The wages of sin taxes and shame measures is the death of dignity

The wages of sin taxes and shame measures is the death of dignity

by Alan Grant
article from Monday 19, November, 2018

GEORGE ORWELL’S Nineteen Eighty-Four showcases to the reader a plethora of horrifying prospects. His hapless everyman protagonist, Winston Smith, lives in a world in which people are “unpersoned”, hounded by the Thought Police, and are unable to trust practically anyone. 

However, among the nightmare scenarios presented by the classic novel that is the most realistically frightening is the inability of most ordinary people to get hold of anything even resembling tasty, or even half-way interesting, food and their forced reliance on a “pinkish-grey stew” for what passes as sustenance in the dystopian hellscape. 

Towards the mid-section of the book, Winston and his romantic interest Julia are holed-up in the upper room of an old shop, where they think they are safe from the omnipresent forces of Big Brother, and indulge in some real jam, tea, milk, sugar, and coffee which Julia has liberated from the Party. It is a truly touching moment because we see our two heroes snatch some joy from enjoying something so pure under awful such circumstances.

I thought of this moment recently because, while we are not exactly hurtling towards a paternalistic and puritanical authoritarian regime any time soon (I would never be so alarmist) there are certain forces at play that would not feel out of place in the prelude to such a set of circumstances. In particular, the tender moment shared by Julia and Winston popped into my head when I saw the furore kicked up around the amount of sugar contained in milkshakes in certain eateries – which I will not deny, is quite a bit, but enough to merit a ban? Surely not. But part of a growing narrative of nannying in infantilization? Surely!

In recent times we’ve seen the implementation of a ‘Sugar Tax’ in the United Kingdom; the creation of Named Persons (which surely implies the existence of “Unnamed Persons”, to continue our Orwellian theme) and minimum unit pricing for alcohol in Scotland; with patronising posters suggesting that we’re a nation of thinly-veiled racists, homophobes, and transphobes whose ‘Crimestop’ isn’t up to scratch, and even suggestions that high calorie foods begin carrying warning labels similar to those already emblazoned on tobacco products. 

Nanny’s hand must be awfully red with all the corrective spankings we’ve endured – to say nothing about our societal derriere. Whether it’s in Scotland specifically or across the United Kingdom as a whole, there’s a lot of sins being identified and the forces of government appear only too willing to shame us when we commit them.

To my eyes, the answer to which came first – the nannying measures or the desire of a populace to be nannied – is largely similar to that of the order of arrival of the chicken and the egg but what I do not believe to be up for doubt is the worrying position such a pairing may result in before much longer.

If we accept that it is the state’s job to step in to protect us, not just from outside threats and the malicious intent of those within who would break the law, but from the baser elements of our own desires, such as to occasionally gorge on sugar, fat, salt, alcohol, and everything that is bad for us, then we implicitly abdicate responsibility for doing so for ourselves. If we, either tacitly or actively, consent to the continuing quiet build up of government proclamations that tell us what should be in all the products that fall under the banner of personal taste then the responsibility for making informed, healthy, and smart choices is no longer ours and that too is a precious thing to have lost without a fight. 

It should be perfectly obvious that chugging back milkshakes with over 30 teaspoons of sugar – as one particular milkshake was found to have – is not a good idea. Nor is it wise to drink bottle after bottle of full sugar cola, slice after slice of greasy pizza, or drain can after can of super strength lager – but part of being a responsible, grown-up, and respectable individual is being able to freely make that choice with your own discipline and not as a result of hectoring and nannying from the institutions of government. We should have more self-respect than that and enough self-control to enjoy whichever temptation is our poison as they are intended – in moderation and on occasion.

In Nineteen Eighty-Four, the main overarching emotion that comes from the majority of the characters appears, on the surface, to be fear; but a closer inspection of the text reveals it to be something much more crushing and oppressive… boredom. 

While the steady stream of measures being considered and put into place will not by themselves risk the rise of an Orwellian government like that of Oceania – they do run the risk of making life increasingly boring… and that should, surely, be enough to encourage us to act like adults and tell the nanny that her services will no longer be required and that she should sling her hook?

 

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