Viewpoint: Why do people mock vegans?
When Selene Nelson pitched some articles on plant-based food to magazine editor William Sitwell, he wrote back suggesting a series on killing vegans - and was forced to resign in the storm that followed. Here Nelson explains what it was like at the centre of that storm, and how it felt to meet Sitwell for The One Show.
It began slowly. "Selene Nelson is a vile disgusting bitch," the first tweet read, "she deserves a disease." The next, a few minutes later, was even worse: "I hope this self-righteous, vindictive bitch never appears on a byline again," it went. "Lonely miserable (here there was a four-letter-word) with no substance in her life." For a few days the abuse came in thick and fast, as did the media requests - Good Morning Britain, LBC, The Daily Mail and many foreign publications too, from New Zealand and Australia to the US.
In between scrolling through meat gifs people presumably thought would offend me and sighing at the tabloid media's attempts to smear me, I was genuinely bemused at the level of vitriol being bandied around. Bemused, yet not surprised, because we all know what Twitter is like - and as a vegan, I'm well aware how angry my way of living can make people. After a while, the abuse simply became boring, so I turned my phone to aeroplane mode, switched off my social media notifications, declined all comment requests and tried to get on with my work.
What was at the heart of this social media storm? I had revealed an email I was sent from William Sitwell, the then editor of Waitrose Food, after I pitched a series on plant-based cooking. Sitwell's reply suggested a series on "killing vegans, one by one. Ways to trap them? How to interrogate them properly? Expose their hypocrisy? Force-feed them meat." He has since said he meant the email to be "in some ways affectionate", but that wasn't how I read it.
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Selene Nelson appeared with William Sitwell (left) and the BBC's Justin Rowlatt on The One Show, on BBC One, on Monday 26 November
Behind the facetious nature of the email I saw what I so often see when people hear the word "vegan" - hostility, defensiveness, even anger. As a vegan, I expect this from certain people, but not from an editor working for Waitrose, a company that had just rolled out its new vegan range amid much fanfare. The standard "uninterested" response from editors is to not reply at all, and I found it hard to understand why a highly respected, successful editor, in a position of power, would go out of his way to undermine a freelancer simply pitching for work.
The next day, after sleeping on it, I pitched an op-ed to BuzzFeed examining why just the mention of veganism can inspire such hostility from others. BuzzFeed wanted to run it as a news story about Sitwell's email instead. It ran on Monday and by Wednesday, Sitwell had stepped down.
The story divided the media and the public. Many people sent me messages of support and solidarity, while others criticised me for not finding the email funny. There were also some who condemned my supposed "betrayal" in making the email public - a concept I found hard to understand considering I didn't know William Sitwell.
Inexplicably, the idea of free speech became a theme of this debate, despite the fact it has nothing to do with the story: Sitwell exercised his right to free speech - but being able to exercise that right doesn't exempt you from the ramifications of said free speech.
This weekend Sitwell spoke to The Mail on Sunday about the online abuse he's received since the story broke. The graphic threats of violence directed at him, as well as his wife and baby son, are abhorrent. But the idea that "Nobody bays for blood like a raging vegan", as The Mail's frenzied headline proclaims, is comical, and ignores the fact that I received the same level of abuse as Sitwell, and threats too. Raging omnivores, it seems, are more than a match for raging vegans.
To learn more about the drama that engulfed us both, we need to look at the wider reaction. Good Morning Britain ran a segment called, "Is hating vegans the new norm?". "Stand up to the vegan terrorists!", The Daily Mail entreated its readers, while Vice wrote about "vegaphobia". Aside from the "normal" reasons people claim to hate vegans (we're supposedly annoying, pious and hypocritical), the Vice story suggested a deeper reason; people see veganism as a threat to "their sense of identity, values and beliefs," the author wrote, partly because it challenges the deeply held belief of human superiority over non-humans.
There is a risk that coining a word like "vegaphobia" plays into the snowflake-vegan trope - this lingering belief that vegans are overly sensitive, militant, convinced we're an oppressed minority. Vegans aren't an oppressed minority, and to suggest we are is absurd. But the way we see it, we are speaking for an oppressed majority: the animals, millions of whom, right at this moment, are being hung upside down and slaughtered.
I believe there's another underlying cause for hostility towards veganism: a refusal to recognise the suffering of animals. Mocking vegans is easier than listening to them, because it allows people to disregard animals' pain: if you don't confront it, does it even exist? Whatever the media likes to insist, vegans aren't seeking to shame non-vegans - but we do want people to know the truth about animal agriculture. If someone is aware of the extent of animal suffering and is still happy to eat animal products, that's an informed decision. But right now, for most people who consume meat, dairy and eggs on a daily basis, it isn't.
It's disappointing, but the main thing I've taken away from this experience is how many people don't know what veganism actually is. They understand vegetarianism, but veganism is going "too far". It's "extreme". Veganism isn't a diet, or a fad, or a way to annoy the people around you; it's a deeply held philosophical belief, a way of living that seeks - as far as is practical and possible - to avoid all forms of cruelty to, and exploitation of, other living creatures. There is nothing extreme about that.
This week I met William Sitwell for the first time. I was contacted by The One Show, who told me they'd spoken to William and were keen to bring us together to talk about our experiences. The idea made me feel somewhat apprehensive, but there were other feelings there too: curiosity, defiance, hopefulness. Surely it could only be a good thing to discuss our individual experiences, which were overwhelming and stressful for us both? And if along the way we could actually have a (polite) discussion about veganism, all the better.
As much as we are different people with very different opinions, William has been nothing but kind since we met. I was deeply appreciative of his warmth and goodwill, and how, in spite of the gusto with which he regaled me with his favourite meat dishes - "Pigs trotters stuffed with chicken!" - he was willing to listen, too. He's since said that most vegans "pursue their lifestyle choices from a moral standpoint that I cannot argue with" - a comment that I respect and admire (and of course, agree with).
But as I have tried to explain, for me this wasn't really about William Sitwell, or why he resigned, or why I emailed him in the first place. It was about why it's accepted or considered funny to treat vegans with hostility and anger. I am sorry that William Sitwell lost his job, but I don't regret exposing his email. It ignited a conversation about veganism and the way we perceive it, and that's a conversation that needs to be had.
I'm thrilled William is happy to be a part of this discussion too. In The Times, he has said he hopes we can work together to "explain the world of food and describe it to people of our persuasions". I hope so too, and I think it sends a powerful message: if two people with different opinions - particularly two people depicted as adversaries in the media - can come together, speak intelligently and explore this issue without hurling abuse, then we've actually got somewhere. We've made progress, as a species.