A few weeks ago I stumbled upon a story published by civileats.com about Farmstead Meatsmith and the owner / butcher Brandon Sheard. It’s a prime example of a trend I see developing that portrays the humane, sustainable independent butcher as a hero of the modern anti-establishment food movement. Certainly Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms would champion Sheard’s mission. It would even appear that perhaps Salatin was his inspiration, so close is the comparison.
While the civileats.com story and its hero are presented to us as somehow more conscious, more sustainable, the underlying premise driving the moral of the story is steeped in a tradition so entrenched that even the anti-industrial food activists and their followers seem blinded by the light.
Social psychologist and author Melanie Joy would call this story of the new age butcher “a variation on the theme” of the belief system she calls carnism. Carnism essentially justifies meat-eating, and the suffering and killing of animals necessary to make meat-eating possible, in three important ways that remain largely unquestioned even today: Meat-eating is necessary, normal and natural.1
“When Brandon Sheard brings his knife across the throat of a sheep, his movements are swift and precise. The sheep, lying calmly on her side in the pasture on which she has lived her whole life, gently closes her eyes. Brandon rests his hand on her throat and offers a prayer of gratitude to affirm the sacrifice of her life,” writes the anonymous Civil Eats author.2
While some may be distracted by the perverse glorification of sacrificial slaughter almost biblically described here, I would like to focus for a moment on the psychological motivations behind the act and how they seek to justify the contradiction between caring and compassion for animals on the one hand and the act of slaughter and consumption of the same animal on the other.
In Joy’s recently published essay, Understanding Neocarnism: How Vegan Advocates Can Appreciate and Respond to “Happy Meat,” Locavorism, and “Paleo Dieting,” Joy refers to such cases as Sheard’s as compassionate carnism. She writes:
“Compassionate carnism addresses animal welfare concerns. It holds that, while animal welfare is a concern, veganism is extreme and therefore impractical, and thus it’s more practical to eat “humane” (“happy”) meat than to eat no meat. So the solution to the moral dilemma of caring about animals and also eating them is moderation—not straying too far outside the carnistic norm—and eating meat, eggs, and dairy from animals who have supposedly been treated well. … Moreover, compassionate carnism exists largely in philosophy; given that over 99 percent of the meat consumed in the U.S. comes from CAFOs, it is likely more difficult (and thus more “extreme”) for most people to avoid “unhappy meat” with any real consistency than it is to simply stop eating meat. Compassionate carnism essentially suggests that a willingness to eat “humane meat” when readily available condones the consumption of “inhumane meat” in all other situations.”3
1 Melanie Joy, Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows: An Introduction to Carnism (Conari Press, January 2010)
2 Unknown author, Farmstead Meatsmith: Mobile Butchery in Washington State, http://www.facebook.com/notes/civil-eats/farmstead-meatsmith-mobile-butchery-in-washington-state/10150277693794653 (Civileats, August 3, 2011)
3 Melanie Joy, Understanding Neocarnism: How Vegan Advocates Can Appreciate and Respond to “Happy Meat,” Locavorism, and “Paleo Dieting, http://www.onegreenplanet.org/lifestyle/understanding-neocarnism/ (One Green Planet, July, 2011)