Wednesday, 21 May 2008

Denormalising Duplicity

Back in March, I commented on public health Minister Dawn Primarolo's fascist plans to force shops to remove tobacco products from public display.

Needless to say, I thought (and still think) such a plan is flawed, to say the very least, and is more likely to indicate the onset of terminal stupidity in any government flunky who gives it mind room. Unfortunately, our cousins north of the border seem to be doing exactly that.

According to the Telegraph, "Cigarette displays to be banned in Scotland - Cigarettes are to be banned from public display in shops under plans announced on Wednesday by the Executive." I'm ashamed that the land of my ancestors, once home to a proud, fearless people, has been reduced to such inexcusably gross stupidity.

Still, the evidence is there for all to see, and there's nothing left do but mourn the passing of both common sense and freedom of choice. You see, it isn't just the absence of publicly displayed smokes that worries me, although the implications and consequences thereof are grave.

No, it's the use - twice - of the word "denormalise" in the Telegraph article that really, really concerns me. Shona Robison, the public health minister minister, told MSPs on Wednesday that, "In a nutshell, we want to do everything we can to denormalise smoking within society."

That isn't just bog standard political propaganda, is it? That's full-blown, high-grade psychological conditioning. Let us assume that Ms Robison truly believes cigarettes to be the ultimate evil. Odd though her position seems to me, she is, nevertheless, absolutely entitled to hold those views, and I could even be persuaded that - if they really are her views - her job imposes upon her a duty to "spread the word".

But there is a world of difference between seeking to warn, educate and persuade the public to do what you believe is best for them, and seeking to subtly - without their knowledge or consent - alter public perceptions so that they believe it, too. The line between the two is very clear - on one side we have the dedicated public servant, aiming only to facilitate change for the better, and on the other you have raging megalomania.

Extreme, you think? Really? Then let us consider the nature of "normality". It's pretty hard to define, but, broadly, it's a matter of perceived commonality - if a significant proportion of people perceive something as normal, then, by and large, it's normal, no matter how odd it may be to the rest of us!

In order for someone - a government, say - to "denormalise" something, they have got to adjust the perceptions of those who currently think it's normal. And that is very, very scary. Do you really want politicians telling you not only what to do, but what to think, without you even realising they're doing it? Because, if you realise they're doing it, it just won't work. Worse, do you want them telling other people what to think?

Remember, "normality" is a SHARED view of what is normal - even if you are unaffected by the proposed "denormalising" tactics, many other people will be. And for them, your views, or behaviour, or whatever is to be "denormalised" will suddenly become abnormal. Pause a moment, and bring to mind someone you, and your associates, consider "abnormal".

How are they treated? I bet they're the butt of a few jokes, at the very least. If you're a kind-hearted soul you might think of them as "OK, a bit weird, harmless but not someone you'd want to get stuck in a lift with." More likely, they're mocked, teased and maybe even bullied or discriminated against, because "us against them" is a very basic element of human nature; we look for things that we have in common with those around us, and things that set us apart from "them".

Most people prefer to be one of "us" instead of one of "them", which is why peer pressure can be so compelling. Now imagine what it would be like if almost all of your friends and colleagues, your family, in fact everyone suddenly started to treat you as an outsider, just because something "normal" that you - and they - have done every day of your life for years, or even decades, is suddenly considered "abnormal".

It's disturbing, but that's what "denormalising" means - take something that's normal, and make it abnormal, along with those who insist on doing what they want to do instead of what they're told they want to do.

In essence, that is what Shona Robison and her colleagues are threatening to impose upon the Scottish people. How long will it be before Gordon Brown-Trousers tries something similar in England and Wales?

Billy Seggars.

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