When Selena Nelson published several articles on plant food for editor William Sitwell, he wrote back a reference to a series of killing vegans – and was forced to resign in the storm that followed. Here Nelson explains how he is at the center of that storm and how he felt to meet Sitwell for One Show.
Starts slowly. "Selena Nelson is a bad recoil," says the first tweet, "she deserves a disease." The next, a few minutes later, was even worse: "I hope this self-righteous, criminal bitch never again appears on the line," he went. "Lonely miserable (there was a four-letter word) without the essence of her life." In a few days the abuse came thick and fast, as well as the demands of the media – Good Morning Britain, LBC, Daily Mail and many other foreign publications, from New Zealand and Australia to the United States.
In the intercourse through the flesh, people who are supposed to insult me and shout for the tabloid media's efforts to ruin me, I was frankly confused by the level of the cabinet that spread around me. Funny, and yet not surprised, because we all know what Twitter is – and how vegan, I am well aware of how angry my lifestyle can make people. After a while, the abuse simply became boring, so I turned my phone into an airplane mode, excluded my social media notifications, rejected all the requests for comments, and tried to keep up with my work.
What was at the heart of this storm of social media? They discovered an email sent to me by William Sitwell, then editor of Waitrose Food, after planting a batch of plant-based cooking. Sitwell's response suggested a series of "killing vegans, one by one, ways to stumble them, how to properly examine them, expose their hypocrisies, feed the flesh." He has since said he thought the email was "kind of attached", but it was not like I read it.
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Selena Nelson appeared with William Sitwell (left) and BBC Justin Rowlet One show, on BBC One on Monday, November 26th
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Behind the skeptical nature of e-mail I saw that I often see when people hear the word "vegan" – hostility, defense, even rage. As a vegan, this is awaited by certain people, but not from an editor working for Waitrose, a company that just presented its new vendor offer, amid many fanfare. I do not answer the standard "disinterested" response from editors, and it was difficult for me to understand why a highly respected, successful editor, in a position of power, will come out of his way to undermine the freelancer simply prone to work.
The next day, after I slept, I let him know at BuzzFeed why the mere mention of veganism could inspire such enmity from others. BuzzFeed wanted to run it as Sitwell email, instead. Running on Monday and until Wednesday Sitwell stepped back.
The story divides the media and the public. Many people sent me messages of support and solidarity, while others criticized 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 given that I did not know William Sitwell.
Inexplicably, the idea of free speech became the subject of this debate, even though it has nothing to do with the story: Sitwell used his right to freedom of speech – but the opportunity to exercise that right does not relieve you of the consequences of free speech.
This weekend Sitwell spoke to "The Mail on Sunday" about the online abuse he got from telling the story. The graphic threats of violence directed at him, as well as his wife and son, are filthy. But the idea that "No one is pushing for blood like an angry vegan," as Mail's front cover postes, is comical and ignores the fact that I got the same level of abuse as Sitwell, and threats as well. It seems that the nonsensical accomplices are more than one match for immortal vegans.
To find out more about the drama that involves us, we need to consider the wider reaction. Good morning Britain was held a segment called, "Does the hate vegans the new norm?". "Get up to the vicious terrorists!", "Daily Mail" arrested its readers, while the deputy writes of "Vegafobia". Aside from the "normal" reasons that people claim to hate the vegans (we are supposedly annoying, pious and hypocritical), the Vice President suggested a deeper reason; people see veganism as a threat to "their sense of identity, values and beliefs," the author writes, partly because he challenges the deep conviction of human superiority over non-people.
There is a risk of covering up the words "vegafobia" in a snowflake-vegan trail – this long-held belief that the vegans are too sensitive, militant, convinced that we are oppressed minorities. Vegans are not oppressed minorities, and to suggest that we are absurd. But the way we see it, we are talking about the oppressed majority: the animals, of which millions, right now, are hung around and are slaughtered.
I believe that there is another basic reason for enmity towards veganism: refusal to recognize the suffering of animals. Vomiting is easier than listening to, because it allows people to ignore animal pain: if you do not face it, does it even exist? Regardless of the media wants to insist, the vegans do not want to shame non-vegans – but we want people to know the truth about agriculture with animals. If one is aware of the extent of the suffering of animals and is still happy to eat animal products, it is an informed decision. But right now, for most people who consume meat, dairy products and eggs on a daily basis, it's not.
It's disappointing, but the main thing that I've taken from this experience is how many people do not know what the veganism actually is. They understand vegetarianism, but veganism goes "too far". It's "extreme". Veganism is not a diet, or a whim, or a way to annoy people around you; it is a deeply philosophical conviction, a way of life that requires, as far as possible and practically and possible, to avoid all forms of cruelty and exploitation of other living beings. There is nothing extreme about it.
This week I first met William Sitwell. I was contacted by The One Show, who told me that he talked to William and wanted to bring us together to discuss our experiences. The idea made me feel a bit worrying, but there were other feelings there: curiosity, defiance, hope. Surely it can only be a good thing to discuss our individual experiences that were engaging and stressful for us and both? And if we could have a (skillfully) discussion of veganism on the road, the better.
As far as we are different people with very different opinions, William is nothing but kindly because we met. I was deeply praised for his warmth and good will, and how, despite the thickness with which he respected me with his favorite dishes with meat – "Pigs from chickens stuffed with chicken!" – he was also ready to listen. He has since said that most vegans "carry out their life choices from a moral aspect with which I can not argue" – a comment that I respect and admire (and, of course, I agree with it).
But as I tried to explain, for me this was not really about William Sitwell, or why he resigned, or why I sent him in the first place. It's about why it's accepted or considered ridiculous to treat vegans with hostility and anger. I'm sorry that William Sitwell lost his job, but I do not regret to expose his email. It sparked a conversation about the veganism and the way we see it, and that's the conversation it should have.
I am delighted that William is happy to be part of this discussion as well. In The Times, he said he hoped we could work together to "explain the world of food and describe it to people of our convictions." I also hope that it sends a powerful message: if two people with different opinions – especially two people portrayed as enemies in the media – can come together, talk intelligently, and explore this issue without dumping abuse, then we actually got somewhere. We made progress as a kind.
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