Rachel Cunliffe

The William Sitwell row is nothing to do with free speech

The William Sitwell row is nothing to do with free speech
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When William Sitwell fired off a rude response to a vegan journalist he probably didn't think it would cost him his job as editor of Waitrose Food magazine. Nor is it likely that he would have anticipated his email kickstarting the latest battle in the ongoing culture war. Yet that is exactly what has happened.

At first glance, the story seems clear-cut: it is surely just another clash between the outrage army of censorious, over-sensitive millennials – so-called 'snowflakes' – and the free speech warriors. The former seek out offence; the latter decry Sitwell's departure as another example of ‘political correctness gone mad’. The thought police have struck again, they say, claiming that this shows how expressing the wrong opinions can cost you your job. But it's actually something rather different – and here’s why.

Swap Sitwell’s joke about 'killing vegans' with 'killing Tory scum' and you can bet the two sides would be pretty much reversed. The supposedly objective free speech warriors would suddenly be outraged that someone in Sitwell’s position could express such opinions, while the left-wing outrage crusaders would be defending his right to hate Tories. They would go to great lengths to point out how holding right-of-centre political views is not a protected characteristic.

This makes it clear that this row isn’t about morals; it’s about culture and tribalism. What if Sitwell had made a comment about 'killing Muslims' or 'killing gays'? 99 per cent of people would (rightly) be horrified. But on the other hand, if he’d joked about 'killing men in red trousers' (that timeless identifier of rural Toryism), no one would have cared.

So why the outrage over vegans? Perhaps veganism has become a tribe somewhere between religion, sexuality and fashion. If so, it’s a fascinating thought. Veganism is no longer just a food choice but a form of identity signifying a certain set of beliefs. Yet not all diets choices are equal: if you imagine Sitwell had been rude about paleo eaters – the all-meat diet embraced by the likes of Jordan Peterson – it seems likely that neither side would get anywhere near as animated.

Finally, there’s also a class element at play here. Remember, this is Waitrose Food magazine we're talking about. It's harder to think of a stronger signifier of middle, or upper-middle class status. But what if Sitwell was the editor of a socialist paper and had been caught out taking a pop at vegans? Sitwell’s defenders would be talking about entitled metropolitans mocking working-class food choices in their liberal bubble. If nothing else, this shows that this is not a simple row about free speech.

So for what it’s worth, here’s my take: yes, you should be polite at work and it wasn’t a nice email, but which of us would be comfortable having our inbox sprayed all over Twitter? Not me. 

Anyone who thinks that their view of this story would be the same if the joke had been about their group (be it the red-trousers brigade or pastel-haired social justice warriors) is deluding themselves. So whatever Sitwell's defenders, or those having a go at him might say, this sorry saga is just the latest extension of the culture war. And it's nothing to do with free speech.