Sunday, January 24, 2010

Smokers: Social subversives and the threshold of societal tolerance

The werewolf can't even begin to list the reasons why he loves Jeremy Clarkson's latest Times of London column "The worst thing about the smoking ban." The article masterfully hits at several important themes about the erosion of society, freedom, individuality, tolerance of permissible decadence, the expense of having free-loaders bumming a stick off you, etc. However, one observation from the article struck the werewolf as particularly poignant:

Smoking, then, has become like freemasonry or homosexuality. We have our secret signs. Our equivalent of funny handshakes and gaydar. We use tricks and nods and winks to establish a bond with other smokers. We coerce them into lighting up first, to gauge the reaction, and then we huddle around the lone ashtray, feeling lost in the room but somehow emboldened by one another’s company.

That paragraph got the werewolf thinking about modern society's threshold and tolerance for certain behaviors and lifestyle choices. Why do some formerly taboo behaviors gradually gain acceptance, while others formerly in the norm get continually more marginalized? During the werewolf's lifetime, homosexuality has evolved into a mostly accepted societal norm (a good thing for the most part) while smoking has grown more subversive, taboo, and been pushed further out to the periphery with each passing year.

The werewolf isn't suggesting that there is a direct correlation between being gay and smoking; as one is a clearly human trait, whereas the other is a lifestyle choice. He is suggesting that modern society may have problems in terms of allocating tolerance with what it wants to deem acceptable, and where it feels the need to be punitive can get a little haywire. He is also not saying that the two generate the same negative externalities. Smoking clearly has the edge on that front. However, informal observation over werewolf's lifetime and his inner MBA sees a direct correlation to the advancement and mainstreaming of homosexuality and the stigmatization of smoking. To graphically chart it, one has increased drastically, and the other has decreased. It fascinates him.

The werewolf was privileged to grow up in the heart of Los Angeles. Growing up in Southern California afforded the werewolf two observational social extremes. One of being on the cutting edge of tolerance for gays, the other being at the epicenter for the no-fun crowd and anti-smoking zealots. As a whelp, the werewolf was raised around smokers. His mother was a relentless smoker, as was his aunt, plus his best friend's father, just to name a few. It was a normal behavior and it was still kosher to smoke indoors back in those days.

He also grew up a few miles from the west coast's most famous "gay ghetto" outside of San Francisco, West Hollywood. In the late 80's and early 90's there was no shortage of decent folks who fit the modern "flaming gay" archetype constantly in the background of the werewolf's neighborhood. You know, those who float instead of walk, wore frighteningly tight jeans, were a little too toned, sported names like Troy, have lethal lisps, and displayed a variety of softer traits that in no way conveyed a sense of masculinity. God bless them. They always made the young werewolf chuckle (still do). Also, they were always present in the background and therefore integrated into the normal acceptable bandwidth of what he grew to expect from fellow humans. Perhaps the heavy exposure to both from an early age created the sense of being perfectly comfortable with each of them as a facet of a fully functioning society.

As the years progressed California prided itself on being at the forefront of inventing Jim Crow for smokers by aggressively banning most indoor smoking, insane taxes, social stigmatization, and worst of all forcing us school kids to endure ridiculous seminars from no-fun mandarins on the perils/sins/evils/villainy of smoking at the expense of school time that should have been devoted to something meaningful. One of the werewolf's fonder memories about smokers getting squeezed was during a summer internship with a financial services firm located in a downtown LA sky-rise. The werewolf's manager was a crusty old chain smoking Vietnam vet who liked to have someone to speak with when he'd go out for a smoke which was about once an hour. Given that the young werewolf was the dip-shit intern with nothing of import to do, he'd frequently be grabbed by the old salt dog, take the elevator down twenty-three floors, and go to a special zone outside and listen to stories about how since smoking helped this guy kill the v.c. for his country, it would also help serve his clients better. The werewolf also realized that his manager collected about three additional weeks of annual vacation just by virtue of the time taken to get outside to enjoy a heater.

While all of the aforementioned was going on, California was on the forefront of celebrating an easy place for gays to be mainstreamed.

To the main point of this long rambling post, does modern society have a limited amount of tolerance it is willing to distribute, and does the advancement of one cause get equalized by the stigmatization of another? Have we created a new class of subtle subversives who are getting short shrift of what society has to offer while legitimately empowering another?

Are the new social agitators and freedom activists those who dare to light up? Is the rest of society beginning to feel so constrained by do-gooderism that we'll drive smokers to bankruptcy when we want to bum a smoke from them in an attempt to express solidarity? Have we eased the natural tension of accepting a broader sexual paradigm into the norm by restricting voluntary and formerly acceptable social behaviors? The werewolf knows there are two parallel themes running in tandem here, but he can't help but feel that something is amiss with society's distribution of tolerance.


  1. Happy with the advancement of gays and thrilled
    smoking is sent to the closet--yea maybe it makes sense that we can only stand so much tolerance.

  2. I disagree with your stance here. You're attempting to draw parallels between two completely different things. This "lack of tolerance" is not against smokers, it's against the act of smoking and the negative externalities that it generates. Conversely, the acceptance of gays was long overdue. Modern society may reallocate "tolerance" as new facts are uncovered and old, unfounded prejudices are eroded, but smoking's demise was self-inflicted - not due to some fictional constraint on our capacity for tolerance.