Civil society is giving our killjoy government a run for its money
Men, for example, have no need to be fearful in a #MeToo world as long as they are behaving respectfully towards women.
There is some truth to this. Generally speaking, human beings understand how to interact with one another. They know what actions are appropriate, which are cheeky, and which break boundaries and laws and are completely past the red line.
The problem, however, is that the red line is moving – sometimes so fast, and in a direction that is so counter-intuitive, that it’s nearly impossible to keep up.
I don’t believe anyone, for example, as liberally minded as they might be, could have seen veganism becoming a protected category – until it became one on Wednesday this week here in the UK.
William Sitwell, editor of Waitrose magazine, was pressured to stand down from his job. The reason? His email response to a journalist’s idea for a feature on healthy eating with a satirical suggestion about “killing vegans” or forcing them to consume wine and steak.
The social media mob played its usual role, coming out in full force to call for Sitwell’s removal. And that was it. One flat joke, and Sitwell’s 20-year relationship with Waitrose came grinding to a halt.
Some people on Twitter seemed triggered by this “attack” on the vegan community, and seriously asked whether, were the word “vegan” to be replaced with “Jew” or “Muslim”’, the general public might feel differently about Sitwell’s comments.
The obvious answer, of course, is that they would. The mockery of oppressed and targeted minority groups is widely acknowledged as a bad and unkind thing to do. Most people interpret such comments as being very clearly on the wrong side of the line.
But vegans are not an oppressed group. They are not discriminated against for their race or their sexual orientation. They are not fearful to walk home in the dark or take a late-night bus because their veganism might make them the target of a crime. They are people who choose to refrain from eating animal-based products, and they’re fair game for a joke, just like anyone else.
I understand that some people take issue with the aggressive nature of Sitwell’s joke, which may not have been in the best taste, but the grim, the horrifying, and the afterlife feature in jokes all the time. If they land well, we laugh – however dark they may be.
The response to such a joke not landing well, then, should be holding back one’s laughter, not advocating for a man to lose his career overnight for failing to hit the mark on one particular occasion.
Because here’s the point: if we can’t make an attempted joke about people who eat vegetables, we might as well all pack up, head home, and never engage in conversation again.
We are giving this killjoy government – which has a habit of trying to suck the fun out of every fizzy drink, candy bar, and pint of beer we might dare to consume – a run for its money, by becoming our own thought police, dishing out punishment and scorn in situations that hardly merit it.
We are also running the risk of rendering rare instances of truly inappropriate behaviour meaningless, by conflating the sensitivities around oppressed groups with identities like veganism.
The answer, I believe, is to spend more time laughing alongside each other and less time trying to find reasons to take offence.
Give people’s attempts at humour the benefit of the doubt – some may let you down, but more likely than not you’ll have a happier life, filled with a few good one-liners you can rip off and tell yourself next time.
This article first appeared in City AM.