It’s the most exciting thing to happen to veganism since the soy latte.
Waitrose Food magazine parted company with editor William Sitwell last week after comments about killing vegans. In fact, Sitwell had cracked a joke in an email to a vegan journalist but, as you might imagine with people who consider dropping an egg involuntary manslaughter, the funny side was not seen.
Selene Nelson had emailed Sitwell to pitch an idea for ‘a series on vegan cooking, perhaps in a similar style to the Guardian Weekend’s series “The New Vegan”’. It was based on something called ‘Veganuary’, which, she assured him, meant ‘people will be keen to discover plant-based meal ideas’.
It doesn’t sound like a column to spark panic-buying in Britain’s newsagents, does it? I reckon Richard Littlejohn’s job is safe. Many of us do spend January subsisting on plants but it’s got more to do with Visa than veganism.
Sitwell responded: ‘How about a series on killing vegans, one by one. Ways to trap them? How to interrogate them properly? Expose their hypocrisy? Force-feed them meat? Make them eat steak and drink red wine?’
The idea of force-feeding meat to vegans is offensive. Imagine wasting a good wagyu fillet on these joyless wretches. The feature I’d like to see is six vegans allowed out in public and whichever one manages to go 60 seconds without sharing their dietary preferences with a stranger wins a Linda McCartney sweet potato hotpot. We could call it Silence of the Yams.
Nelson’s pitch was bland, limp and unappealing. You know, vegan. Even so, there was no need for Sitwell to be so snide. A polite ‘thanks but no thanks’ would have sufficed. (The most shocking aspect of this whole row is that an editor actually replied to a freelancer’s email.)
Half of an editor’s job is stopping terrible ideas in their tracks and the other half is stopping good ideas going off the rails. In a previous life, I commissioned opinion pieces for the comment section of a news website and I saw my share of dull pitches — as well as a few that were off-the-wall.
At my prompting, an entertainment industry figure penned an article on a political issue in the news at the time. I used to think spit takes only happened in hacky sitcoms until I sat down to read the first draft and ended up spraying Nescafe all over my computer screen. I had to compose an achingly polite email suggesting some ‘stylistic changes’ to make it read slightly less like a below-the-line comment on a conspiracy theory website.
Rather than a gentle rebuff, however, Sitwell went for rude and obnoxious. In an earlier time, Nelson would have shared the rejection letter with her media chums until some version of the story ended up in Private Eye and Sitwell was ridiculed as a prat. Those were the good old days.
Instead, the emails found their way onto Twitter — the angry mobs’ website of choice — where an emergency offence crew was drafted in to examine Sitwell’s comments. After they tested positive for inappropriateness, a cordon was erected in the form of quotation marks: this wasn’t a joke, it was a so-called ‘joke’.
Vegans, or those capable of flexing their puny muscles to type, threatened a boycott of Waitrose. Issuing any kind of threat is a bold move from people who can be repelled simply by opening a Müller Crunch Corner but the supermarket must have just placed a giant order for bean curd because it caved. Sitwell was ‘resigned’ from his position. A victory, inscrutable to most of us, had been won.
I stopped eating all meat except fish six months ago and am now trying to wean myself off seafood too. I’m not a vegetarian; I have no moral objection to anyone tossing Peppa Pig on the pellet grill. I just figured it might be healthier to cut out all that tasty animal flesh. I was not mortally offended by Sitwell’s snarky barb.
That others were, including non-vegans, is telling. Not because Sitwell’s freedom of speech was curbed — I don’t think it was. Waitrose can hire and fire who they like. The question is why did this email become public and the answer is because it would get Sitwell sacked. This was not an attempt to kickstart a conversation about civility or conduct in journalism. It was about showing Sitwell and people like him that their opinions, their wit, and their worldview will no longer be tolerated.
Such people defy the bland conformity of a post-pluralism, post-humour world in which public expressions are policed by virtue vigilantes who mercilessly enforce ever-changing norms with the certainty and pious zeal of a witch-finder. What was benign yesterday is ‘problematic’ today and will be hate speech tomorrow, and anyone who can’t keep up will be for the stake.
A shift in values is taking place as the millennial generation, those born between the mid-1980s and 2000, begins to assume political, institutional and cultural power. The new ethical settlement being established by my generation is generally considered progressive for redressing wrongs of the past, giving a voice to once marginalised groups and strengthening the rights of the vulnerable. There is some truth to this but with it comes a profound intolerance to differing points of view.
The libertinism unleashed in the 1960s and which had, with occasional conservative push-backs, reigned until the early 2000s has been replaced by progressive illiberalism. Where my parents’ generation — the baby boomers — scorned authority and those who sought to impose their beliefs on others, we struggle to distinguish our personal viewpoints from legally or socially enforced behaviour norms. Today’s Mary Whitehouse is a millennial but instead of trying to ban ‘video nasties’ she is no-platforming TERFs and wants Snow White rewritten because the Prince didn’t secure consent before kissing the poisoned heroine.
Millennials consider themselves open-minded but we are really just replacing an old conservatism with a newer one. This is a generation that cannot understand what all the fuss is about if a newsreader doesn’t wear a poppy but reaches for the pitchforks if a public figure uses the wrong gender pronoun. We love tolerance so much we won’t hear a word against it. I’m reminded of an old Bob Hope gag: ‘I’ve just flown in from California, where they’ve made homosexuality legal. I thought I’d get out before they make it compulsory.’
This isn’t just about silly season fluff — safe spaces and cultural appropriation. In their political attitudes, millennials are a troubling amalgam of snowflakes and jackboots. A 2015 survey by the Pew Research Centre found 40 per cent of US millennials in favour of censoring speech offensive to minority groups. In a 2016 Harvard University study, only 36 per cent of European and 19 per cent of American millennials strongly rejected the idea of a military takeover to replace an incompetent democratic government.
Slightly over one in ten European millennials classified free elections as ‘unimportant’ while an alarming one in four of their US counterparts said the same. Meanwhile, in a poll published last month, almost a third of Americans aged between 22 and 37 described themselves as ‘socialist’, with nearly one in ten spurning the modifier ‘democratic’ in that label.
We are on track to be the first generation since the late 1800s to earn less than our parents. Twenty years ago, 65 per cent of 25-34-year-old middle earners owned their own home; today that figure is 27 per cent. Over that same time period, house prices have shot up 152 per cent while the average family incomes of millennials have increased only 22 per cent.
Ours is set to be a lost generation and we are too busy fighting culture wars to demand redress. On the plus side, though, no one will be making any jokes about vegans for a while.
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Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Contact Stephen at firstname.lastname@example.org.