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  • Justice for Just Us?Spiritual Progressives and Carnism
  • Alka Arora (bio)

As a spiritual progressive and a vegan, going out to dinner can be hard sometimes. This is not because of the paucity of vegan options at restaurants—not in the San Francisco Bay Area, anyway. While restaurant menus can sometimes be an obstacle, I consider them a minor inconvenience compared to the deeper issue troubling me at the dinner table: the uncritical carnism that’s all around me. Coined by psychologist Melanie Joy, “carnism” describes an ideology that leads us to consume pigs, chickens, and cows, oblivious to the immense suffering that these beings experience on their way to our plates. We would never condone such violence toward our beloved cats and dogs, whom we recognize as sentient beings with feelings and subjectivities. Yet the ideology of carnism encourages us to overlook the similarities between species (between pigs and dogs, for instance) so that we can participate in a system that turns living beings into objects for our consumption.

Carnism leads most people to consider veganism merely a “personal choice”—as opposed to a political response to a corporatized agricultural system that commits systematic atrocities against our animal kin. My dinner companions are generally those who are well attuned to the harmful ideologies of racism, sexism, and classism; they are not afraid to call out these issues when they see them. Why, then, is it so hard to broach the issue of carnism at the table?

The social justice community lacks sustained critical discourse about the politics and ethics of consuming animal products. Veganism is often derided as a trendy choice of the privileged, who must consume expensive faux meats and nut milks to sustain themselves. Those of us who raise issues of animal suffering are seen as sanctimonious or as detracting from more pressing issues of human suffering. To be sure, a growing number of food justice activists are articulating links between how we as a society treat animals, treat the earth, and treat the exploited workers who produce our food. Despite these efforts, however, veganism remains rare among progressives, and “carnism” has yet to become a part of our organizing language.

I contend that we must begin to take seriously the impact of our food choices on the other sentient beings with whom we share the planet. A spiritually progressive paradigm must challenge the ideology of carnism and help shift our culture toward veganism. Compassion requires us to look at the immense suffering inflicted upon animals for the sake of profit and taste. Political awareness leads us to see how the exploitation and objectification of human and nonhuman animals are linked. And, finally, the survival of our planet depends upon us opening our eyes to the role that animal agriculture plays in catastrophic climate change.

Desanctifying Life: Racism, Sexism, and Carnism

Our social movements are often beset with a ‘zero-sum game’ mindset, leading some progressives to believe that concern for the oppression of animals will detract from concern for humans. However, a look at history reveals that the objectification of human life through racism and sexism has always been intertwined with the objectification of animal life through carnism. In The Dreaded Comparison, for instance, Marjorie Spiegel documents how the practices of confining, enslaving, and harming nonhuman animals helped give rise to the very same practices that were used in human chattel slavery. Not only were the same instruments of restraint and punishment used for nonhuman animals and dehumanized humans, but the same psychological mechanisms of numbing, dissociating, and othering were employed by the perpetrators of this abuse. Thus, the practice of torturing nonhuman animals made it both cognitively and materially easier to torture humans.

Efforts to end slavery rightly emphasized the humanity of enslaved African Americans. Today, antiracist, feminist, and other activists continue to decry the treatment of women, people of color, and disabled persons “as animals.” However, these efforts leave unquestioned the implicit assumption that animals should be treated “as animals”—that is, with cruelty

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My mother and I watch a pig escape the slaughterhouse, by Sue Coe.

Copyright 2006 Sue Coe Courtesy Galerie St. Etienne, New...


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