Why not a No Sermonising Day?

As UK No Smoking Day approaches, spiked calls for a No Sermonising Day instead.

This Wedneday (14 March 2001) it’s No Smoking Day in the UK. With the launch of spiked, we call for a No Sermonising Day instead.

If we were in the business of sermons, perhaps the spiked commandments for living in the good society might read something like this:

1) You shall live as a morally autonomous, responsible adult, with the right to make your own choices, treating others that way and expecting them (especially those in authority) to treat you the same.

2) Errr…that’s it.

By contrast, today our every move seems to be monitored by those keen to impress us with ‘advice’ on how to behave, covering everything from food to sex to parenting.

These sermons are not delivered in the old language of hellfire and damnation. Nobody would listen if they were. Today we are faced with a moralism that dare not speak its name. Instead, it presents itself as public health promotion, or advice on avoiding risks.

Rather than being lectured about what is right and wrong, we are constantly being advised about what is safe and unsafe behaviour. But the message is much the same: keep to the straight and narrow, or face the consequences.

Perhaps the best known examples of this in the UK are the public health campaigns telling us to stop smoking, eat less fat, drink less alcohol and take more exercise. Less well known is the fact that, with the exception of giving up smoking, none of these steps has been proven to have any significant health effects. But they have acted as injunctions to alter our lifestyles - in effect, to turn away from sin and cultivate what the puritanical used to call a ‘healthy mind in a healthy body’.

As spiked columnist Dr Michael Fitzpatrick puts it in his highly recommended book The Tyranny of Health, ‘Once we had the seven deadly sins; now we have the four targets on health’.

Even the anti-smoking crusade has this character. Smoking is definitely a health risk. But everybody knows that already. The focus of much of the discussion today, however, is on the alleged health risks of passive smoking - and here, there is little hard evidence on which to base the battery of anti-smoking measures that have been imposed in societies like the UK, USA and Ireland (1). Behind the campaigns on passive smoking, there is an impulse to regulate public spaces and personal behaviour that does not feel the need for too many facts to excuse its intervention.

No Smoking Day 2001, to be held on Wednesday 14 March in the UK, marks another new departure. The publicity and educational material brought together on the No Smoking Day charity’s website contains relatively little information about the straightforward health risks. It seems far more concerned to advertise the possible impact of smoking on personal relations and self-esteem (two prime areas for intervention by the new therapeutic state). The approach is summed up in this year’s slogan: ‘Kiss it goodbye with No Smoking Day’, alongside a cigarette covered in big lipstick prints.

The website has a section on how smoking makes your skin wrinkle, another aimed at ‘you boys out there’ explaining that ‘it has to be said that smoking leaves you pretty low in the kiss-a-bility department’, and another on ‘men and smoking’ that begins in this slightly bizarre fashion: ‘Extreme is the way to go - extreme muscles, extreme sport and extreme sex, but to perform successfully you need extreme health too. So that counts smokers out…’ Extremely informative, no doubt.

The suspicion that this patronising excuse for health promotion is actually designed more to reflect the government’s political obsession with ‘social exclusion’ is confirmed by the admission that the campaign is aimed ‘particularly [at] young smokers and less affluent smokers’.

The smoking issue itself is not all that important; there is no democratic ‘right’ to smoke that needs to be fought for. But it is symptomatic of the state of public debate today, and the intrusive regime that is creeping in to more private corners of life, almost unchallenged. The widespread acceptance of the exaggerated concern with passive smoking in particular is a kind of metaphor for the atomised state of the nation - a cri de couer that ‘other people are messing up my life!’.

As one who gave up a decade ago, and does not like smoke getting in his eyes, it seems to me that the real problem we should worry about is not so much passive smoking as passive living.

(1) See Passive smoke gets in their eyes, by Brendan O’Neill

For permission to republish spiked articles, please contact Viv Regan.

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