July 11th, 2010

frank_davis4

Empathy

I was over on Curmudgeon's comments today, responding to antismokers. It was the usual stuff. The-stink. The-health-threat. Thank-god-I-don't-have-to-shower-after-a-night-out. And the-ban-is-here-to-stay.

No, it's not a "stink". It's just that you don't like the odour. I love it. Even now, when someone lights up a cigarette nearby, and releases a great cloud of smoke over me, it still smells wonderful.

And no it's not a health threat. Or if it is, it's no more a 'threat' than anything else you find in a pub. You can find some sort of minuscule health threat in anything if you look hard enough. Bar stools? You can fall off them and break a leg. Glasses? Ever heard of someone being glassed. Bottles? Same for them. One day maybe I'll write a blog piece about a world full of tiny 'health threats'.

And did anyone ever shower after an evening in a smoky pub? Showers, in Britain, have been something of an innovation over the past 50 years. We had bathtubs. We didn't have showers or bidets. And, after a night on the tiles, you were usually in no fit state to run a bath. You just hoped you could find your bed and fall into it.

And it's strange how absolutely certain antismokers always are that the ban is here to stay. Truth is that they have no more idea than I do if it's here to stay. Theirs is more of a hope than a certainty. And it's precisely because it's uncertain that they come out with their little prayer.

But one thing that's never explicitly stated by these antismokers, and which can only be inferred between the lines, is their complete lack of empathy with smokers. The smoking ban suits them, and that's all that matters. It somehow never enters their heads to wonder what life is like for smokers in a world in which smoking has been banned everywhere. They don't empathise. At all.

I came across it with a friend of mine a year or two back at a party (in which smoking was banned, natch). When I laid into the smoking ban, he loudly declared, "Well, I like it!" And when I asked if smokers might not have their own smoking rooms or their own pubs, he said, "I don't know. I'd have to think about it." Which meant, of course, that he hadn't thought about it. He hadn't thought whether smokers might like to have a few places that they liked being in, somewhere they could go and have the pint and the cigarette they'd enjoyed all their lives.

The other night, another friend of mine (actually the friend who was throwing the non-smoking party I'd been at that night) phoned me up for a chat. She phones me from time to time to talk about what's on her mind, and can talk for hours. She does so because I'm a good listener. I find it quite easy to empathise with other people. To put myself in their shoes.

What was she worried about? Well, her 14-year-old son had discovered marijuana. And had a stash of it which he kept under the floorboards in his bedroom. Along with a pipe. Oh, and a half bottle of vodka. It seems that half the kids in his school had just discovered marijuana. And their parents were all beside themselves with worry. Alcohol was so very last year. It was hashish this year. And furthermore he had made the acquaintance of street drug dealers, and had their phone numbers in his mobile phone. What was she to do?

I must say I rather admired the headstrong little tyke, who is endlessly adventurous (this is by no means his first scrape). The only thing he doesn't seem to have managed to have done yet is to summon up the courage to smoke a cigarette. So obviously his mother's home ban on that particular scourge of civilisation, no doubt aided by daily antismoking classes at school which probably come complete with real coughing black lungs which wheeze and sigh and finally expire on the desks in front of the terrified kids, has managed to din into the little chap's head that tobacco is the most dangerous drug in the world, and that everything else is OK. Particularly alcohol. And marijuana. I wonder if he's tried opium yet?

But I could empathise with her. She was his mother, after all. How would I feel if I discovered that my 14-year-old son kept not only marijuana under his floorboards, but pipes with which to smoke it, and a handy half bottle of vodka too? Well, it wouldn't worry me too much that he'd been consuming those things. In moderation, they're both harmless. I know both drugs very well. I think that it would not have been his consumption of these drugs that would have bothered me, because sooner or later adventurous kids are going to try these things out. What would have bothered me was that he'd already made contact with the drug underworld, where he would find any number of other drugs available. And who knows what else?

I think I would have sat him down and talked as openly and honestly about drugs as my experience allows me. I would have told him that sometimes people got addicted to drugs, and ended up spending all their money on them, and even robbing people on the street to support their habit. By all means try them once or twice, I'd say, but watch out for them taking over your life. It's your life, I'd tell him, and it's beset with perils in all directions. At least be warned. And I'd have said it all eye to eye, with a fatherly motherly hand on his shoulder.

Anyway, that was the story she told me, and to which I listened, and to which I responded along the lines I've set out. And after an hour or so, during which I'd said very little, and she had said a lot, she said that it had been great talking to me, and she might phone again next week.

All very well, but when I would like to talk to her about what's eating me, will she listen to me? When I try to explain to her just how awful the smoking ban is, and the damage it's doing to me, and to my social life, and the social lives of millions of other people, will she listen to me with the same empathy? Will she put herself in my shoes?

No.

I know, because I've tried. What I get in response is an uncomprehending, glassy stare, as if I'm a bit mad to be bothered about the smoking ban. And if I say that I really, really hate this smoking ban more than I've ever hated any law in my whole life, that will produce a dam-burst flood of assertions about how smoking causes lung cancer and heart disease and every other malady known unto man.

So, while I can empathise with her, she can't empathise with me. I can put myself in the shoes of a mother trying to bring up an adventurous 14-year-old son. But she can't empathise with me, the excluded smoker driven outside.

It's not the first time I've come across this curious lack of empathy. I had another friend, many years ago, who would talk to me for hours about her various problems with boyfriends/parents/employers. When, one day, I started having some sort of similar problem myself, and raised the matter with her, was she sympathetic? Not a bit. She delivered a stern lecture, pointing out my many weaknesses and inadequacies. I was more or less flayed alive. But she was back a few days later with her own assortment of woes and worries, to which I listened with my usual sympathy. In time, she banned smoking in her house too.

It's what sticks out a mile with the smoking ban itself, and the MPs who were the authors of it. There was no consideration of smokers. There was none at all. Zero. Nada. Nothing. The assembled righteous MPs all knew what they didn't like, which was the "stink" and the "health threat" and the interminable showers. And they all could see the inexorable march of history as it led up the holy magic no-smoking mountain of no return.

The righteous, as they peer down their noses, regard themselves as the very personification of moral rectitude. But I think the essence of all morality is consideration. Morality entails considering what other people might feel. Morality entails putting yourself in the other guy's shoes. The admonition to "Do as you would be done by" speaks to this sort of consideration. Without it, there is no morality at all.

After all, a mugger or a thief or a rapist is someone who is without consideration of other people. For him, what he wants is all that matters. Those from whom he steals, or whom he rapes, don't enter into the balance. They are missing.

This may well explain why nobody notices the damage that the smoking ban is doing in so many and so various ways. Not the government, nor the media, nor even most of the people I know. They can't see it, because they can't put themselves in anyone else's shoes. They can only see out of their own eyes. They can't manage the little somersault that will put themselves momentarily and uncertainly in someone else's shoes.

It's not just smokers they can't empathise with. It's much deeper than that. They can't empathise with anyone at all about anything at all. The moral failure is complete.