Maybe William Sitwell shouldn't have had to resign. But most people don’t delude themselves that they can be as rude as they like at work without facing any reprisalby Stephanie Boland / November 1, 2018 / Leave a comment
Millenials aren’t snowflakes—they just want people to be decent at work. Photo: PA “‘Killing vegans’ foodie gets chop,” ran the Evening Standard headline on William Sitwell’s resignation from Waitrose Food magazine. The former editor stepped down this week after he sent a rude e-mail sent to a freelance journalist who pitched a column of vegan recipes. (You can read the exchange here.) In response, various writers and editors have expressed outrage. Should he really have to lose his job over a private e-mail? Wasn’t it just a joke? Can’t we make those anymore? Whether or not you believe that Sitwell’s e-mail should constitute a resigning offence—and I’m inclined to think it shouldn’t, although there is of course the awkward fact that Waitrose’s brand relies on pleasing customers his comments will be highly displeasing to—it seems bizarre to argue it was not an offence at all. Journalists, always keen to analyse the habits of our own, seem particularly distressed by Sitwell’s resignation. On Twitter, the profession’s hideous public water cooler, various established writers have bemoaned what they see as an unwillingness on the part of their younger peers to understand the time-honoured rhythms of the industry. These apparently include the right to make crude jokes, to be rude to all and sundry, and to send snippy remarks to relieve the frustration of responding to e-mails pitching the type of work your publication specifically requires. Journalists must have a thick skin and roll-with-the-punches attitude to make it in the dirty business they call the press. It is true that journalism requires a thick skin. But even leaving aside the fact that Waitrose magazine is far more an outpost of a corporate brand than it is a bastion of hard-hitting reportage, this is a gross misreading of why. Journalists need to be robust to go into the field, to report on difficult subjects, and to empathise with the people whose stories they tell—not to accept infinite rudeness from their editors. If our work is important—and the idea it’s necessarily more important than anyone else’s is as amusingly narcissistic as it is common—there is still an obvious difference between speaking truth to power and speaking rudely to people you have power over. No-one should defend so insistently their right to punch that they lose the ability to distinguish between doing so up or down. It’s all too easy, in 2018, to reframe demands for basic respect as the work of “snowflakes” and sensitive millennials, too pampered and entitled to accept bad feeling or insult. Older writers worry that this softer generation is so sensitive that they have rendered themselves incapable of understanding the importance of free speech. This is another misreading. For while free speech is an important principle, it famously does not extend to free speech without consequence—and certainly not to being able to speak however one likes in a professional context. It’s true that most people would hesitate to dob in a rude correspondent to their boss. (In this case, the journalist in question pitched a story about hostility to vegans to Buzzfeed, including Sitwell’s e-mail as an example. They subsequently ran it as a media story.) Yet equally, most people also don’t delude themselves that they can be as rude as they like at work without facing any sort of reprisal. Yes, there are unfair dismissals, and it is right that workplace protections make it relatively hard to sack someone. But ultimately, it’s not the complaining millennials who are entitled; it’s the people who believe their right to a nice job is inalienable. In this regard, the supposedly liberating ability to be rude is actually profoundly conservative. True, it might be fun to be able to make blowjob jokes in the office kitchen, and to tell your pesky colleague that they are, in fact, an idiot. And there will always be people who are quite happy to roll with the punches (“in my day, the women enjoyed the blowjob jokes!”) But the benefits of a loose workplace culture are not distributed evenly. As a 2015 TUC report on workplace bullying suggests, women, minorities and junior employers are far more vulnerable to poor treatment than their colleagues—and far less likely to be able to “give it back,” even if they do have the much-feted “thick skin.” Would a cleaner servicing the offices of Waitrose magazine be sacked for leaving a joke about killing editors on Sitwell’s desk? Would the Right Honourable Jacob Rees-Mogg praise her talent and good character on social media if so? When we hear the phrase “free speech,” it’s always wise to ask: “free speech for who?” What some of the angry responses to Sitwell’s resignation are defending is not the right to have fun and engage in mutual banter, but to be rude to strangers. Perhaps he shouldn’t have been fired for it, but the bones of the issue are undeniable: Sitwell didn’t think a young woman journalist was worth being polite to. Perhaps he thought that journalists are so important they should be able to do whatever they want. Yes, perhaps in your day they could, and it was more fun. But times change. There’s no need to be a snowflake about it.