hell we wouldn’t wish on our worst enemies, let alone perfectly innocent and vulnerable creatures. As this becomes more common knowledge, humane-washing grows in popularity. Yes regardless of the true quality of their always-brief lives, almost all of these animals end up at the same slaughterhouses at a point nowhere near even the middle of their natural lifespans (that is, if they weren't culled shorty after birth) for no vital reason, subject to a bloody ending and subsequent dismemberment (which sometimes begins while they are still alive), which they did absolutely nothing to deserve and is not in any way necessary nor justifiable in non-survival situations.

Something from this section that stood out to me was the fact that there is a standard piece of equipment called a “head splitter,” used for removing their brains – and that’s just one of many such tools in the meatpacking arsenal.

“Most people, whether they eat meat or not, share the same attitude towards the slaughtering of animals: they see the process as disgusting and offensive.” That’s because it is disgusting and offensive. Think about it: our lust for the products of slaughter means a portion of our population is employed turning living creatures into bloody stubs; to commit acts that would leave us quivering in the fetal position if we were in the room for five minutes – the sights, the sounds, the stench, all of it.

This leads us to the fact that humans are also unwitting victims of this violent system. Regulation is poor, contamination is the norm rather than the exception, and meatpacking is the single most dangerous factory job in the US. The workers often become so desensitized that many exhibit extreme and irrational violence against the animals beyond that which is already required of them, and this often seeps to their lives outside of work as well. This is because the system is violent, extreme and irrational to begin with. What do we honestly expect?

The Meatocracy

The rabbit hole deepens when we realize not only is animal agribusiness inherently corrupt due to its inherent violence under the best of circumstances, but it’s a $125 billion industry controlled by a handful of operations, and so the power is concentrated and the consumer protections are flimsy.

Massive political funding and lobbying efforts have led to blurred government boundaries to the point that not only are animal agribusinesses above the law, they help shape it. Taxpayer money goes to enabling the unsustainable resource depletion of these multibillion-dollar corporations and cleaning up the inevitable ecological messes they make. (Often, the "small family farms" are contracted by huge corporations, who take on none of the debt or risk but reap most of the profits, and the contracted farmers are unwilling to speak out and risk retaliation.) 

Speaking of the environment, a growing body of scientific evidence shows that mass meat production is causing a serious breakdown of the ecosystem that cannot possibly be sustained. (Please make the fascinating documentary Cowspiracy your next Netflix session.)

Additionally, it is now a crime punishable by law to cause any “animal enterprise” any loss in revenue, to film inside of one in many states, or to publicly criticize any food produced by one without “reasonable” scientific evidence. Welcome to the “meatocracy.”

Joy briefly goes into the many documented health risks of meat and what it would look like if Surgeon General’s Warnings were on animal products as they are on cigarettes. One of my favorites: “There is shit in your meat.”

She then moves on the mythology of meat, which is the defensive backup system that kicks in to help one recover when the disturbing reality of a system left entirely unaccountable for its actions (and our own unaccountability for our participation) is temporarily exposed. A Voltaire quote sums this up: “When we believe absurdities, we shall commit atrocities.”

The Three N’s

She refers to the “Three N’s of Justification”: that meat is natural, normal, and necessary. From childhood, we are taught these widely-accepted myths that discourage critical thinking. It’s not until a violent ideology collapses that these myths are seen for what they are – ludicrous – but as it stands, we’re still knee-deep in it this particular pile of BS.

Carnism is so entrenched that it’s supported by every major institution in society, as all violent ideologies must be. An example is the fact that veterinarians take a pledge to alleviate animal suffering, but most of them eat animal flesh and fluids themselves in non-survival situations, an obvious source of animal suffering and death. 

Many people, including professionals, pathologize or otherwise thwart those who don’t support this dominant ideology (vegans are called extremists, unhealthy, crazy, cult-like, etc). 

Competing ideologies are viewed as illegitimate, which is why vegans can’t press charges against businesses confining and slaughtering perfectly innocent creatures. In another example of this concept, CBS once turned down a $2 million-dollar PETA anti-meat Superbowl ad claiming they don’t air “advocacy advertisements,” but during the same program ran an anti-smoking ad as well as many commercials promoting meat consumption.

As seen above, the mainstream media generally enforces carnism via their omission. The unprecedented number of victims – who suffer every minute of every day for human pleasure – are rarely discussed. When an outrageous aspect of meat production does occasionally get media attention, it’s presented as an exception rather than the norm, and public outrage is directed at a company or individual rather than the inherently violent system itself, which remains unchallenged.

A little more about each of the three N’s:

  • Normal: Social norms both describe and dictate how we behave. When something is seen as a custom or tradition, it easily escapes scrutiny. We often don’t realize our values, preferences, and behaviors have been defined for us. We are led to actually believe that our acquired taste preferences supersede other species’ preference to not be killed. This means vegans are the ones that have to explain, apologize for, and often vehemently defend their choice to minimize harm, while no one has to explain why they choose to maximize harm when they could so easily avoid doing so.
  • Natural: “As with other acts of violence… we must differentiate between natural and justifiable.” Just as things become normalized by us, they also can become naturalized. The tenants, seen as being irrefutable and in accordance with nature depending on one’s belief system, are constructed by those who put themselves at the top of the “natural hierarchy” of the way things are “meant to be.” (Of course, this has also been done to Africans, Jews, women, etc.) Additionally, despite all this talk of a food chain, a chain doesn’t have a top – and if it did, it would be inhabited by carnivores, not discretionary omnivore/herbivores. (Scientists have actually found that humans are actually at the trophic level of freaking anchovies. Take that, ego.)
  • Necessary: Most people behave as though meat products are necessary for human survival despite the tangible existence of millions of happy, healthy vegans (and the official position of the world's largest organization of food and nutrition professionals, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, formerly the American Dietetic Association, that vegan diets are healthful and appropriate for individuals in all stages of life – and its international counterparts have similar positions, with not a single medical or dietetic association claiming otherwise and with no exceptions for certain blood types, etc.) “The Protein Myth” is the most pervasive of these myths, which is thoroughly debunked by reputable sources found via a quick Google search and some basic math.

And as former U.S. Vice President Calhoun once called the institution of human slavery “indispensible to the peace and happiness of both [blacks and whites],” we seem to believe breeding and exploiting animals is somehow helping them and is necessary for all. It’s a common assertion that if we stopped eating animals, they would either go extinct or take over. Even though we would obviously stop breeding these animals, it’s as though the “killing must continue in order to justify all the killing already done.” How nice of us to justify the number one killer of sentient individuals, one generation after the next, for all eternity.

(To go off the book for a minute, of course, no one is ever going to release a bunch of cows and other farmed animals into the wild. Gradually-lowered demand for products of the slaughter industry would lower the supply, so fewer and fewer animals would be bred in the first place. And using the sentimental idea that farmed animals will go extinct to justify non-veganism is perhaps the ultimate irony. We are talking about animals who don't exist in the natural world and are pale shadows of their original wild forms. They are artificially bred into existence, selectively engineered for human use, and essentially imprisoned in their own genetically-impaired bodies – and we kill them all. Meanwhile, scientists have found that livestock production’s impact on land use is “likely the leading cause of modern species extinctions.”)

Just as the economy of the New World was largely buttressed by slavery, another common “necessary” assertion of many is that the economy would suffer if we stopped eating animals. In reality, the concentrated corporations would suffer the bulk of financial consequences (if they weren’t already smart enough to have shifted to plant-based food production, as many are already doing) while the majority of workers and citizens would be unaffected – yes, the same workers and citizens who have moved on from many other now-obsolete products and industries without causing economic collapse.

The Cocoon

Next she discusses the myth of free will. Most Americans wouldn’t intentionally harm an animal – yet we must believe we are informed consumers acting on free will – so constant coercion is in order. While no one is exactly forcing adults to eat meat, our thoughts, behavior patterns, and acquired tastes are established long before we are able to act as free agents.

When we do experience brief gaps or interruptions in consciousness – such as when we’re children first realizing “chicken” is actually a chicken, or we encounter a vegan who makes great points – we are immediately discouraged from further exploring this gap and our numbing is quickly restored by society, including authority figures, with any or all of the Three N’s. And if we see, for example, a video of an animal being slaughtered that makes us say we never want to eat meat again, it’s usually not long before we are swiftly pulled back in to the defensive structure and comforting cocoon of carnism.

“It is impossible to exercise free will as long as we are operating from within the system,” which Joy says we must fully extract ourselves from to recover our lost empathy and truth.

She then geeks out a bit on Matrix comparisons before moving on to a description of the Cognitive Trio, which prevents us from identifying or empathizing with the animals we eat (since doing so would cause us to feel disgusted by the idea of eating them):

  • Objectification: “By viewing animals as objects, we can treat their bodies accordingly, without the moral discomfort we might otherwise feel.” This is why farmed or hunted animals are an “it,” but our pets are a “he” or “she.”
  • Deindividualizion: “Recognizing the individuality of others interrupts the process of deindividualizion, making it more difficult to maintain the psychological and emotional distance necessary to harm them.” (“If I look at the mass,” Mother Teresa said, “I will never act.”)
  • Dichotomization: “The two main categories we have for animals are edible and inedible… whether the categories into which we place animals are accurate is less important than whether we believe they’re accurate.”

The Cognitive Trio is enabled by technology, which has given us the surreal ability to kill more animals than ever before humanly possible while at the same time removing most of us from the process entirely.

Joy then summarizes several amusing interviews she conducted during her doctorate research with people including butchers and meat consumers that clearly reveal the strangely unexamined confusion regarding why we actually kill/eat the animals we do, or that we kill/eat animals at all in non-survival situations. “It is striking how an entire society of rational people can maintain such irrational patterns of thought,” summarizes Joy, “without catching on to the gaping holes in the logic.”

Again, we understand this irrationality is due to the fact that they are seeing the world through the psychologically manipulative lens of carnism, as most vegans once did as well. They are struggling to close this “gap in consciousness” Joy’s questions have created; topics they have probably never been asked to think about before or were actively discouraged or brushed off. The only possible answers are decidedly absurd.

She touches again on the issue of inherent disgust and the “contaminating effect of disgust,” regarding the expectation for vegans to pick the animal meat or cheese out of a dish – a non-vegan Westerner would never be expected to pick out the dog meat or dog cheese. Most people won’t even finish their soup after a fly has landed in it, yet chunks of deceased chicken or cow are perfectly acceptable?

The Meatrix

The Meatrix  is actually a real website/video about factory farming.

The Meatrix is actually a real website/video about factory farming.

We then dive yet further into the rabbit hole, discovering there is a “matrix within the matrix.” Yep. While carnism is a social matrix, the carnistic schema is a psychological matrix that further entrenches this violent system. Since schemas filter information, we tend to notice or remember only what confirms our existing bias. The carnistic schema embraces any confirmation bias (butter is good for us after all!), but distorts our perception of information that threatens our bias (dairy and egg production butchers adorable “surplus” baby calves/chicks and “spent” mamas). This greatly impacts what we notice, how we interpret it, and whether we remember it.

For example, the word "nurse" usually brings to mind a woman in an old-fashioned uniform and hat even though we know perfectly well they are often male, and they wear modern scrubs. Schemas are stubborn that way. When we learn that pigs actually are one of the most intelligent animals on the planet and they keep themselves very clean, or we see a disturbing video of one being slaughtered (often done via horrific gas chambers), the sight or info typically wears off shortly after due to this schema of happy, dumb, filthy pigs rolling in mud on farms who are "meant" to become human food. It “twists information so that nonsense seems to make perfect sense,” and also “explains why we fail to see the absurdities of the system.”

The ultimate absurdity may be placing our acquired taste and fashion preferences over the lives and deaths of billions of innocents.

 Clearly, the carnistic system is riddle with:

  • Absurdities
  • Inconsistencies
  • Paradox

It is fortified by a complex network of defenses that make it possible for us to:

  • Believe without questioning
  • Know without thinking
  • Act without feeling

So why all the mental gymnastics? “The answer is simple. Because we care about animals, and we care about the truth. And the system depends on our not caring, and the system is built on deception.”

When we tolerate living a lie, we become the very fortress holding up this house of cards. But we can stop blocking the truth. Joy can show us the door, but we have to walk through it. Here's how.

Bearing Witness

The final section of the book closes with a chilling quote by Helmut Kaplan. “Our children will ask us one day: Where were you during the Holocaust of the animals? What did you do against these horrifying crimes? We won’t be able to offer the same excuse for the second time, that we didn’t know.”

The entire system is organized around blocking its single greatest threat: collective witnessing.

If the masses catch on, it would lead to an informed public. It would lead to disgust. It would lead to empathy. It would show us the truth.

“Virtually every atrocity in the history of humankind was enabled by a populace that turned away from a reality that seemed too painful to face, while virtually every revolution for peace and justice has been made possible by a group of people who choose to bear witness and demand that others bear witness as well,” writes Joy.

Instead of witnessing the heart-wrenching plight of animals, most have disassociated from it. This mass disassociation is the central mechanism that allows our psychic numbing. Most have dissociated not enough to kill others, but enough to support killing done on our behalf, and to render us powerless to make morally consistent choices.

We all pay the price. While the ultimate goal of human development is integration (the synthesis of various aspects into a harmonious whole), our disassociation prevents this. It’s simply impossible to have an integrated, peaceful society when we care about animals while both supporting and turning a blind eye to their suffering and the pervasive, complex web of deceit that supports it.

Witnessing hurts and takes courage, so we resist and deny. Ignorance, as they say, is bliss. But rather than conforming to this violent ideology, we can liberate ourselves to live a more authentic, integrated life. When we pull back the curtain, we leave behind our own personal contribution to this system based entirely on the domination and subjugation of innocents. 

Watch  Forks Over Knives ,  Cowspiracy , and the documentary  Earthlings  (which Joaquin Phoenix calls the film he is most proud of).

Watch Forks Over Knives, Cowspiracy, and the documentary Earthlings (which Joaquin Phoenix calls the film he is most proud of).

But as Joy reminds us, you’ll have to keep actively working to maintain your awareness and resist your old cocoon of psychic numbing. As someone who, before finally going vegan, once reverted back to eating animal meat after several years of (albeit somewhat uninformed) vegetarianism for a substantial period of time because it was "socially easier," I can personally attest to this.

Today, maintaining your awareness is as easy as following a few vegan Facebook pages such as Vegan Publishers and Vegan Outreach to stay informed and aware with minimal effort. Also, joining vegan Facebook groups and vegan Meetup groups gives you social context to stay connected to others, vent, and ask questions.

As James O’Dea (formerly of Amnesty International) puts it, we realize we are never truly outside observers, as we are all “inside the wound” together.

When we agree to be a witness, we call forth our highest qualities, including:

  • Conviction
  • Integrity
  • Empathy
  • Compassion

We end our:

  • Apathy
  • Complacency
  • Self-interest
  • “Blissful” ignorance

We only participate in this dominant system because we have agreed to remain uninformed. (I once did it, too, and trust me, I get it.) But as Joy reminds us, in the face of this mass violence, we are either a victim or perpetrator. We must take a side. All bystanders are either marked by their action or inaction. Being silent or neutral only helps the oppressor. 

So I encourage you to walk through the door Joy has busted wide open. Step out of The Meatrix; speak out for the animals, people, and planet it lays to waste; and never, ever allow anyone to shame you or shut you up. Veganism is an urgent social justice solution whose time has come. Please don’t wait another day to get on the right side of history. <3

Did this article make you rethink your animal use? Share your comments below.

A brilliant animated video by Melanie Joy

Written by Lorelei Plotczyk