"And I’m tired of being forced to breathe in second-hand smoke,’ I said"
It appears you're happy to drive past, and close, to hundreds of cars pumping out carcinogenic fumes, however, the smell of a single burning leaf is enough to near kill you!
*plays worlds tiniest violin*
It’s a good reply but doesn’t apply to me or to what I’d written. The comment presupposed a few things about me that aren’t actually true. For example, as a small town cyclist, I don’t come into contact with hundreds of cars. Mainly out of cowardice, I generally avoid traffic by taking empty residential streets, paths through parkland, a road through a largely quiet industrial estate, and I very rarely spend any time sitting in traffic smelling engine fumes. The second mistake is to assume that my objection to cigarettes is based on their perceived harm. It’s not. I object to having smoke blown in my face because I find that the fetid hot breath of wizened nicotine addicts sickens me to my stomach. My argument would be the same if I was forced to smell raw effluent or the rotting carcass of a feral dog left tied to the bike stands.
Despite my primary objections to the comment, at the heart of the argument there was still a good point that needed exploring. Why should cyclists have a problem with smokers given the pollution they’re exposed to in the average cycle journey?
That question intrigued me, though I knew immediately that my reply would take me into morally dark waters. Having an opinion about smoking is like holding a position on the Arab-Israeli conflict. There is no position from which you won’t annoy somebody and possibly need a deep bunker.
Yet I’ve never seen myself as a real anti-smoker. I don’t agree with pressure groups that turn these issues into territorial disputes so badge wearers can shake their fists at the rival camp. I like to think I’d defend people’s right to do whatever they want with their bodies, their lives, and their actions. My only restriction is that those choices can’t intrude on the rights of others to do what they want with their bodies, lives and actions.
Naturally, this tolerant approach leads me into some problematic areas, such as my belief that it’s wrong to outlaw any form of speech. Censorship of thoughts, however repellent, merely pushes people with extremist sentiments into the shadows where they eventually do more harm. Let the hate-filled bigots stand in the open where they can be addressed through rational argument, humiliated through ridicule, and revealed for the true louses these people are. Political Correctness, though noble in its aim, merely turns bigots into quiet hypocrites. Silencing people doesn’t make them change their attitudes but it can harden a prejudice into hatred.
I’m not denying that this liberal attitude doesn’t sometimes leave me gritting my teeth when I find myself defending the rights of people I find deeply repellent. Yet it also allows me to retain a defence for satire. Freedom of expression means that I also reserve the right to argue that the choices people make are dumb and where appropriate, mock them savagely for that, as I too can be mocked for the dumb choices I make and opinions I express.
So, although I’m not a smoker, I wouldn’t ban tobacco, as I wouldn’t ban alcohol or even drugs (again, this slides into difficult areas but I’d like to think that arguments against those perils outweigh any argument in their favour). It comes down to a matter of personal choice provided the context allows those individual choices to be made whilst not impacting on the identical rights of others.
Smokers rightly defend their activity by saying they have made a choice as individuals and the rest of us have no right to curtail their activities. And they are absolutely right. Yet the problem that smokers repeatedly fail to acknowledge is that this individual freedom/personal choice argument also works the other way around.
Again, my own objection towards smoking has nothing to do with the harm it might cause. If smoking were good for you, my argument would be exactly the same and it’s this: I have made a choice not to smell something I find repellent. Smokers believe that they’re victimised because they smoke. That’s wrong. They are only victimised when they take away other people’s right to choose and force them to share the consequences of their personal choice. It’s this that lies at the heart of the great Steve Martin joke that has one person ask ‘Do you mind if I smoke?’ and the other reply ‘No but do you mind if I fart?’
Would smokers complain if a large section of the public, gifted with highly pungent arseholes, spent large portions of their day stinking out the entrances to every mainline station, bus stop, or, in the case of my post yesterday, supermarket? What about people who might enjoy standing in a bus queue making a high pitched whining noise? What about people who might have a passion for hosepipes or water guns? What if every time we walked through town we were suddenly doused with harmless water? What if it was tear gas? What if it was raw sewage?
My examples are ridiculous but no more ridiculous, to my mind, than people burning dried leaves and blowing the smoke into another person’s face. And this brings me to the difference between cyclists exposed to smokers and cyclists exposed to pollution: there is no difference except you don’t choose to be a cyclist so you can expose yourself to car emissions in the same way that you don’t choose to be a non-smoker in order to expose yourself to smoke. We can, however, we can do something about the former in the short term, whilst working to solve the problem of the latter.
And we definitely have the right to do something. It’s true that I could endure them like I’ve endured them for years. Perhaps I’m even making a big thing out of a very petty quibble. But don’t I have as much right to choose to avoid the stench of cigarettes as those people have the right to feed their craving? I’m not saying that I’m any better or worse than they are. I’m just saying that I’m different and I would expect others to respect my choice.
The world’s smallest violin? It’s only small if you perceive it as small.