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Commentary: The Last Acceptable Intolerance

21 Jan 2014

Yesterday was Martin Luther King Day, a good time to reflect on discrimination and tolerance. Since MLK died in 1968, the country has made great strides to eliminate racial discrimination against minorities.

MLKjrEven today there continue to be many social movements that rally behind the slogans of ending discrimination and promoting tolerance. And yet, there’s at least one exception to this trend: the anti-smoking movement.

First, let me state that I’m not morally equating discrimination against smokers with racial discrimination. But in a time where anti-discrimination and tolerance are considered fundamental societal values, you’d be hard-pressed to find any group of law abiding citizens besides tobacco smokers against whom discrimination is not only accepted but promoted.

Legal discrimination against smokers has become the norm. A majority of states have passed laws prohibiting people from smoking in privately owned venues like bars and restaurants, and some even extend these laws to cars, apartments, and private cigar clubs. The same goes for many outdoor areas like public parks, sidewalks, beaches, and golf courses.

We’re told private choices should be respected, but our laws say otherwise. And while we’re told that the science of second-hand smoke justifies this discrimination, outdoor smoking bans prove the anti-smoking movement has other motivations. (Plus, recent studies show the science of second-hand smoke doesn’t justify the claims made to support indoor bans.) It’s gone so far that we’re at the point where public policies that make it more difficult or expensive to use tobacco are de facto considered a good thing.

Maybe even more troubling is the promotion of social intolerance. Children have been propagandized into believing that the slightest whiff of distant tobacco smoke could do serious damage. If you’ve ever sat outside in a public area you’ll see people waving their hands in front of their faces or holding their noses, and the younger they are the more likely they are to react with such ignorance. Children are taught to respect differences, except when it comes to smoking.

We’re told and taught we should tolerate the choices other people make, and that judging people as groups and not as individuals is wrong. But the fact is large parts of society either don’t really believe that intolerance and discrimination are wrong, or they are willing to be hypocritical when it comes to their fellow citizens who choose to smoke tobacco.

Patrick S

photo credit: Library of Congress

6 Responses to “Commentary: The Last Acceptable Intolerance”

  1. DaveG Tuesday, January 21, 2014 at 11:46 am #

    What makes the hypocrisy even greater (if possible) is that it is often the same group of people most vocal about social injustice are those leading the way on the bans based on their pseudoscience. I wish I weren't so ignorant and unenlightened.

  2. Oopzy Tuesday, January 21, 2014 at 12:03 pm #

    ok ok let's calm down. im a smoker and i wish there were more places to smoke and less laws making it difficult to do so. However, describing the issue as a social injustice is a bit much. Couching it in terms reflective of serious discrimination and injustices only lends less credence to the arguments you propose. It borders on ridiculous and that is a disservice to the point you are trying to make, a point that should base itself on logic.

    • Joey Punch Tuesday, January 21, 2014 at 7:05 pm #

      Either people believe tolerance and non-discrimination are good values or they dont. But if they say they do then they are hipocrites if they dont apply it to smokers. Maybe they only believe in tolerance for certain things, which is fine, but then they should admit that. Its not a real "value" if you apply it unequally. Disagree?

      Also clearly he says its not the same as racial discrimination, so grow up.

      • Oopzy Tuesday, January 21, 2014 at 9:11 pm #

        I know the post said that it was not the same as racial discrimination, but then it goes on to basically describe the issue in the same terms (social injustice, discrimination, etc.), and I think that weakens the argument. That's all i meant by that. No need for the grow up as I think it was a pretty benign criticism to a post that seems intent on opening up a discussion.

        And in part, I do disagree with your response in that i think tolerance takes on a different meaning depending on which issue your applying it to. For example, your black and white (i see the pun) definition of "good and bad value" works fine for racial discrimination, but it seems out of place when applying it to the smoking issue which, in my opinion, opens up valid arguments for different levels of tolerance. For example, I don't want someone smoking at a restaurant that I am eating at, and I am a smoker myself. But I wouldnt call myself intolerant as a person because i have a different point of view on the smoking issue. I don't have the same definition of tolerance when it comes to more serious issues like race. So i think in essence, that it is completely fair to apply a tolerant attitude unequally across issues.

        Finally, i think the word tolerance is a cop out when talking about race. Tolerance implies disagreement, a masking of the prejudice with the prejudice still existing. In short, u can be a racist and just be tolerant. Anyways, i disagree with discrimination, but i agree with smoking bans in some places, i still consider myself to hold true to "good" values. And i do not find it hypocritical as i do not think the two issues relate in a way to bring hypocrisy into play.

      • Patrick Semmens Wednesday, January 22, 2014 at 11:57 pm #

        I very much understand your reaction which is why I explicitly made it clear I'm not equating racial discrimination with anti-smoker discrimination. I've never discovered an adequate calculus for weighing moral wrongs against each other, but it's plainly obvious that racial discrimination is massively (exponentially?/incalculably?) worse compared to policies that try to make things difficult for smokers to smoke tobacco.

        I happened to have been watching TV on MLK Day and I found it interesting that a lot of the talk was about how discrimination is wrong and tolerance is good, and not specifically in regards to race but as overarching principles. That's what prompted this article, that there seems to be a lot of people preaching that discrimination is de facto wrong, not just racial discrimination (or other specific instances). But if that's really what they believe then many are hypocrites.

        That said, I actually think the more critical point was the social (as opposed to legal) discrimination. Maybe my perception is off, but it seems to me schools these days emphasize trying to understand individual's choices, tolerating people even if they disagree with you, respecting differences, etc… but smoking is the exception. Teaching our youth to be hypocrites isn't just bad for smokers' rights, it's bad for the youth.

        That hypocrisy is worth pointing out, and possibly it's valuable rhetorically as we debate further anti-smoker policies.

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