We’re all undoubtedly eager to meet someone we look up to, whether it’s our favourite journalist, actor, or author. In a nutshell, we all look up to public figures at some point in our life for inspiration or through mere gratitude. One of my most admired public figures is Melanie Joy- a vegan advocate that describes our conditioning to eating meat as ‘carnism.’ Whilst going through a transitional phase of becoming a vegan myself, watching her TedX talk was the ultimate turning point. Interviewing Jeff Mannes, the European coordinator of ‘Beyond Carnism’ -the organisation founded by Melanie Joy, was a delightful experience.
A relatively new term, Jeff explained that the concept of Carnism underlines the notion of “the invisible belief system that shapes our perception of the meat we eat.” It was made apparent that this ideology conditions us to eat animals, whilst it simultaneously maintains itself through certain defence mechanisms, a self-justification matrix, if you will.
Specific means of justification are reflected into society as we’re made to think that “eating animals is normal, natural and necessary.” There were strong suggestions that we’re all trapped inside the concept of Carnism, because it’s a system that we’re born into, and thus it becomes internalised and entrenched within our culture and society.
Jeff further elaborated that Carnism is the sub-ideology of “speciesism, which puts some animals below humans, and allows us to exploit them for their resources”, whether it’s through the meat and dairy process, our cloths, furniture, or various forms of animal testing and experimentation. Carnism doesn’t only put humans on top of other animals in the hierarchy of importance, but it even prioritises certain animals as ‘pets’ whilst others are disregarded as ‘meat,’ ‘fur’ or ‘leather.’ These perceived conventions are exactly what carnism aims to dissolve.
Kicking off my interview with Jeff, we spoke about the experiences that served as his turning point towards becoming a vegan. It was made apparent that going to a sanctuary in north Germany had visually exposed him to the exploitation that animals are subjected to. Jeff drew fundamental links to his childhood. He grew up in a hunting family where he cared deeply for the hunting dogs that accompanied him on those brutal family outings. Realising that we’re taught to love some animals whilst we happily eat others, is what allowed Jeff to break away from false boundaries and empathise with all animals on the basis of their existence. Drawing from this, it becomes evident how the so-called ‘system’ we live under shapes us to treat specific animals differently, on an abstract basis of presumed superiority.
Whilst trying to get to the core of Jeff’s transition to a vegan lifestyle, it was established that he was previously vegetarian, mainly due to health reasons. However, what brought about fundamental benefits was a transition to a vegan diet as he subsequently lost 13KG. Therefore, in relation to health benefits- I couldn’t help but ask Jeff about the longstanding ‘protein argument,’ since it’s a constant question that I find myself having to answer more often than not.
Elaborating on the apparent misconceptions concerning our health and fitness as vegans, Jeff gave examples of professional athletes who chose a vegan diet in order to enhance their performance through clean eating. He himself claimed to have “far more energy on a vegan diet over the past seven years”, and also finds it easier to get out of bed in the morning on those brisk winter days. – It’s a claim that I can easily relate to, evident even in the first couple months of my transition.
Moving on to the analysis of Carnism as an ideology within itself, it was described as a special kind of ideology- “a dominant ideology, which means it’s woven into the very structure of society, shaping norms, laws and behaviours.” It’s also a “violent ideology” as it encourages not only the slaughter of animals to obtain meat, but also the eggs and dairy industry, which harms animals physically and psychologically. Jeff’s interpretation of ideologies that consist of dominance and violence, are squandered into a defence mechanism. They are therefore used to “distort out thoughts” in an attempt to “numb our feelings to cause us to act against our values of compassion, authenticity and justice.”
Prior to my interview with Jeff, I researched ‘Beyond Carnism’ in more depth and discovered that Jeff had a particular interest in human-animal relationships, which became clearer when he linked human suffering to animal suffering. Compelling links were made between animal farming and the entrenched capitalist system that we live under, as it’s an industry that’s constantly funded by the institutions which we live under.
Comparing dominant and violent ideologies of the past (such as ones that normalised oppression on the basis of one’s race, class or sexual orientation) to Carnism, purified the notion of conditioning that ‘Beyond Carnism’ seeks to help us escape from. Jeff undoubtedly recognises how unique the experiences that each oppressive system encompasses; however, he highlights how psychologically connected these ideologies are on a structural level when shaping our beliefs
Jeff was keen to elaborate on Carnism’s ideological influence, with regards to it being a dominant and violent ideology, and the power it has over our minds; by distinguishing between primary and secondary defence mechanisms.
“Primary defences are there to help maintain the system. These encompass denial, Justification, and distorted perceptions that are all concealed through invisibility. As a result, our trail of thought is moulded into seeing animals as abstractions, without a distinct personality.” A further perpetuation of this occurs when, as consumers, we don’t even see the animals we eat, as most of them come from factory farms and are then placed on supermarket shelves in a sugar coated platform that’s disguised from the suffering behind the items.
Secondary defence mechanisms are there against “those who criticise the status quo, for example vegans are given extremist / radical stereotypes.” Interestingly, this was paralleled with other social justice movements such as the gay liberation movement, the feminist movement, and the civil rights movement. Individual groups that sought to challenge social norms as opposed to conforming to them were stigmatised in the same way that vegans are nowadays.
Despite the long standing perception that most vegans go around trying to ‘convert’ others around them, Jeff acknowledges this behaviour as one derived from being passionate about animal justice issues. When asked what the most effective way to spread veganism is, Jeff made a reference to our past: “Vegans should always remember that most of us weren’t born vegan, however we should nonetheless analyse our past with an aim of self-growth and improvement. What is important at beyond carnism is what direction people are moving in once the faults in the system are highlighted.”
“We shouldn’t seek to ‘turn people vegan’ or expect everyone to be persuaded.” During the interview, Jeff emphasised that we should always “allow people to make free choices, however the problem with Carnism is that it conceals information about the use of animals” for our everyday activities. Carnism is explained to be “contrary to our core human values, and once people realise that then they use the information given to them” in order to make more informed conscious choices. Jeff ended off our interview with a cliché, but nonetheless an effective quote by Gandhi: “be the change you want to see in the world.”
Through carnism, the meat and dairy industry is becoming more exposed, which welcomes with it an enlarged platform for discussion. As a result, we become more aware of our conditioning, by challenging the customs we’re subjected to. Whilst acknowledging that the most sustainable route to veganism is through compassion, we should also recognise the exploitation and oppression that animals suffer due to our supposed superiority that is merely a perception filtered through our social status.
Throughout the interview, Jeff came across as inspiringly optimistic, especially when he admitted to veganism as being one of the fastest growing social justice movements. An attitude that I can only hope that more people adopt over the next few years!