“This is the story of how people became compassionate, and how meat became people.” From this point, five minutes into the BBC mockumentary, Carnage: Swallowing the Past, I’m bracing myself for the worst.
Simon Amstell, writer and director, is widely quoted as making another statement that serves as fair warning that if we’re expecting Carnage to be anything other than a disappointment as a film about veganism, we would be in error: “I have written and directed a film about veganism. I’m sorry.” It turns out that Amstell should be sorry, not because he made a film about veganism, but because he made such a bad film about veganism. Ethical veganism is about justice, not compassion. And animals, as distinct from meat, are nonhuman persons, not people. To refer to nonhuman persons as “meat,” even if intended as a “joke,” is inexcusable. It’s this objectification of animals that is the whole basis of speciesism and the associated horrific violence and injustice committed against them—and there’s nothing funny about that. It doesn’t get any better from here.
Carnage is set in 2067 in the UK, where the consumption of meat, dairy and eggs has been illegal since the passage of the 2035 Bill of Animal Rights. This law “criminalised the enslavement, breeding and killing of all animals, as well as the manipulation or consumption of anything coming out of one.” Young people struggle to understand how their parents and grandparents could ever have eaten the bodies and secretions of innocent animals, with all its abominable cruelty. “For these youngsters, the idea that human beings like them were once complicit in a bloodbath of unnecessary suffering is too absurd to imagine.” Meanwhile older generations are suffering the guilt of their animal-consuming past.
Carnage is really one of the silliest, most cringe-worthy films I’ve ever watched. Much of the “humour” is at the expense of vegans. A 1976 Vegan Society film was used to gently mock early vegans as boring and unhip; their vegan cuisine was “brown food and fruit.” Featuring a family with the surname, “Bland,” we’re shown just how bland these early vegans were. If only they’d been a bit cooler and a bit sexier they might have been able to get some interest in veganism happening. It’s true that, while these people were genuine trailblazers, they do come across as rather woodenly reciting a script in a production was probably never going to set the world on fire. But Amstell goes beyond this, with vegans repeatedly portrayed as, and actually labelled, “ridiculous.” Minority groups are always easy targets for cheap laughs, and poking fun at vegans, in contrast to other minority groups, remains socially acceptable.
For me, as a comedy Carnage falls completely flat and I found it embarrassing and tasteless that anyone would even try to make this kind of supposed comedy about the tragedy of animal exploitation. This is not to say that a serious documentary is the only possible film vehicle for a vegan message. It’s quite conceivable that someone could make a bitingly satirical film on the subject that would be both darkly funny as well as instructive. The endless absurd excuses of non-vegans, and the deep hypocrisy and venality of the bloated animal welfare corporations that help to grease the wheels of animal exploitation definitely provide plenty of potential material. But that’s not what Carnage is. Good satire would require taking aim at the moral wrong of systemic animal exploitation, not those who are opposing exploitation.
I think the basic idea of a futuristic scenario where the world has freed itself of the moral stain of animal exploitation and people are now disturbed by this dark history is an inspired one. It could have resulted in something very worthwhile in terms of being provocative and educational. But this potential was missed by a mile. It’s like Amstell could not decide whether he was making a comedy or a serious, educational film and failed at both. His main concern seemed to be to ingratiate himself with the non-vegan viewing public. Hence the jibes at vegans—incongruous and jarring in a film that ostensibly has some serious intent to educate about the need to go vegan for reasons of animal ethics, health and the environment. Unfortunately, the way Amstell goes about this is to bend over backwards to avoid saying anything of consequence and to maintain a tone of triviality. The result is timid, juvenile and a pointless waste of time.
All the while I was watching the familiar faces of the well-known British actors, I was aware that they were almost certainly not vegan and so for them this was just another job, after which they would go home to chow down on animals and their secretions. Let’s hope appearing in Carnage has got them thinking about going vegan. But watching a bunch of non-vegans (aside from rap musician, JME), in a film about veganism is a weird experience and definitely creates a level of inauthenticity that’s hard to put aside.
The best way to describe the content of Carnage is as if Amstell took every possible form of confusion that exists around the issue of animal ethics, blended it up and poured it out as a hopelessly murky mess. We had vegetarianism as a morally better option; veganism conflated with vegetarianism, with weight loss regimes and humiliating people about their weight; welfare reform as moving things forward for animals; the implication that factory farming and that it’s the way animals are treated rather than the fact that they are used as resources that’s the problem, via repeated graphic images of animal cruelty; television “happy exploitation” chefs as heroes; the idea that “higher quality” meat is better for health, and that “happy” meat tastes better and is ethically better; the assertion that eggs are a chicken’s period (actually, no, they are a chicken’s ovulation, but that doesn’t fit so well with playing on sexist aversion to female bodily functions); vegans judging people; vegans as “attention-seeking loons”; vegans heartlessly letting their cats starve because they supposedly can’t feed them meat. Among this welter of idiocy we had the legitimate concerns of pandemics caused by zoonotic diseases; species extinction; health crises and climate change.
In all of this, there was nothing about justice for animals; no discussion of the immorality of all animal use; certainly nothing about veganism as a moral imperative. Veganism is represented as a matter of “compassion.” No attempt was made to put forward a moral argument at all—that is, that if we regard animals as more than just things, we cannot use them as things, and that all animal use is morally wrong, regardless of treatment. This is of a piece with Amstell saying he was concerned about his popularity at parties and did not want Carnage to be “preachy or annoying,” as though to engage in any discussion of moral issues relating to animals is to be a sanctimonious bore. Talk about reinforcing anti-vegan propaganda. And heaven forbid we should take morality seriously. What a colossal downer that would be. What we need is to be endlessly entertained.
The influence of Melanie Joy is obvious—repeated references to “carnism” and “carnists,” as well as portraying those who formerly consumed animal products as victims of a “cycle of abuse” who had absolutely no idea of what they were doing, presumably because they were under the sway of Joy’s touted “invisible ideology” of carnism. These older people are now tormented by guilt and shame, being helped by celebrated psychotherapist, Dr. Yasmine Vondenburg, to release their painful emotions and come to terms with their demons as a legacy of consuming animal products.
Amstell’s narrative misses the point that people do know exactly what they are doing, but that it’s legitimised by the speciesist ideology of new welfarism, an ideology which Joy promotes. This is the ideology that says that “animals don’t matter as much as humans and that it’s alright for humans to use animals as resources as long as we do so in a ‘humane’ way.” Far from being invisible, this ideology is completely visible, explicit and out in the open. But when we say it’s “invisible” then we don’t have to challenge it, which keeps the status quo of animal exploitation chugging along nicely. According to the carnism theory, we are all victims of this invisible ideology. In line with this, Amstell keeps the focus firmly on humans as the ones traumatised by animal exploitation, with much mawkish and heavy-handed treatment of this theme. The actual victims, the animals, are relegated to a footnote by comparison. The false idea of vegan advocacy as being about blaming people—rather than educating about an important social justice issue—is reinforced by the claim that “Nobody’s to blame. We were all victims.” “People ate meat because they thought that was all they deserved.”
Pop psychology clichés abound. Human moral responsibility is conveniently evaded, trivializing the enormity of the injustice perpetrated against animals.