Maud Woolf | Tue, 13 Nov 2018
Last week, William Sitwell was unceremoniously sacked from his post as Waitrose Food magazine’s editor after a spectacular display of self-sabotage. The downfall of the MasterChef judge and Etonian was a single email exchange. When pitched on a series of meat-free dishes by freelance journalist, Selene Nelson, he replied with an alternative vegan-based series, centring 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?” Whether this bizarre vitriol to a pretty mundane request was a badly judged joke, a serious case of harassment or momentary loss of judgement is up to the individual’s judgement. Whether he deserved to be fired from his job is again debatable, although Waitrose’s recent expansion into the vegan-vegetarian market made the decision – if only from a business standpoint – fairly straightforward.
The story will no doubt be thrashed by the piranha pit of righteous tweets before being quickly tossed aside for the next mini-scandal. However, the exchange does shed light on popular attitudes towards those who veer towards the herbivorous. We live in a nation with a rapidly changing diet; recently the Independent reported that the number of vegans in the U.K have risen to 3.5 million with innumerable celebrities announcing their devotion to a meat-free lifestyle. There are lots of good reasons to cut meat from your diet, whether it’s health, environmental or even simply the cost and hassle of cooking with meat. Why, then, do emotions run so high when the subject is introduced?
Let me first state that this is not an article attempting to pry the chicken drumstick from your hands; I, myself, am a committed meat eater. For all the good reasons listed above, I still can’t bear to part from my steak dinners and late-night kebabs. However, anybody who knows a vegetarian must have witnessed the defensive attitudes that appear when they state their preference for the leafy. I’ve encountered maybe two people who fit the stereotype of the pious vegan who never shuts up about their diet.
Yet the amount of meat eaters who crack jokes about ‘stupid hippies’ and ‘grass eaters’ is too long to recite.
The majority of these jokes are harmless and honestly pretty funny unless you are very thin-skinned, while others seem to hide a genuine undercurrent of anger beneath the humour. Is it simple annoyance at having to accommodate the difficult dinner guest? My feeling is that the unease at vegetarianism is on a moral level.
If the vegetarian finds meat unethical, then what do they think of the meat eater?
Even when they sit in silence with their salads, we feel a wave of moral judgement descend upon our steak and cheese footlong sub. Simply put, it is the feeling of being judged that is so unnerving.
A vegetarian friend of mine works around this by claiming she dislikes meat for the taste. When I knew her a little better, she confessed to me that this was simply a more accepted answer than citing ethics. People are defensive about moral choices in a way they aren’t for tastes.
I’m not going to try to speak for vegetarians and say that they particularly care one way or the other about other people’s choices to eat meat. The truth of it is you probably are being judged a little. But we judge people for almost everything, even if we don’t say it. We judge the person next to us who only takes the lift to the first floor of the library, the person who consistently shows up twenty minutes late for class, the person in front of us in the Starbucks queue being rude to the barista. Just as we judge the people around us, we are being judged constantly, minutely and imperceptibly, rightly or wrongly every time you walk in a public space. As rational beings this is how we navigate the world, making observations and making judgements. There is no way to control this.
What we can control is whether we voice these feelings. We don’t know if the first-floor lift taker is disabled or just lazy, if the late classmate is terrible at timekeeping or reaching a breaking point. There is, however, never an excuse to be rude to service workers. We don’t know why someone doesn’t eat meat or what they think of us for doing so. We can, however, mind our own business. We all follow our own moral code. The majority of the time your vegetarian friend isn’t glaring at you for ordering sausages, they’re glaring at the menu for only giving them a choice of the garden salad or the macaroni and cheese.