Conversations That Bear Fruit: Melanie Joy On Dismantling The Powerarchy

'Joy reveals how the powerarchy hides in plain sight, acting as an invisible hand silently sculpting norms'
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In recent years, there has been a major increase in vegan and plant-based living (Photo: Adobe. Do not use without permission)

In recent years, there has been a major increase in vegan and plant-based living (Photo: Adobe. Do not use without permission)

As the number of people embracing plant-based living continues to rise, individuals who have already adopted plant-based lifestyles are increasingly under the spotlight and championing their cause. 

Demand for plant-based products is booming, with growing numbers of people changing their eating habits and becoming aware of the devastating links between animal agriculture and the climate crisis. 

As farmers obsess over the rise of plant-based eating, the animal agriculture industry is increasingly worried

Whether sparked by an offhand remark at the dinner table, a flare-up in a comments section online, or through involvement with animal advocacy organisations, people who have adopted plant-based lifestyles need to be able to engage in productive conversations about their beliefs with those critical to the growth of the animal rights movement.

Social psychologist

For social psychologist and author Melanie Joy, relationships are critical to successful dialogue between the people living plant-based lifestyles and those yet to make the change. 

How people and social systems connect are explored by Joy in her most recent book, 2019’s Powerarchy, which examines how productive conversations are not only possible but essential to achieving a world in which animal agriculture is consigned to history. 

While Joy’s guidance already serves as an incredibly useful primer for vegans of all stripes, her latest book may come to be seen as a foundational text for anyone engaged in animal advocacy and activism.

Toolkit

Joy expands on the concept of 'carnism' as explored in her previous book Beyond Beliefs, now positioning the concept within a grander framework of interlocking, oppressive systems. 

Whereas carnism describes the prevailing ideology in which humans support the use and consumption of animal products, the 'powerarchy', as Joy defines it, is an overarching system that encompasses and bolsters all oppressive systems. 

Supplementing the toolkit created in Beyond Beliefs to explore, repair, and cultivate relationships among vegans, vegetarians, and meat-eaters, Powerarchy maintains a focus on these interpersonal relationships. 

To explore the environment in which these relationships occur, Joy analyses and describes the powerarchy as a new master system based on a hierarchy of moral worth - one built around the belief that some individuals are more worthy of ethical consideration than others.

Joy looks at effective communication in the book (Photo: Adobe. Do not use without permission)

Joy looks at effective communication in the book (Photo: Adobe. Do not use without permission)

Hiding in plain sight

Joy reveals how the powerarchy hides in plain sight, acting as an invisible hand silently sculpting norms, codifying beliefs, and shepherding opinion into law. 

Operating within this all-encompassing system, she argues that vegans - despite being a minority group - do the 'heavy lifting' when they take it upon themselves to personally inform others of the well-documented, deeply-understood problems of animal agriculture. 

Vegans face strong emotional reactions from meat-eaters and vegetarians, who dislike when their privileges within the invisible system are exposed. Combining the unspoken 'requirement' for vegans to have all of the answers with the personal fortitude required to handle strong reactions to the plant-based lifestyle, vegans carry a significant burden on behalf of those who already have an unfair advantage.

Bridging the ideological and communication gap

Joy argues that animal advocates who wish to effectively challenge others’ privileges must relate to people as they are, not as they wish they were. While some accept this responsibility to bridge the ideological and communication gap, others see Joy’s approach as coddling an already dominant group - one that scarcely notices its dominance over the trillions of animals killed annually for food. 

For Joy, this tension is central to her theory of effective communication. Some vegans are good at ignoring psychological realities that they don't like - but at their own peril, Joy argues, as this 'blinders on' approach sabotages critical efforts to make change. Only by transforming how humans relate to privilege can we counteract, rather than reinforce, oppression.

Advocating for animals

Powerarchy addresses the familiar admonishment that the efforts of activists are misdirected - that humans should not spend time advocating for animals when wars, cancer, racism, and many other overwhelming problems continue to negatively affect humans. 

Since anyone advocating for animals and the adoption of plant-based diets cannot be everywhere at once, Joy argues, advocates must accept that, while they may shoulder the burden of communicating to others about animals’ rights, they are not responsible for every other pressing issue that humans face. 

Understanding and not undermining any effort to dismantle the powerarchy is critical; Joy describes a baseline, for anyone engaged in activism, that incorporates a broader understanding of powerarchies beyond the activist’s own cause.

Shaming is one of the issues tackled in the book (Photo: Adobe. Do not use without permission)

Shaming is one of the issues tackled in the book (Photo: Adobe. Do not use without permission)

Perceiving the world 

Joy explores the idea that trauma arising as a result of confronting the horrors of animal agriculture - trauma incited by slaughterhouse imagery, nightmares, and abuse or judgement from those who eat animal products - can change how vegans perceive the world. 

As exposure continues, compartmentalisation sets in; those who are not victims, Joy notes, must be heroes or perpetrators - and 'heroes' are good all of the time. Here she deploys a modified Karpman drama triangle: a model of human interaction used in psychoanalytic theory and therapy that encompasses the destructive relationships that arise between individuals in conflict. 

When vegans consider how they relate to others, they must recall that those other people - as perpetrators - are operating from a position of privilege of which they are not aware or actively deny. Most vegans were once part of this dominant system, and so have lived both lifestyles. To reconcile this divide, Joy argues, vegans must recognise the impacts of their trauma on their perspectives of others, and demand change only in a way that honours the dignity of those being challenged.

Shaming

Joy also questions the usefulness of shaming as a tactic; a direct impact of shaming others is the prevalence of feuding within the animal rights movement itself. Slide into any online plant-based or activist community, and you will witness infighting over Impossible Burgers, palm oil, and almonds. 

When vegans judge others like them as 'good' or 'bad', who judges those judging? What of those on the outside looking in, seeing this broiling pool and deciding that if this is living a plant-based lifestyle, then they don't want any part of it? 

For Joy, promoting compassion and justice while shaming those who disagree is an irreconcilable, harmful position. Through noticing shaming behaviour, conversations can be moved in a more positive direction; vegans can remain firm in holding other humans accountable to their expectations, while remaining respectful to all involved.

Hierarchy of moral worth

With clear echoes of Orwell's assertion that 'all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others' ringing distantly throughout, Joy dismantles the myth of the hierarchy of moral worth. 

Enabling recognition of these power imbalances, Joy empowers vegans to have effective dialogue with those who may one day join them. 

Through delivering simple guidance to recognise and respond to the dominant system, Powerarchy can help people of all kinds to act in ways that bring about positive, lasting change as plant-based living continues its rapid ascent.

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