SAYING 'NO' TO THE OLD WAYS
PERSONAL HABITS ARE UNDER ATTACK
The University of Toronto’s rule book is closing in on Jack McLeod, and the 58-year-old political science professor says that he may be forced to tesign from the job he has held for 31 years if he does not mend his ways. In May, 1990, the aniversity introduced a campus-wide ban on Smoking. McLeod smokes—sometimes cigarettes, other times a pipe—and refuses to quit. His defiance has already brought him one written warning from the administration. But McLeod says that although he will not butt out, he is not totally intractable: for the past three months, he has worked with his office window open and the door locked. Once, during a long interview with a student in another room, he climbed onto a shelf and stuck his head out the
window while he smoked a cigarette. A passing colleague, apparently unimpressed, reported him to university authorities. Last week, sitting in his office and defiantly puffing on a cigarette, McLeod said: “It’s getting very extreme and very silly, and I may be facing the choice of resigning or shaping up.” Smokers everywhere, added the Regina-born teacher, had fallen victim to “a narrow-minded kind of misplaced zealotry.”
Smokers are not alone. The personal habits, beliefs, attitudes and lifestyles of millions of North Americans have come under attack by an expanding legion of special-interest groups. Some are moderate, others are aggressive. Their targets range from smoking, drinking and medical experimentation on animals to
garbage disposal, conventional English usage and logging. Such groups as the 4,000-member Non-Smokers’ Rights Association and the 15,000-member Animal Alliance of Canada, both based in Toronto, claim that they have helped persuade governments to pass laws that have improved public health and human and animal rights. But some educators, politicians, writers and community leaders say that singleinterest movements are often puritanical and self-righteous, and that their relentless hectoring has helped to create a humorless climate of deepening conflict, censorship and polarization. Said writer and Maclean's columnist George Bain, who lives in Mahone Bay, N.S.: “We really are all messed up in this sort of Puritanism and we sure as hell are not having a lot of fun.”
From Vancouver to Miami, people say that they are constantly being harangued or induced to change. On the streets of major Canadian and U.S. cities, animal rights activists regularly distribute handbills demanding that clothing manufacturers stop using furs and animal skins. Some animal rights activists have even accosted fur-wearing women on the streets and spray-painted their coats. Meanwhile, in newspapers, magazines and television documentaries, doctors and medical researchers warn repeatedly of the dangers posed by
the excessive consumption of cholesterol-rich foods, a lack of fibre and other dietary imbalances. Distillers, mindful of the breweries’ success with low-calorie light beer, have begun marketing light liquors containing as little as 27 per cent alcohol by volume, compared with the 40 per cent of regular brands. Said Brian Tyrol, president of Vermont Distillers Inc. of Waterbury, Vt.: “Nobody wants to be reeling after one drink anymore.”
Boycott: Behind every push for good health, clean air, pure water, the humane treatment of animals, minority rights and women’s and homosexual rights, there is at least one specialinterest group. In Vancouver, David Bloom, chairman of the Retail Council of Canada, last week urged merchants not to bow to pressure groups threatening to boycott stores that sell pharmaceuticals and cosmetics that had first been tested on animals. In Seattle, Todd Putnam, 28-year-old editor of the magazine National Boycott News, has attracted broad support among his 7,000 readers for refusing to
buy, among other things, plastics (because they cannot easily be recycled) and hardwood furniture and disposable chopsticks (because environmental groups claim that much of the wood comes from depleted South American and Asian rain forests).
Opponents of such advocacy groups say that some are so extreme that they border on the bizarre. At a conference in Banff, Alta., last week on violence against women, U.S. women’s rights activist Andrea Dworkin shocked even some of her supporters when she said that if the law cannot jail wife-beaters, then women should kill them. The conference was sponsored by the Canadian Mental Health Association. In Bethesda, Md., the National Institutes of Health have spent 10 years in court battles with animal rights groups that were trying to save the lives of two incurably ill monkeys. Researchers had used them in experiments aimed at finding better ways to treat human
strokes. It was not until last month that the U.S. Supreme Court at last gave the institutes permission to destroy the animals. Meanwhile, in Vancouver, the University of British Columbia faculty of medicine has been engaged for years in a running battle with groups that insist that animal experimentation is both cruel and unnecessary.
Of all the special-interest groups, few have been so single-minded as the anti-smokers. In fact, said the University of Toronto’s McLeod, they have gone too far. “The notion of equal rights, even equal rights under the Charter of Rights, has been pretty much bypassed,” he said. “What I find unacceptable is that you don’t have any rights when it comes to using a perfectly legal and advertised substance.” Many of his colleagues were smokers, McLeod said. One railed against “social fascism.” McLeod says that another no longer kept office hours and meets students to discuss their essays by appointment “outside if the weather is moderate or in some sheltered walkway.” As
for the widely publicized dangers of “secondhand smoke,” McLeod said: “Compared to what? To acid rain? To nuclear fallout? To dangerous chemicals in food? To crack and dope use?”
Fight: Meanwhile, he has tried to fight back. On overseas flights, he refuses to patronize either Air Canada or Canadian Airlines International, both smoke-free on all routes. “I pay extra and take British Airways,” McLeod said. But when he decided to fight all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada to determine whether smokers had equal rights on campus with nonsmokers, he could not find a lawyer to take the case. Said McLeod: “They all said that in this climate of opinion, I wouldn’t win and I’d be wasting my time and money.”
That climate of opinion, said historian Desmond Morton, the 53-year-old principal of the University of Toronto’s Erindale College, went far beyond the passions of the smoking wars.
Morton, an author and newspaper contributor, said: “What I sense is a kind of edginess about everybody that is not patient or tolerant anymore of a whole range of things.” Added University of Toronto historian Michael Bliss: “We have witnessed the return of the puritans. You’re not allowed to sin against ethnic equality, you’re not allowed to sin against gender equality.”
The uproar over the 1989-1990 Into the Heart of Africa exhibition at Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum, said Morton, illustrated that attitude. Protesters—blacks and whites— claimed that they found the exhibit racist and offensive, and loudly picketed the museum for months. The exhibition ran for its scheduled 10 months, but a projected North American tour was cancelled. “In fact,” said Morton, “the irony of the show was directed, not against blacks, but against the whites who went off to Africa in the 19th century and died there. One of my ancestors did that, and I could have argued that it was in particularly bad taste to insult his memory.” Said Dr. Harvey Moldofsky, a psychiatrist at Toronto Western Hospital: “There has been a polarization in our society. This has given rise to the belief on both sides that there are people out there who are going to tyrannize the rest of us.”
That fear of extremism, said Martin Laba, 39-year-old chairman of the communications department at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C., intimidates society’s moderates, “who simply don’t take part in debates that become strident.” In British Columbia, said Laba, the smoking debate had become a war, and the moderates had long since vanished. “On the West Coast, people make a career out of anti-smoking,” he said. “They are passionate and they are intolerant. All of this has bred not only a new puritanism but a new totalitarianism, a sort of totalitarian righteousness.” At the same time, said Laba, “we have learned that everything is bad for us, that we have the potential to do harm with just about every consumption activity we are engaged in. What this puritanism works on is a kind of guilt.”
For his part, Dr. John Savage, a Welsh-born family physician and the mayor of Dartmouth, N.S., said: “We have lost a sense of tolerance in a lot of things, and that disturbs me. In its place, we have developed a sense of intolerance that transforms very good issues into very offensive issues.” Special-interest groups are dangerous, said the 58-year-old mayor, “because they reduce the level of comfort that people within the society have with one another. The messianic people are often the worst and the least attractive.”
Special-interest groups flourish, said columnist Bain, because populist news media—instead of occasionally poking fun at extremism—applaud the groups’ goals. “We tend to make gods of certain subjects—cleaning up the environment, improving public health—and to ignore as reactionaries the people who argue against what has become the conventional wisdom,” said Bain. “By doing that,” he added, “we deny critics the voice that should be
available to question all sorts of propositions.”
Some special-interest groups contend that the public should not be required to pay the health-care costs for drinkers, cigarette smokers and others whose excesses are known to be harmful. Said Bain: “I’m sure that figures can be cited on liver diseases, stomach cancer—all sorts of things that may be related to alcohol. Should we try to stop that on the basis that people are going to become ill and fill up the hospitals and increase the cost of medicare? I don’t really think so.” He added: “I think we’ve got to be a little more tolerant and, if nothing else, agree that people are entitled to kill themselves in their own way.”
To Canadian novelist Mordecai Richler, groups mobilized against smoking and drinking are “the new health Nazis.” Declared Richler, who says that he smoked cigarettes for 40 years but quit: “I have never been enamored of the new puritans. Some of the people involved in these movements seem to be very humorless and rather dangerous.” He added: “It’s as if there will be no more cakes and ale because they prefer yogurt and granola. People are now drinking—what is it called?—it’s like Hamburger Helper, not quite wine, more like root beer. ‘Coolers,’ that’s what they’re called.” The currently active generation, said Richler, “is very narcissistic, very concerned with its health, always going to the gym and swimming.
They think they’re going to live to 160, but they don’t seem to be having much fun.”
Cult: Anna Porter, president of the Toronto-based publishing house Key Porter Books, said that anti-drinking pressure groups are devoted more to “the cult of the body” than to personal ethics. Said Porter: “These are all surface things; they are all about appearance. They have nothing to do with morality.” The concern about physical fitness, said Porter, “extends to everything—clothes and bodybuilding and gymnastics. The number of health-related books on the best-seller lists is astounding, and often there will be more than one book on the same subject.
There is a whole preoccupation with bodily functions—how to eat, how to avoid heart attacks, how to live forever and look well.”
Pressure groups have even turned the English language into a battlefield.
The fight began when feminist groups rejected traditional usage, which held that the noun “man” and the pronouns “he” and “him” did not always refer to males but in some forms were pre-
sumed to include women—as in “chairman,” “mankind” and “alderman.” But in the end, tradition had to give ground to the feminists and settle for coexistence with scores of new words, including “chairperson” (or “chair”) and “spokesperson.” The matter has not ended there: the television cameraman has become a photographer and American soldiers no longer “man” positions, they occupy them. At several Canadian universities, students seek the redress of grievances at the office of the “ombudsperson.” Some feminists have proposed that “women” should be spelled “wom-
yn” in order to eliminate the syllable “-men.” A student affairs office publicity release at Smith College in Northampton, Mass., proclaimed last year that “disabled” was discriminatory and that the handicapped should be called “differently abled.” At Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., Dennis Williams, a black teacher of writing, recently questioned the language reformers’ insistence that nonwhites be referred to as “people of color”—not “colored g people.” In an article, Wilg liams wrote: “ ‘Students of I color’ sounds stupid. It’s like æ saying ‘jeans of blue.’ ”
I Vocabulary still prompts 1 debate, but certain forms of “ speech have been rejected. In the wake of campaigns for women’s rights and racial equality, off-color and ethnic jokes are now as rare in mixed company as the three-martini lunch. Mark Breslin, the owner of 19 Yuk-Yuks comedy clubs across Canada, said that although comics “still do ethnic jokes, sex jokes, disease jokes and sick humor,” there no longer are jokes about AIDS, rape and abortion. Still, said Breslin, comedians are born anarchists who, even if they agreed with the aims of most pressure groups, “would deliberately do jokes about them anyway just to exercise their own sense of freedom.” However, said Breslin, “there is a definite fringe element in some of the universities and they are trying to restrict or ban the material the comics are doing. I’m not talking about bad taste—rape jokes or abortion jokes. I’m talking about trying to ban comedy nights because they reflect what their opponents call the white male point of view.” Added Breslin: “As if white males or black women can’t have a point of view.”
For McLeod, the pressure to conform has raised contradictions. His students, he said, profess support for individual liberty, for rights and freedoms and for the Constitution. But when he suggested that racists and fascists should be allowed to address his class along with Liberals, New Democrats and Tories, the students objected “because that would be offensive to the majority.” Added McLeod: “But you’ve got to have some place in society where you’re exposed to all possible views— where anybody, even nuts and loonies, can write or speak. But I don’t know where that place is going to be anymore.” That may prove to be as elusive as a safe haven in which to light up a cigarette.
RAE CORELLI with correspondents’ reports