Racism and sexism are attitudes or ideologies tacitly accepted by people who have grown up with them in a culture that endorses such beliefs. That Whites are superior to Blacks or that husbands should rule wives goes unquestioned and enforced in such cultures, and accepted as normal.
Although these two cultural norms have been radically challenged in America in recent decades, another such norm, another appalling premise is only now beginning to be widely opposed, though this atrocity harms not people but animals. Call it carnism: the widely-held belief that raising cows, pigs and sheep to be slaughtered and eaten is morally acceptable, an unquestionable good for those who choose to do so. Some anti-carnists would also include not eating fish and fowls.
Meat lovers will quickly rise to the defense of their prejudice, even denying that it is a prejudice, and arguing for meat’s nutritional necessity, or citing the humane procedures now practiced in raising and killing cows, pigs and sheep in this country. They will cite history and pre-history to demonstrate that human beings—male and female; Black, White, Red and Yellow—have been carnivorous forever and of necessity: we thrive on animal protein, just as do carnivorous animals in the wild that prey on other animals for sustenance. So goes their case.
Vegetarians and vegans, of course, beg to differ, citing their own success in remaining healthy by eating only plants, perhaps supplemented with eggs, and fortified with minerals and vitamins. Their consciences are clean of participating in a system that breeds and raises certain highly sentient animals (which are themselves vegetarians) for the sole purpose of becoming our food.
In a summer job during college, I worked for an architect who was drafting a survey of a meat-packing plant on the outskirts of Buffalo. My job was to hold one end of a tape measure while the architect sketched the dimensions of the sheep and cattle pens, the storage area for piles of furry pelts sprinkled with rock salt as a curing agent, and the slaughter house itself, where soon-to-be steaks and chops were tied by their rear ankles then hoisted upside-down on a conveyer track shunting them to where a rabbi slit their throats— this being a kosher butchery.
You might expect that I’ve just recounted a turning point in the life of my eating habits. But no. Just as, only a few summers earlier, at twelve, when I spent my vacation by traveling alone by train to Bradenton, Florida, and visiting with my grandparents who had retired there. It was on that trip that I first saw White Only rest-rooms and water fountains, and somehow tacitly accepted such segregation as normal, even though customs in Buffalo were different, and we merely expected Blacks to live in their own poor section of town and work in menial jobs.
A few years later, it never occurred to me that something else was amiss until Wally Gibbs, a more progressive classmate of mine, protested the situation and urged our headmaster to admit non-white students to our private high school. Such is the cultural spell we live under, the Spell of the Norm, the tacit acceptance of The Way Things Are.
And even now I still eat meat, though less of it, and usually not red meat. But habit still trumps visceral revulsion and moral outrage. It still hasn’t sunk in to my soul. I would, however, never knowingly eat a Golden Retriever.
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What prompted me to write this essay was watching an interview with Melanie Joy, author of a new book, Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs and Wear Cows. That interview is accessible here: