Tuesday 16 August 2011

Wheezy arguments

Civil Liberties: Up in Smoke, by Simon Davies (Privacy International, 2011)

The recent Privacy International report, Civil Liberties: Up in Smoke contains some excellent arguments against the smoking ban. Nevertheless, the persistent hyperbole and exaggeration reflect a condescending approach towards the reader, and undermine the author’s own agenda.

As Rob Lyons has observed on spiked, the central thesis of Simon Davies’ report is that the regulations in place in the UK today go far beyond the original remit of the smoking ban. Using examples from all over the world, the report gives details of an ever increasing intrusion into home life, and a surge in both surveillance and discrimination. Examples of banning smoking in the home and on the street in the US and Japan make a persuasive case that smoking bans go too far and should be rethought.

Unfortunately, the report’s powerful argumentation is weakened by progressively irritating examples of exaggeration and hyperbole. First we are told that ‘there is already adequate evidence that in some environments smokers are regarded as social pariahs who deserve no rights.’ While the smoking ban clearly undermines the right to smoke, it seems somewhat over the top to claim smokers have no rights whatsoever.

In order to show that the discrimination of smokers is a global phenomenon, we are given the example of Nairobi, where new laws force smokers ‘to stand in the middle of a busy road’. If you follow the reference the report provides, however, you are lead to a BBC article that doesn’t corroborate this claim. Next we are told that ‘those who associate with users are made the subject of negative public campaigns’ and that ‘the substance itself is progressively linked to criminality, personal devastation and immorality.’ With such broad, sweeping generalisations you can’t help getting frustrated with the persistent wallowing in victimisation. And it keeps going. ‘Citizens are encouraged to police use of the substance, resulting in widespread hatred, suspicion and unlawful actions, often of a vigilante nature.’ Are smokers routinely beaten up? Is there a curfew for smokers who have to fear for their lives? This seems to be what the report is implying.

The report quotes Jeremy Clarkson in The Sunday Times: ‘The smoking ban, then, has had a devastating effect, not just on pubs and clubs…but on society, which has now become divisive and bitter’. Now, I disagree with the smoking ban, but if it has really transformed society to such an extent I must have missed something. The idea that society is now only characterised by divisiveness and bitterness sounds like something out of Cameron’s ‘broken Britain’ speeches.

The infuriating thing about the Privacy International report is how it makes itself so vulnerable to criticism, and undermines its own arguments. It is difficult to take an article seriously when you find it littered with inaccuracies and exaggerations. The report is a gift to the pro-ban lobby, who can use it to show that their opponents simply overplay the victim card. Sensationalism only serves to discredit the report.

Counter-productive exaggeration is a common phenomenon. Michael Moore uses it a lot, for example in his film Sicko when he compares an ‘average’ French family on 8000 euros a month with homeless people in the US, in order to conclude that France has a higher standard of living. The same goes for John Pilger when he refers to underprivileged housing estates as America’s ‘gulag’. It’s such a tragic shame when great writing and research plays into the hands of its critics, allowing them to dismiss the entire work as mere conjecture. And it seems so unnecessary: the facts are shocking enough on their own.

Presumably the reason Simon Davies resorted to exaggeration was to try to make his case more impressive and dramatic. It is a widely held belief that sensationalism is necessary in order to gain public attention. Not only can this backfire, but ironically it is symptomatic of the same contempt for the individual on which the smoking ban is based. Advocates of the smoking ban don’t trust ordinary people to resolve any conflict between smokers and non-smokers, or not to chain smoke in front of their babies. In the same way, Simon Davies seems to think that readers need exaggeration and sensationalism in order to be convinced that the smoking ban is wrong.

Davies’ report suffers from a lack of confidence in the ability of the public to understand what is at stake. And as a consequence of underestimating our intelligence, he lowers the standard of his own work. That’s a pity because it’s an otherwise well-researched, informative and engaging report. As Davies says, ‘the smoking debate is often characterised as a clash between the rights of smokers versus the rights of non-smokers’, which is usually a false dichotomy. Instead, ‘a free society offers the possibility of creating solutions that satisfy civil liberties while achieving most public policy objectives.’


Civil Liberties: Up in Smoke is available to download here (PDF).


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