The freelance journalist’s stated aim was to explore and challenge the hostility often faced by vegans.
However, by forwarding to BuzzFeed, as an example of this prejudice, a high-handed and tone-deaf email from the aristocratic editor of a food magazine, in which he suggested hunting down and killing vegans “one by one” in response to an entirely reasonable pitch suggesting a series of vegan food articles, Selene Nelson set off a far more explosive cycle of events. There are few winners.
The editor in question, William Sitwell, has been forced out of the job he had held for 20 years, while Nelson has been condemned for whipping up a storm against Sitwell by revealing the content of his email, and seems unlikely to have widened her own career opportunities.
Vegans, meanwhile, are being pilloried as humorless, all-too-easily offended “snowflakes” all over again; the British breakfast show Good Morning Britain even ran a segment entitled “Is hating vegans the new norm?”
Until the events of this week, Sitwell was the editor of Waitrose Food, an in-house magazine for the eponymous British supermarket that has managed to elevate itself above the status of PR rag thanks to his assiduous stewardship of the title over the years.
With a roster of contributors including Pippa Middleton, Sitwell, the author of A History of Food in 100 Recipes, succeeded in making Waitrose Food a respected contributor to Britain’s national conversation about food.
Sitwell is an aristocrat, descending from a long line of celebrated and eccentric thinkers and writers. His great aunt Edith Sitwell wrote the definitive book on the subject, The English Eccentrics, and George Sitwell, her father, had watercolors painted on his cows to make the parkland at their estate, Reinshaw Hall in Northhamptonshire, less dreary.
This farcical tale can be read as the story of the contemporary politically aware activist mind-set colliding with a certain brand of anachronistic and aggressively politically incorrect upper-class humor.
For when Sitwell received Nelson’s highly professional email proposing a “plant-based meal series” for the supermarket’s magazine featuring recipes, commentary, and news, it clearly rubbed him the wrong way.
He bashed out an appallingly dismissive and entitled reply that could have formed Class 101 at asshole editor school.
“Hi Selene. Thanks for this. 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?”
It was a comment that might not have been out of place at one of the Old Etonian’s legendary Northamptonshire supper parties, but didn’t really fit with the corporate signoff at the end of his missive.
Nelson, stunned by this personal attack that appeared to be accusing her and other vegans of “hypocrisy” from some unspecified reason, tried to engage Sitwell in email conversation.
Sitwell, in a follow-up email, added: “I like the idea of a column called The Honest Vegan: a millennial’s diary of earnest endeavor and bacon sandwiches.”
Nelson didn’t find his remarks, which do speak eloquently to a deeply held prejudice against vegetarians by many foodies, in the least bit funny and fatefully forwarded his remarks on to BuzzFeed, with a suggestion she write a piece for them about the day-to-day hostility vegans face.
Unfortunately for Nelson, she didn’t get a commission there either. BuzzFeed did, however, run the contents of the email as a news story, at which point all hell broke loose.
It became clear that Sitwell’s job would be untenable, despite a fulsome apology, as a social-media hysteria gathered pace. Sitwell’s case was not aided by the fact that Thursday was World Vegan Day, which the upmarket supermarket was celebrating by launching their all-new vegan range.
Alienating a small but dynamic and growing part of your employer’s core market is never a great career move.
Sitwell told The Daily Beast that he wouldn’t be commenting on the debacle, but he has been deluged with messages of support on social media. Nelson declined to respond to requests for interview on social media.
Inevitably, perhaps, Sitwell’s powerful and influential friends in society and the media—Brexit cheerleader Jacob Rees Mogg was his best man—have rushed to defend him, arguing that one shouldn’t be sacked for a “joke” gone wrong, even while being forced to admit that the message displayed gross stupidity.
Many, of course, have also chimed in to defend Nelson and slam Sitwell for his stupidity, crass comments and lack of professionalism, vegans and non-vegans alike.
Nelson did finally pick up a writing gig out of the whole debacle, writing an op-ed for British newspaper the Independent, in which she made a not-entirely convincing argument as to why she was completely entitled to share Sitwell’s email.
She said that as her message was sent “in a professional capacity, to the email address Sitwell publicizes on his website” his reply was not a “private email.”
In her piece she railed against “the idea that vegans are militant aggressors” or are “dogmatic, militant, too extreme or unnecessarily antagonistic.”
Sadly, her actions have only served to reinforce these old ideas in some quarters, and the events of the week have, some argue, set back the cause of veganism somewhat.
A spokesperson for the Vegan Society told The Daily Beast that the 'strange' story had not 'achieved much' in a week when they would have preferred the media narrative to be focused on World Vegan Day, and pointed out that they had not called for Sitwell to be fired.
"We felt his apology was enough. Anyone could tell it was a joke," the spokesperson said, but added: "No one would have had a problem if that was a conversation he was having with a friend in a pub. The problem was that in that email he wasn't just talking as William Sitwell, he was talking as the editor of Waitrose Food magazine, responding to a professional request."