In Stanley Kubrick’s classic black comedy Dr Strangelove (1964) a US General is so upset about the fluoridation of water he starts a nuclear war and destroys the entire human race. It is on one view an excessive reaction. He could instead have petitioned the lawmakers to oblige suppliers to purify water. I see that Stop the Fluoridation of UK water supplies is one of the 4079 petitions currently open on the petition.parliament.uk website. The justification given is: “a study has revealed the dark relationship between lower IQ levels and sodium fluoride consumption”. There is no mention of General Jack D. Ripper so I have assumed that the petition is not ironic. At the time of writing it has 452 signatures.
There seems to be many people petitioning Parliament for things to be banned. Here is a selection of them:
Ban women from wearing heels in an exam room (to prevent distraction)
Ban 6 yr old playtime across the UK if it means only half an hour to eat lunch
Ban farmers from killing sweet innocent dogs
Ban portrayals of unrealistic body images in the media
Ban cyber bullying
Ban Piers Morgan from twitter
Ban the sale of fireworks to the public
Ban driven grouse shooting
Ban the import into the UK of all hunting trophies
Ban the importation of foie gras into Britain
Ban greyhound racing
Ban burkhas on the grounds of security
Ban male circumcision for under 18s on non-medical grounds
Ban unpaid internships
Ban the use of prong collars for dogs
Ban immigration by cousin marriage
Ban breeding cats and dogs in backyards
Ban height restrictions on car parks
Ban mosques from being built in the UK
Ban cyclists riding two a-breast or in packs
Ban banks from forcing contact-less card payments onto customers
Ban obliging one person to kneel before another person
Ban the Grand National
Ban media outlets from representing ISIS as Islamic
Ban the sale and use of alcohol
Ban the UK media from covering any form of terrorism
Ban all first time mothers from giving birth not in hospital
The word ‘ban’ is a misnomer (as is ‘stop’ a word also used in many petitions). ‘Ban’ and ‘stop’ misleadingly promote the idea that behaviour can be eradicated or undesired acts actually prevented. But banish does not mean vanish. Banishment was possible when the body politic was self contained; those who performed undesirable acts could be cast out of the city state of Athens or the walled city of Peking. Petitioning Parliament to ‘ban’ a certain act is instead a plea to define that act as a criminal offence. That is: to define the legal consequences (usually a fine or imprisonment) of acting in the way objected to. It will not lead to the eradication of the act or behaviour. The following, for example, have not been eliminated by their ‘ban’: speeding, the possession of heroin or the dropping of litter to the ground in a public place.
Of course various acts should be a crime (murder, rape, assault, theft, burglary etc.). The criminal law as a bare minimum should be concerned with keeping the peace and protecting property. But how far beyond that into the realm of morality/human behaviour should it trespass? It was unlawful in the USA to produce, store and/or consume alcohol between 1920 and 1933. It was unlawful in Britain for sexual acts between consenting adult men to occur between 1885 and 1967. To desire the world to be different is one thing. To use the weapon of the law to enforce ones own moral judgements is quite another. The petitioner who invites Parliament to ban first time mothers from giving birth not in hospital seeks, in effect, a law that obliges a court to fine or imprison the wretches. If this is something you feel strongly about, sign the petition. Let’s beat this thing!
Alexis de Tocqueville, the French political thinker, wrote “It is easier for the world to accept a simple lie than a complex truth.” The desire to ban something one disapproves of relies on the false pretence that a simple solution is at hand. It has overtones of an easy omnipotence. Petitions to Parliament rely on the fiction that lawmakers are able to improve behaviour in society merely by enacting laws. These petitions encourage delusion: citizens look to the Government because SOMETHING MUST BE DONE and the Government enact laws whilst looking to citizens SENDING OUT A STRONG MESSAGE. The petitioners and those they petition dance this collusion, both mistaking what the limit of the criminal law should be.
It is possible to disapprove of something and NOT want it banned. This stance is, in fact, an honourable and mature position to adopt. A free society requires people to choose how to behave morally. To force someone to behave in a certain way by the threat of imprisonment is not promoting good behaviour but punishing bad behaviour, a crucial difference. To artificially interfere with moral choice in this way only engineers acts that are empty gestures. Authoritarian regimes seek to re-engineer people and coerce them by threat into behaving morally, but goodness is nothing if the person has not chosen it freely over the flowers of evil. The promotion of genuine good is commenced by communication, persuasion, education, free discussion, an attitude of compassion and empathy, real engagement, civil disagreement, a culture of intelligent and passionate debate. The instinct to ban is finally, therefore, a refusal to talk. It relies instead on a fatal short cut: the exercise of power. I propose that the word ban be discarded from use in public discourse. I may indeed start a petition, Ban the word ban; maximum penalty nuclear holocaust. Who is with me?