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Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows

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The psychology behind carnism

Two years ago Chandni Arora, 39, a Bengaluru-based fashion stylist, discovered her low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol levels were abnormally high. Since she was neither overweight nor suffering from any sort of health issue, she decided to consult a dietician to find out where she was going wrong with her food choices. “I love bacon and I was starting every day with a portion of bacon, eggs and milk. The first thing the nutritionist told me to do was to stop eating all forms of meat, dairy and eggs,” says Arora.

While it was initially difficult for her to become a vegan, a visit to a poultry farm in Haryana killed all her old cravings for meat and dairy products. “It was filthy. When you get to see how commercial chickens are bred, kept and then killed, you really start to wonder how on earth you would want to eat them,” says Arora, whose LDL levels are now within an acceptable range after a year of being on a vegan diet.  “Almost all of us only get to see the end cooked product, a good looking steak or sandwich or curry—when you see where your food actually comes from, it changes what you would consider eating. You can’t disconnect with what is in front of you on a plate any longer because you can put an image to it. But till you get to see the manufacturing of meat, you don’t even realise an animal is being killed. I have always thought I was a non-vegetarian without thinking twice about what it even means to be one in ethical or medical terms,” adds Arora.

Like Arora, nearly 60 per cent of 1.2 billion Indians identity themselves as non-vegetarian, a figure that has made the country among the largest producers and consumers of milk and meat products in the world today (according to the study Veg or Non-Veg? India At The Crossroads by Bright Green). “Never in the history of humanity have we ever eaten animals at the rate in which we do today,” explains Melanie Joy, psychologist and author of Beyond Beliefs. Joy, who is also the founder of Beyond Carnism, has done extensive research on why people eat meat and the psychology behind carnism which she says socially conditions people to consume certain kinds of animals and animal products. “Meat-eating is today associated with upward mobility, freedom of choice, rationality and rejection of certain traditional customs in India. The idea that eating meat is progressive is because vegetarianism in India is associated with certain regressive values. But people here don’t realise that when you say no to veganism, you’re also saying yes to carnism and carnism is even more regressive because it robs us of our freedom of choice. It also leads to an exponential rise in health and environmental problems,” adds Joy.

Carnism is essentially the opposite of veganism—a belief system that psychologically and socially conditions us to eat certain animals. In meat-eating cultures around the world, people typically don’t think about why they eat certain animals but not others, or why they eat any animals at all. But when eating animals is not a necessity, which is the case for many people in the world today, then it is a choice—and choices always stem from beliefs.

“Carnism distorts us from our natural empathy. Humans have a remarkable means to desensitise themselves. When we see a hamburger, we think of it as food. But if we found out where that hamburger came from or that it was a pet, then we would see it as a dead animal and not food. When our thoughts are distorted, our feelings are also distorted,” says Joy. For example, in Korea, several Koreans claim they eat dogs but add that they would never eat Maltese dogs or dogs that were their own pets. Joy explains that “We compartmentalise what we eat or not and the way people are able to do this is that carnism teaches us to distort our perceptions. It uses various psychological defence mechanisms such as justification and disconnecting from the reasoning behind why we’re choosing to eat a certain kind of food.”

While researching the psychology of eating meat, eggs and dairy, Joy interviewed several meat cutters, butchers, people who eat meat, and she says she realised that the same people who eat animals also really care about them. “Even if they don’t love animals or actually like animals, they won’t knowingly support extensive violence against them. Neverthless these same people would eat them. And there’s a contradiction here because when we eat animals, we act against the core value of ahimsa or non-violence. I realised people do this without realising what they’re doing because we’ve all been conditioned to the invisible ideology of carnism,” explains Joy.  

Interestingly, while meat-eating may be on the rise in India, the opportunity to turn vegan has also never been easier. From cheese made with cashew nuts to ‘mock meat’ frozen pizza, and from coconut oil biscuits to soy milk coffee lattes—supermarkets are now flooded with interesting options for vegans to choose from. Veganism is also being adopted and advocated by athletes and celebrities such as Virat Kohli, Anushka Sharma, Sonam Kapoor and Alia Bhatt. And as Indians become aware of the food choices they make and understand the consequences of carnism through social media and online platforms, Joy believes veganism will see much more takers in the years ahead.