Is William Sitwell the Harvey Weinstein of animal rights?
02 November 2018 16:58
In the end, Sitwell’s comments didn’t sit well. As the world now knows, in response to a freelance pitch proposing a vegan cooking show, William Sitwell, the editor of Waitrose Food, replied: ‘How about a series on killing vegans, one by one. Ways to trap them? How to interrogate them properly? Exposing their hypocrisy? Force-feed them meat? Make them eat steak and drink red wine?’ He was quickly forced to resign.
I was surprised by the row, but not for the reason you might suppose. I didn’t think that the world had suddenly lost its sense of humour. Rather, I wondered what made this incident so special. Because, as a vegan, I hear this kind of brash rhetoric all the time.
My close friend’s favourite joke is to regularly tell me that he hates vegans. (To which I reply that I hate middle aged white men). When I attend dinner parties, people ask me if being vegan also means I am a lesbian. (My response, I leave to your imagination).
I’ve endured countless meals at which guests notice I’m not eating the meat and then decide to open it up to the peanut gallery. ‘Are you a vegan for moral or health reasons?’ they ask.
I never know how to respond. It’s as awkward as when someone says: ‘You don’t remember my name, do you?’ How do you delve into this ethical issue as they delve into their steak tartares? Their veal baby calves, their foie gras.
I don’t dare ask them why they like to eat murder, do I? I don’t point out that eating veal is reprehensible, cruel. Repulsive to watch. I also don’t make a fuss. I contentedly eat my asparagus, do my best to be charming, to co-exist with those whose moral approach to other species I privately find very challenging. I wish that they asked out of genuine curiosity, so that I could take advantage of such moments to exchange my version of wisdom with theirs. But my gut instinct is that what lies behind the question is judgement and vitriol disguised as polite inquiry.
Why is there such hostility towards veganism? Why do we suffer shaming, meal by meal? And what is our supposed transgression? Daring to feel compassion for animal suffering? Our capacity to grasp that other species have feelings? Our belief in their right to life? Caring about humanity’s impact on the environment? Benefiting from the health of a plant-based diet?
Polls show that a third of Britons are now deliberately removing or reducing meat product from their diet. Yet if you choose the vegan path you are still culturally vilified. It is odd to be shamed for trying to be authentically humane.
Sitwell’s remarks are also a reminder of quite how outdated the popular perception of what it means to be a vegan is. The general assumption is still that we are all sanctimonious, puritanical, moral high grounders. Bearded, Jesus-sandal wearing, granola crunching hipsters. Protesters screaming bloody murder outside Fortnum and Mason. A pious dinner guest, deliberately making everyone else uncomfortable. Someone who doesn’t drink red wine. Someone who is bad in bed. In my experience, these assumptions are mostly held by men – which does make me suspect that the defence of meat-eating is one of the last bastions of the old version of masculinity.
The world needs to catch up. This stereotype is simply not accurate – the assumption that vegans don’t know how to enjoy food, have fun, be sexy, drink or be naughty. Well, I do all five. I love a pasta, party, red wine, sex, the occasional smoke.
On one occasion, I recall, the spectacle of me lighting up a cigarette prompted a non-smoking meat-eater to remark with contempt: ‘So you don’t condone killing animals, but you’ll kill yourself?’ Touché. But why is it everyone’s favourite pastime to dig into the habits and morality of vegans? Dig into your own. Look in your own back garden.
So: bravo Waitrose for recognising that its customer base is evolving. Sitwell’s exit was symbolic, not of suppressed free speech – an employee should not compromise his company so profoundly and expect no consequence – but of something much more interesting. Vegans can’t be ignored any more.
Welcome as it is, I fear this episode is just the starter course; that the main is yet to come. The important question is: when will the vegan movement hit the mainstream? Reach the height of hashtag fashion (which, to be fair, it started to do on World Vegan Day on Thursday). When will veganism capture the world’s attention and invade its consciousness to the same extent as the #MeToo and the Black Lives Matter movements? Could Sitwell turn out to be the Harvey Weinstein of animal liberation?
The trouble is that the battle for animal rights and plant-based solutions just isn’t instantly gripping and doesn’t lend itself so easily to the noisy digital space of contemporary argument. Animals don’t have their own voices. Most of the world prefers comfortable denial. The easier path for those seeking to do their bit in the debate on the planet’s future is to parrot slogans about plastics.
I quite agree that the proliferation of plastics represents a clear and present ecological peril. But complaining about them has also become the go-to position that is meant to offset a whole range of damaging moral choices. Let me tell all those people posting on Instagram in opposition to plastics: if you still eat meat, your values are inconsistent.
If you really want to save the planet and reduce your carbon footprint, the single most significant and powerful gesture you can make is not to eat animals’ flesh or consume animal products. People who use a metal straw seem to believe that they have been absolved of their sins. The hypocrisy is that the meat they still eat comes wrapped in plastic.
Consider the following. Scene 1: the brutal genocide of a factory farm. Animals enduring unimaginable torture and a chemical pumped, disease-ridden misery. Cut to scene 2: a fluorescent aisle of Waitrose. Pleasant musak plays softly in the background. Now those chickens, pigs and cows are all neatly cut and packaged into plastic. The flesh looks so sanitary and delicious in all that shiny wrapping.
The shopper, like an ethical lemming, doesn’t realise she is sinking her teeth into fear, pain, puss, hormones and the smell of horror. Yes, puss. I once as a child remember on a BA flight asking why my sauce was cream and everyone else’s was tomato. It turns out the chicken had a burst abscess.
I honestly feel our children will one day look back on the dinner plates of the early 21st Century with the same shame that we now feel when we contemplate slavery, racism, sexism. How we treat animals is a mark of our humanity and how evolved we are as a species and as individuals. In the words of Leonardo da Vinci: “The time will come when men such as I will look upon the murder of animals as they now look on the murder of men.” We are what we eat – ethically as well as biologically.
Look: I can’t persuade you to do something you don’t want to do. I acknowledge that being a vegan isn’t easy and admit to the occasional lapse (butter and parmesan). But I do urge you to try the @Moby Instagram account for vegan inspiration. And to read Peter Singer’s ground-breaking Animal Liberation (1975). Singer is to animal rights and ‘speciesism’ what Germaine Greer was to second wave feminism. More than any other public intellectual, he has compelled an inquiry into our inclination to value our own species above others and our (arbitrary) belief that we are morally more important.
Again, we channel our uneasy intuition that all is not well into specific cases rather than embracing the harder generality. The last white Rhino on earth recently died and there was a global outcry. People posted tear-stained images on Instagram – even as they tucked into their sushi and spaghetti bolognese.
It boils down to this: who are we to value one being over another? If you are a committed carnivore, I know this is a hard question to hear, let alone answer. It cuts to the core, our ancestral bone. Food is essential, social; a ritual that is nostalgic and intimate; the heartbeat of life and culture. Something we engage with three times a day, or more.
But our earth is in a state of self-evident crisis. We have an ethical and evolutionary responsibility to both be kind, and to try to reverse the carnage that we’ve created. In the end, becoming a vegan is a simple choice. You don’t have to go on a march once a year, or invest, build technology and innovate. In the post-Sitwell era, you can simply fight for the good of the planet through the power of your own palate.