There was news this week that cigarette packets (from October 2008) will have to carry shocking pictures on top of their current glaring warnings to alert people to smoking’s risks. Apparently Canada and Brazil have already started doing this (and in Canada, 15% people have been deterred from a cigarette by these sort of images). Some of the UK ones really are very gruesome indeed – and these are not the worst:
This is the short sharp shock philosophy of public health – but still, we know that the hardiest of smokers will get inured to them quickly enough. Of course these images will invite criticism and satire. Rather like the last time the UK warnings were ratcheted up in 2003, when these spoof warnings on cigarette packets were produced (right).
But I suspect that all this reflects what you might call a cultural amnesia about the future (if i can put it like that). Many of us live in denial about the consequences of our actions, and do what we can to avoid thinking about inevitabilities and causes/effects (eg the prevalence of anti-aging potions & lotions). Now i speak as someone who has enjoyed the odd drag every now and then and so know it from first hand experience. We choose to ignore future realities for the sake of immediate gratification – the credit card culture, of buy now, pay later.
So my hunch is that anything which shakes us out of our willful ignorance or culpable amnesia is no bad thing. It’s just that i can’t help seeing the principle applied elsewhere. Of course, this will draw accusations of busybodiness, nanny state, noseyness etc And it is certainly profoundly politically incorrect to mention such things. But how about the areas no politician would DARE speak of and yet have just as significant and devastating an effect on society as smoking (since one of the reasons, surely, for the smoking ban having been so politically expedient is the fact that lung cancer and related diseases cost the NHS millions).
What about the extra-marital affairs that lead to separations and divorce? Can you imagine a photograph of miserable children and spouse being displayed on the mirror in the hotel room every time it is reserved for the proverbial naughty weekend? Politicians are having to face up to the fact that family breakdown simply IS a key ingredient in the lethal social cocktails that lead to youth gang culture. And then take the profound impact on the economy (if you have to bring that up), not to mention the housing crisis in southern England (in large part caused by the need to house broken families etc). Now of course, marriages break up for a host of reasons, and I’m certainly not wanting to get on my high horse about it. I simply wish people considered the cruel consequences of their instant gratifications a little bit more.
Or take malicious gossip (of course, this is hardly the realm of legislation but think of its devastating effects). Careers are ruined, families wrecked, communities riven. If people had some inkling of what would happen if such and such was said, don’t you think they’d think again? So how about the mandated appearance of holographic images of those being gossiped about?
Or take this devastating account that i read in the paper this week, written by a father and husband who beat up his wife one fateful evening and found his whole life implode. “I have wrecked my marriage, lost a woman I once loved, lost my children, and lost my standing in the community”. If only he’d had a little messenger on his shoulder whispering what would result from his actions. He doesn’t defend what he did, nor can he – he merely rues the day, and to reading his article, my heart goes out to him.
But then of course isn’t that precisely one of the things that the Bible does so effectively? For biblical ethics is supremely an issue of seeking to live in the best way, because the alternatives have such terrible consequences. The Bible assumes that the universe is wired up in such a way as to mean that all actions always have consequences – which is surely our experience of reality. For there really is no such thing as a moral vacuum, whether it be on the macro, social or individual levels.