Melanie Joy, PhD, is a Harvard-educated psychologist, celebrated speaker, organizational consultant, trainer, and relationship coach. Dr. Joy has given her acclaimed carnism presentation and trained vegan advocates on six continents. Her work has been featured in major media outlets around the world. Dr. Joy is a recipient of the Ahimsa Award for her work on global nonviolence, the Empty Cages Prize for her contribution to furthering the cause of animal rights, and the Peter Singer Prize for strategies to reduce the suffering of animals. She recently published her third book, Beyond Beliefs: A Guide to Improving Relationships and Communication for Vegans, Vegetarians, and Meat Eaters.
For people who have not read your new book Beyond Beliefs, could you summarize who the book is aimed at and why they may find it useful?[Beyond Beliefs] is for vegans, vegetarians and meat eaters. It’s about effective communication—how to have healthy relationships and communicate effectively when you’re relating across differences.
It applies to all kinds of relationships and all areas of life, but I have included quite a bit of information that specifically looks at the challenges people have when they’re in inter-ideological relationships—communicating around those challenges, understanding the psychology that informs veganism and carnism, and how that can get in the way of healthy relating and effective communication. When people understand the principles of effective relationships and communication they can actually rebuild those relationships and make them even stronger.
Do you think that people should read your first book, Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, And Wear Cows, before reading Beyond Beliefs?
No. I wrote [Beyond Beliefs] specifically so people would not have to. I have a whole chapter in this book about carnism and looking at how carnism influences relationships—friendships, family relationships, romantic relationships, all kinds of relationships.
For those who may not be familiar with it, could you explain the concept of carnism?
Carnism is the invisible belief system or ideology that conditions people to eat certain animals. It is essentially the opposite of veganism. It is an oppressive belief system and is structured in a similar to way to sexism, racism, and other oppressive “isms.” It’s organized around violence, and it’s antithetical—it runs counter to core human values such as compassion and justice. It is also a dominant belief system, meaning that it’s woven into the very structure of society. It shapes norms, laws, policies, and behaviors, becoming internalized.
How much did you pull from your own life and relationships in writing Beyond Beliefs?
I certainly pulled a tremendous amount from my own experience and of course from my own life. I worked as a relationship coach for many years, and as a psychologist, I specialized in relationships.
I’ve been in the position of being a meat-eater, the position of being a vegetarian relating to a vegan, and I have—for a long time—been in the position of being a vegan. I felt like I could appreciate this issue from all of the relevant perspectives. I’m in a vegan relationship now with my husband. But, in the past, I have been in relationships with non-vegans.
I’ve also spent quite a bit of time traveling around the world and heard the stories of vegans from all over the planet. I synthesized that information to put together the ideas for this book.
Throughout Beyond Beliefs, you emphasize that the breakdown of veg/non-veg relationships is often not due to fundamental differences in ideologies, but instead because most of us have never been taught how to navigate conflict. What does effectively navigating conflict look like, and why is it important for advocates to learn how to do so?
I wrote this book for new vegans, established vegans, and non-vegans because none of us get any training whatsoever in how to have healthy relationships and how to communicate effectively. We do not have a single lesson on how to move through the world in a way that helps us relate to other humans effectively, efficiently, and compassionately.
I encourage readers to consider and recognize that although I talk about different ideologies in this book, it’s differences in general that act as the lightning rod for anger and frustration in a relationship. We tend to see differences as deficiencies, as if something is wrong with one person in a relationship. Many people have this assumption of “if only you were more like me, this wouldn’t be a problem.” But the real problem is how we relate to differences and what meaning we give them.
The first step is to change our attitude toward differences, including different ideologies. I don’t mean to be relativistic here and say that no real value system matters. I’m simply saying that if we’re relating to another person who has a different ideology from our own, it’s important that we not perceive that person’s character as somehow deficient and wrong. We can prevent conflict by simply changing our perspective about differences and not seeing them as problematic. When we do run into conflict, we can see conflict as normal, natural, and necessary for growth.
What are the markers of a healthy veg/non-veg relationship? In what ways can a veg/non-veg couple communicate, support each other, and respect each others’ values?
In [Beyond Belief] I discuss relational resilience. What this means for vegan/non-vegan couples is that they feel secure and connected. They respect each other’s dignity, see the other person as inherently worthy, and do not feel contempt for them. They feel the other person is truly an ally, and they make sure that the way they interact with each other and with other people regarding their partner—for example, the way a non-vegan communicates about veganism with others—is respectful. This is the ideal situation—but couples are usually somewhere along the spectrum of what’s ideal.
Why do you think having “vegan allies” is so important for bringing about positive social change?
There is this misconception among vegans that you’re either vegan and part of the solution, or you’re not vegan, and you’re part of the problem. This is understandable but not accurate, in my opinion. Social justice movements don’t only succeed because they have a strong core base of activists, but because they’ve attracted enough allies—people who support the movement in the mainstream. So, a vegan ally is somebody who uses their influence to support veganism even though they’re not actually vegan themselves. This could be philanthropic donors; those who allow vegan organizations to do their outreach. It could be the mother of a teenage vegan who ensures that her son or daughter is supported in their veganism. It could be journalists—most of the journalists who interview me are not vegan (not even vegetarian) but they want to get the word out.
Why are vegan allies crucial for maintaining healthy relationships?
We all need to feel that the person we are in a relationship with has our back and that they’re on our side. Even if they don’t have the same outlook as we do—for example maybe one of us is an extrovert and one of us is an introvert—we have to feel that they understand what our inner world is. They support us, value who we are, and respect what we believe.
One of the challenges for vegans is that it’s very hard to maintain respect for somebody who, for example, is a hunter. It’s hard to be an ally in that situation: If somebody is not an ally to us, we can’t possibly feel secure and connected to them.
What are your thoughts on non-confrontational vs. confrontational communication strategies? Do you think both approaches can be effective?
I think it’s important to recognize that a lot of types of strategies can be effective. One area where I feel we need to be especially careful and more homogeneous, however, is in our use of shame as a tactic. I don’t personally believe that shame is ever a useful tactic.
If we want to encourage people to change their attitudes and behaviors, we can and should hold them accountable, but how we do that matters. When we shame people, we’re communicating that they are less worthy than we are. Shame is the process of not honoring a person’s dignity, and people respond by becoming defensive and essentially triggered to a greater or lesser degree. When people are in a triggered, defensive state, they have less access to their frontal cortex (and are therefore less rational and less connected to their empathy).
What advice would you give to animal advocates who want to encourage their family and/or friends to go vegan, but don’t know the best way to communicate without offending them?
I encourage people to raise awareness of carnism and veganism with the aim of helping other people make choices that are more in alignment with veganism, but it’s important to maintain the understanding that this may not happen. Many vegans want to change the people in their lives as a way to reduce the amount of pain they feel in their inter-ideological relationships. They think, “If only this other person were vegan, it’d be so much easier.” And it might be easier. But often the pain is not simply from the other person not being vegan; it’s from the relationship dynamic that’s not working well in the first place.
Instead of encouraging your friends and family to go vegan, ask them to be vegan allies. Everyone needs to have their inner world understood by the people they’re close to. If you’re in a relationship with somebody who is obsessed with cars—even if you have no interest in cars—it’s only respectful and healthy to start learning about cars, so you can understand that person and not offend them. Often vegans find that when the other person becomes a vegan ally, things change enough that they’re very comfortable in their relationship. I have appendices at the end of the book that give guidance on how to make those requests.
In your TedxTalk you mentioned that you first stopped eating meat after becoming ill from a hamburger, and only after that did you start to change your perception (and beliefs) about eating animals. Do you think that if animal advocates focus more on changing behaviors (perhaps by promoting animal alternatives and cultured meat), then changes in belief will follow?
I think we need to focus on both beliefs and behaviors because different people respond to different types of messaging. Some people are very ethically driven, and they respond to ethical messaging. Some people are driven by health concerns, but other people are not. Fortunately, the movement is quite diversified in that there are a lot of different motivations and a lot of different approaches.
In addition to founding Beyond Carnism, you currently operate the Center for Effective Vegan Advocacy (CEVA). Can you talk a bit about what CEVA does, who it’s for, and how it might be beneficial to animal advocates?
I run CEVA with Tobias Leenaert. We founded CEVA when we realized that people don’t get training or education on how to have healthy relationships and communicate effectively. Most vegans are incredibly committed passionate people who want to change the world, but they haven’t been given the tools to do that sustainably. Globally, there are incredibly high rates of secondary traumatic stress and burnout. Our mission at CEVA is to increase the impact of vegan advocacy worldwide, and we believe that influencing the influencers is the way to do this.
We travel around and support vegans and vegan organizations through leadership and organizational consulting. We believe that advocates and organizations are the engines of the vegan movement, and if we can help that engine operate more efficiently, then we help the entire movement operate more efficiently.
You argue that vegan activists must practice resilience to ensure they are working effectively and sustainably. What strategies do you know of that could help animal advocates avoid burnout?
Trauma happens when our resilience is low, so this is why self-care is so important; it helps us stay resilient physically, psychologically, and socially. Most vegans have never heard of Secondary Traumatic Stress, and yet it impacts the vast majority of vegans. It has such a profound impact on individual vegans and the movement as a whole, yet it’s largely invisible. Awareness is the first step, and that’s why I have a chapter about Secondary Traumatic Stress in my book.
We also have a 45-minute talk on sustainable activism on our website veganadvocacy.org, in which I give an overview of Secondary Traumatic Stress and discuss how to prevent and reverse the effects. One of the key things is not to expose yourself to more trauma than you absolutely have to. Many vegans see video after video on their Facebook feed and feel guilty if they don’t watch them. This is not helping the animals; it’s actually hurting them in the long run. Becoming worn down can lead to burnout, and is not sustainable.
You recently wrote about sexism in the animal advocacy movement and the need to raise awareness about it. Are you hopeful that the #MeToo movement is helping to raise awareness about sexism among animal advocates? What else do you think we (advocates in the movement) can do to help?
Sexism is one of a number of ‘isms’ that are causing the movement to be significantly less unified and less empowered than it could otherwise be, and this is the first time that sexism is being openly discussed in the animal advocacy movement. So, just the fact that people are saying “yes, sexism exists in the movement and it’s a problem” is very hopeful to me.
We need to raise awareness about various forms of privilege in the movement—what they are, what they look like—making the invisible visible. There is also a lack of awareness about how to dialogue about these issues. When the veil of privilege has finally been pierced, it creates an opening for conversations that were almost completely shut out before—voices that have been silenced start to get louder. There is often a lot of trauma, suffering, and frustration, so if we don’t understand the specific ways to communicate about this particular type of dynamic—which is the dynamic of privilege or oppression—we can end up fighting and end up stuck in a stalemate.