William Sitwell debacle shows we should be enjoying eating, not Tweeting
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Another victory for the online trolls sees a respected food writer out of a job which is a real shame, says Andy Newman
If you are at all interested in food, the name William Sitwell will probably be one which you revere. Sitwell is one of the finest food writers of our generation. Until last week, he had been editor of the influential Waitrose Magazine for nearly two decades.
Sitwell was fired from his job following an ill thought-out email to a freelance contributor, Selene Nelson, who had pitched a vegan story idea. His response, presumably intended to be humorous, was stupid and hasty. Anyone who has never sent a stupid and hasty email can smugly take the moral high ground. The rest of us – in reality pretty much all of us – need to be very scared.
Despite the email being private, it somehow found its way onto social media (it's not really hard to work out how). The predictable Twitter furore followed, which to be fair left Waitrose no real choice other than to part company with the writing genius who had taken its in-house rag and turned it into one of the foodie world's must-read publications.
The recipient herself of what was essentially a private email said that she was not offended by what she recognised as a joke. But because of our hysterical, trial-by-social-media world, what should have been solved by a hands-held-up apology has instead deprived all of us of some of the most intelligent food writing around.
The irony is that few food writers have done more to promote the cause of plant-based diets than Sitwell himself. But in our brave new viral world, no-one lets facts get in the way of a good old-fashioned lynching.
One wonders whether the reaction would have been quite so vitriolic if the butt of Sitwell's joke had been, say, meat-eaters. He should have known better than to say anything about vegans; any writer knows from the comments sections under their online articles just how much trolling can result from even the most anodyne comment about those who have chosen the plant-based way of life (if you're reading this online, scroll down and take a look).
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I should make it clear that I have the utmost respect for those who have chosen to become vegan. How you choose to feed yourself is entirely up to you, and I certainly wouldn't criticise you for it.
My problem is with the fact that too often, vegans come across as dogmatic, militant, extreme or unnecessarily antagonistic. Of course, I'm not suggesting every vegan is like that, but enough are to make many non-vegans disregard the perfectly reasonable arguments behind this lifestyle choice.
Following the Sitwell debacle, Good Morning Britain even hosted a debate entitled 'Do people hate vegans?' I'm struggling to think of any other group of diners which TV producers would think merited such a discussion.
The programme took a predictable route. Irish shock jock Niall Boylan described veganism as a 'cult', saying he found them 'irritating' and 'annoying', while TV presenter Adrian Chiles spoke up for the plant-based diet, arguing his case based on his views on animal cruelty.
What is lacking in all of this is anyone genuinely trying to understand what motivates those who have made different food choices to themselves.
Militant anti-meat-eater rhetoric and provocative anti-vegan jibes do little other than to entrench each side's views.
If you really want to convince and persuade people, you have to put forward reasoned, calm and unaggressive arguments.
If you believe eating meat is wrong and you want to change the behaviour of carnivores, dogma and an antagonistic attitude are sure to be counter-productive.
In the end, the Twitter trolls have won this time. A great food writer has lost his job, which no doubt has pleased the more militant vegans. But it almost certainly won't have persuaded anyone to eschew meat, which one must assume is their ultimate aim, rather than just achieving screaming but rather pointless headlines.