This week in British culture wars – it’s Waitrose! For the uninitiated (God bless you, you are doing something right) Waitrose Magazine’s editor, William Sitwell, has resigned in disgrace following an ill-advised email correspondence.
A freelance writer, Selene Nelson, pitched a series of articles to Sitwell on vegan cookery, to which Sitwell 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?”
This made a few people very angry, and William Sitwell has since resigned. The response has largely been divided into: “This is political correctness gone mad!” and “this is deeply offensive and should be classed as hate speech.” Both of these responses are very irritating.
Much to my chagrin, and I am sure I am not alone, it spurned a frankly intolerable amount of think pieces. That’s just the world we live in now. Moving between free speech, and the need for manners, and the value of privacy in communication, nearly every thought that could possibly be thought on the issue has now been thought. So what’s wrong with a few more, eh?
Why does Waitrose have a magazine?
I can’t be the only one who finds this weird. It’s like the British Airways in-flight magazine, but for quinoa and hummus. Do all supermarkets have magazines? I’ve learnt that it costs just £32 for a year’s subscription to the Sainsbury’s Magazine, which is frankly speaking, an absolute steal.
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Should Sitwell really have lost his job?
Well, he was very rude, that is true. When a well-meaning freelancer pitches you a series of articles nicely it’s not best practice to respond by insinuating (however lightheartedly) that the subject of the articles should be systematically killed. One does not have to attend finishing school to understand this.
But lots of people are very rude. And while it might be nice if everyone who was very rude lost their job half the country would be unemployable, and that’d be no good.
Is this all just great publicity?
Waitrose magazine has been thought about more in the past 48 hours than it has in its entire lifetime. Why are we talking about it as if it’s Vanity Fair or the London Review of Books? How has a marketing tool for an upmarket supermarket chain become a bellwether for this once great and noble nation?
Manners aren’t a free speech issue
Serious point here. Those jumping to Sitwell’s defence are largely resting on a free speech argument. “Whatever happened to our free speech!” “You can’t say anything these days” etc. etc., you know the drill.
But, the quality of our freedom of speech is in part determined by how well we are able to distinguish between bad manners and offensive behaviour. This distinction here isn’t that subtle. And, if you can’t tell the difference between hate speech or an incitement to violence and a lame joke, then you have a misguided attitude to the whole principle.
But really that’s not the issue here. It’s that he’s aimed a bad manners joke to a sensitive portion of the Waitrose customer base. And that was a foolish thing to do.
This was really just bad business, wasn’t it?
Waitrose has made a big push into vegan food this year and announced a new range of vegan products for its stores earlier this month, including vegan Christmas meals. As I said, I am confused by the magazine’s existence (see above). But since it does exist, we can intuit that it has the primary function of getting people to buy more stuff from Waitrose. Considering this single function, and the matter at hand (that Sitwell has offended vast swathes of its customer base), he has been remarkably bad at his job.
I did not go to Harvard Business School to reach this conclusion, but I welcome thoughts, queries and concerns from anyone who has.
The ‘PC gone mad brigade’ are as annoying as the ‘outraged by everything’ brigade.
You know who you are. Yes you are annoying as each other. Please care about something else. There are a few wars happening, for example.