[Paleopsych] spiked: The assault on pleasure

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The assault on pleasure
    11 August 2005

    Is a new Puritanism on the march?

    by James Murphy

    That the maximum boat-speed on a famous Cumbrian lake has now been set
    at a stately 10 miles per hour may not seem like a throbbing issue in
    itself. And, probably, many living in metropolitan UK would
    instinctively conclude that such a restriction would be better for the
    environment, safety, peace and quiet, and so on. The fact that the
    Cumbria Tourist Board and local hoteliers are claiming that the new
    speed limit is having a ruinous effect on holiday trade has hardly
    made front-page news. Even if it did, one wonders whether the
    chattering classes would notice - or care enough to change their view.
    At the Future Foundation, we are ready to lay enormous symbolic
    significance on to the battle of Lake Windermere. The marketing
    services community is slowly realising that a new culture of
    regulation and restraint is busily corroding consumer access to so
    many markets. Individuals too are facing inhibitions to modes of
    consumption that only a few years ago would have seemed ordinary,
    harmless, unquestionably fun. It is getting harder and harder to sell
    certain things, especially in markets with an indulgence dimension,
    and ever trickier to procure them.
    This 'assault on pleasure' takes two interactive forms.
    Firstly, public authorities - from the Lake District National Park
    Authority upwards - are, often driven by the best of motives,
    introducing more formal regulation into more aspects of our lives. The
    Scottish Executive is to ban smoking in public places. A health
    authority in Norfolk has banned a famous fast-food chain from giving
    free vouchers to hospitalised families. A school in Shropshire has
    banned pupils from bringing birthday cakes on to the premises. As you
    look around at common-or-garden politics today, it's not hard to find
    the itch-to-prohibit being noisily scratched by important people
    Secondly, there is a new strain of moral opprobrium spreading through
    the body social. We all have an ever-swelling inventory of things we
    feel we ought not to do - both because lobbies or pressure groups
    suggest they damage the common good and because our friends might like
    us less if they knew we did them. Green campaigners tell us to
    question whether we really ought to take long-haul flights. Health
    campaigners invite us not to give sweets to one another. Safety
    campaigners insist we drive at much lower speeds. There is a censor at
    every corner.
    It is hard to deny that a new Puritanism is abroad. A national study
    run by the Future Foundation in 2005 has found that nearly half the
    country now thinks that the government should ban chocolate-vending
    machines in schools and hospitals. Around 40 per cent of us now agree
    that jeeps and four-wheel drive cars should not be allowed into city
    centres. Perhaps most eerie, is the finding that 30 per cent of us now
    endorse the proposition that a pregnant woman found smoking in a
    public place should be given a caution by a police officer.
    To some, all this will seem like progress, evidence of a society with
    the maturity to discipline excess and to contain indulgence of all
    kinds. And it is not easy for anyone to argue that the environment can
    take care of itself or that children do not need better food or that
    speed is danger-free. Majorities of common-sense support can naturally
    form in favour of many of the new restrictions and restraints.
    But it is the apparently tentacular reach of modern regulation and the
    sheer unchecked energy behind it that should give us pause. In five
    years' time, will giving sweets to children be tugging the same moral
    tripwires as smacking does today? Will all office Christmas parties,
    by diktat, be shandy-only? Will tourists for Petra or Machu Picchu be
    booed as they arrive at Heathrow to board their flights? Will your
    Friday night Bacardi Breezer come with a Department of Health beer-mat
    decorated with a drawing of a diseased liver? Will a new law ban
    angling because fish might be able to feel pain? The evidence of the
    past few years hardly suggests we are holding hyperbolic thoughts
    We are not arguing that the future will bring no perfectly sensible
    changes to attitude and behaviour. But that might be more by luck than
    detached judgement. For we live today in something of a quiet chaos of
    political power and practical authority. In a time drained of
    ideological struggling where the macro-economy is well run by
    steady-as-she-goes technocrats, policy-makers of all kinds are in a
    constant search for something valuable to do. At the same time,
    single-issue lobbies press their claims with a moral superiority which
    the media - awash with disdain for the doings of the conventional
    political class - are generally happy to endorse. It seems arrogant to
    reject the principled case mounted by nutrition campaigners,
    anti-alcohol groups, GMO protestors and road safety lobbies.
    Policy-makers thus fall in line.
    This universe of one-issue agit-prop has one abiding, perhaps
    under-noticed feature. And that is what we might call insatiable
    incrementalism. As restraints on behaviour are ever more formalised in
    the name of the common good, so lobbies have a habit of not
    disappearing. Indeed, even though the world, by their lights, may have
    been measurably improved by the success of a particular campaign,
    their politically monotone clamour can remain as loud as ever.
    The Office of National Statistics might well tell us that between 1998
    and 2004 there was 'little change in the proportions of men and women
    exceeding the daily benchmarks' for alcohol consumption. The World
    Health Organisation might well add that alcohol consumption in the UK
    is running at less per capita/per annum than in France, Germany or
    Spain and that we have less cirrhosis here than in any of those
    countries. But you would hardly get this impression from the websites
    of alcohol-anxiety movements. Alcohol abuse is a social evil, and
    temperate drinking should be encouraged. But can the lobby groups
    really cope with the possibility that things are not actually getting
    any worse and may even be getting a little better? Under what
    conceivable conditions will any such lobby simply declare their war
    over, pack up and go home?
    The 'assault on pleasure' seems to be rooted in a myth of decline.
    Life is not as good as before. Social problems are multiplying and
    intensifying. Too much individualism and free choice - and certainly
    too much consumerism - are depleting our stock of spiritual
    resources...and so on. Versions of these pessimisms are to be found in
    much of the learned commentary that is offered about life in Britain
    now. In Richard Layard's recent Happiness - Lessons from a New
    Science, the distinguished economist tells us that 'despite all the
    efforts of governments, teachers, doctors and businessmen, human
    happiness has not improved' - the fault variously of competitive
    individualism, too much divorce, too much TV, too much secularism, and
    something called the 'hedonic treadmill'. Such statements are taken as
    superior wisdom, and they reinforce attempts to regulate, restrict and
    Any one of us can reach a dispassionate view as to whether a speed
    limit on Lake Windermere is a good thing or a bad thing. And many good
    instincts are at work in all the debates we have about nutrition and
    drinking and smoking and hunting with dogs and global warming and
    children's wellbeing. But maybe we can feel too that regulatory
    impulses are spreading into too many crannies of our lives; that there
    is too much randomness and incoherence in the way certain behaviours
    are being stopped or discouraged; that there is in the air the
    unmistakeable pungency of puritanical bossiness.
    A quarter of us now agree that only a limited number should be allowed
    to visit the Lake District each year. Just how and where and when will
    this overheating culture of inhibition come to a sensible close?
    James Murphy is Director of Model Reasoning and Associate of the
    Future Foundation. He is co-directing the Assault on Pleasure project
    (for further details see [2]www.futurefoundation.net). Email
    [3]jmurphy at modelreasoning.com

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