Prohibition & Censorship

The UK government has recently passed legislation comprehensively snuffing out the last remaining spots of open and visible trade in what have become known as new psychoactive substances.  The text of the bill as well as the main lines of reasoning behind it are laughably infantile, looking  it as though no more than a few minutes’ thought went into its drafting; the only reason it could have been deemed workable is that no mainstream political party will oppose it with any vigour.  It may be foolish but one possible way to see this as a step forward is to consider that there will surely be interesting legal challenges as a result of the lack of coherence and scientific regard shown by the legislation and as a result a situation could easily be envisaged in which the new legislation is unworkable. This could in turn prompt a complete reappraisal of UK drug policy in general. But, I doubt it.

At the end of last year, our rights and liberties came under fire and sustained significant damage in an attack that shared some notable similarities with this latest attempt to interfere with adults’ attempts to peacefully pursue private happiness.  Very quietly,  seemingly overnight and with almost no objections voiced, a bunch of unelected anachronisms assumed the right to decide that certain types of porn was unsuitable for our British sensibilities, mainly where they involved women looking like they might be enjoying themselves a bit too much, and that was that.  Each of these pieces of legislation represented a significant further erosion of our usually closely guarded freedoms; in both cases the lives of large proportions of the population will have been affected.  And yet, the legislation was marked by almost universal acceptance and very little protest even from fringe groups.

Before discussing the underlying drivers of these cultural and political moves, it’s perhaps worth noting that they represent just two visible legislative events in what seems to be a growing atmosphere of sanctimony and moral absolutism.  What began as silly populist sentiments in an irresponsible media trying to weather the economic gloom and establish some moral certainty in a world where those who drove our financial institutions to ruin are rewarded with positions of great authority, gathered pace and ignited a moral panic.  Instead of dying down in the absence of flammable news stories, this journalistic pyromania seems to have become the new normal, informing the public mood and creating an atmosphere where any consequentialist reasoning is immediately abandoned in favour of a devotion to populism-as-creed propped up by a sham form of virtue ethics.

This is a world in which Tesco pulls the tabloids from child-eye level for fear of corrupting children’s nascent conceptions of women with the poison of sexual objectification while at the same time the DWP consults public relations companies in meetings whose agenda is to seek advice on how best to coordinate a media campaign to frame the recipients of unemployment and disability benefits (many of whom are children) as idle scroungers, fraudsters and morally depraved.   The aim being to soften up the public so that the planned reforms, otherwise certain to be seen as morally unacceptable, can go ahead.  It is a world in which lawmakers, no longer feel obliged even to provide a cursory justification for the legislation they enact on grounds of evidence, scientific knowledge or expert witness.  Instead, the precautionary principle is relied upon whenever necessary to coerce the wayward to behave in such a way as deemed commensurate with the specific set of virtues preferred by these pious pricks.  Thus, the Welsh government bans e-cigarettes in all public places, even though they produce no pollution, presumably because someone decided they didn’t want an activity to which they have a personal aversion to remain visible.

Anyway, returning to the question as to how the laws prohibiting peaceful, consenting adults to enjoy erotica featuring female ejaculation, or purchase or produce any substance that might confer some sort of enjoyable psychological state when consumed, could be passed virtually unopposed, consider the similarities with the historical oppression of homosexual practices.  In this case, laws restricting such practices were clearly an attempt by the 90-95% of society to coerce the other 5-10% into “normal” sexual behaviour.  The entire basis of the oppressive regime that sanctioned incarceration as a proper response to non-mainstream sexual practice was simply statistical.

It seems that when society’s attitudes, which give rise to structural oppression of a minority, should be recognised as such, this simple fact becomes obscured. Instead of perceiving oppression for what it is, the conflict arising when considered next to the conviction that man is noble in reason and infinite in faculty seems to lead to an uncomfortable cognitive dissonance.  The resolution is an appeal to  divine authority or natural law to sanction the moral basis for the widespread acceptance of otherwise unspeakable violations of human rights.  Thus horrific injustices and long-lived regimes of oppression become woven into the fabric of society and emerge as virtues that are then enshrined in law.

Among these sets of virtues is a very deeply held and universal core value, observable to some degree in all cultures, that seems to be a fundamental aspect of the human condition and plays an important role in the capacity of the human mind to willingly construct and adhere to moralistic belief systems even when they lead to great suffering. This is clear even though such cultural and religious norms can be readily deconstructed and exposed as having no logical or scientific basis and often show ludicrous inconsistencies. Closely related to the concept of guilt although it’s not uniquely a Christian phenomenon, it seems to be more a perversion of the human valuation mechanism when applied to negative/positive psychological states.  This is the existence of a kind of blind-spot that simply fails to award any value at all to pleasurable experience where that pleasure has not been bought at the cost of some great sacrifice being made.

Sexual pleasure is in this way given very little value in and of itself; indeed the moralistic mind sees sexual pleasure as an unfortunate but necessary and therefore tolerated means of ensuring reproduction. This I believe is exactly the same attitude that can be detected when, in the development of a new drug, any strongly reinforcing (ie pleasurable) features are actually treated as negative and the ideal pharmaceutical which is ultimately sourced is that which has the medicinal effects isolated and any associated enjoyable psychological effects entirely synthesized out. Gays will always be judged by the moralistic mind as seeking relationships that can never be of value since they are founded ultimately on sexual practises that have no biological role; furthermore the non-valid and therefore unjustified sexual pleasure experienced is never purified or redeemed through the years of sacrifice, the Sisyphean struggle of domestic drudgery and the guarantee of ones own sex life being extinguished, all of which are key aspects of parenthood.

The case put forward for drug policy reform, which often appeals to science and logic by framing the debate in terms of harm done, completely misses the point; it’s not the harm that is the problem, it’s the amount of pleasure conferred that ensures illegality.

The only reason alcohol is tolerated in human society is surely because it can be excused and justified in the moralistic mind as a beverage and thus part of the culinary cultural experience. This would explain why the absurd snobbery exists with regard to fine wine and the laughable metaphorical descriptions that spring up in the wine-tasting “art”. The only way drinking can become acceptable is to furnish it with the pretentious artifice of exaggerated culinary paraphernalia. Tobacco on the other hand is acceptable precisely because it doesn’t actually give you a high. If any proof was ever needed that the relevant measure was not harm done but pleasure conferred, then the legality and acceptability of tobacco smoking is surely it.

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