Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Tenets of the New Puritans #1: denormalisation and social direction

The essence of the New Puritan faith is not prohibition – the adherents of the Church of Public Health do not wish to ban pleasure, any more than their Puritan antecedents wished to do so merely that such pleasure should be approved, communal and uplifting::

From the rich array of popular pastimes in Tudor-Stuart England…the reform-minded founders of New England drew selectively, transplanting only those "lawful recreations" compatible with their errand into the wilderness. Cock-fighting, horse racing, and ball games were out; reading and writing were in. Far from offering release from social duty, recreation was rationalized to serve official ends. Puritans socialized at public worship, town meetings, funerals, and executions. Integrating work and play, they enjoyed a "productive party" -- a barn-raising or quilting bee -- that epitomized the ideal of "useful recreation". Such civic events "expressed the communal spirit of a covenanted people".

The aim of the New Puritan is re-education – to bring about an epiphany of good behaviour. And while they make common cause with prohibitionists – and will support bans – New Puritans prefer the process of ‘denormalisation’.

However, as recent observers have noted, through the widespread implementation of tobacco ‘denormalization’ strategies, tobacco control advocates appear to have embraced the use of stigma as an explicit policy tool. In a recent article, Ronald Bayer (2008) argues that the mobilization of stigma may effectively reduce the prevalence of smoking behaviors linked to tobacco-related morbidity and mortality and is therefore not necessarily antithetical to public health goals.
While the ‘denormalisation’ strategy is most developed in the world of anti-smoking campaign, we see it begin to creep into anti-alcohol campaigns :

One of the key issues coming out of this research is the lack of any evidence showing that normalising the use of alcohol is a good prevention strategy" says Professor Doug Sellman of the University of Otago, Christchurch, who was invited to write an accompanying commentary.

"In fact the opposite is the case. The less alcohol is normalised in family life, and particularly when parents avoid being at all intoxicated in front of their children or supplying them with alcohol, the better the prevention of alcohol problems in young people will be" he says.
And with  ‘junk food’:

The issue of junk food and its consequences is a major challenge for 21st-century society, one which requires actions that are concrete, complementary, and immediate. Concerned by the urgent need to address it, and boasting a solid track record in the promotion of healthy eating habits and denormalization in the tobacco industry, the RSEQ1 is now involved in denor¬malizing junk food in schools.
Thus we see these “harmful” behaviours ‘denormalised’ while at the same time we are urged – and this is especially the case with young people – to seek “value” from leisure activity. Take this Chapter on “Youth Work Ethics”:
The young people decide that this is the way they want to spend Friday evening. It will be a good time. They have been looking forward to do it. It is a chosen and planned part of their life.

Their parents are pleased about the youth project. Their child (who they worry about) is making a good choice: they learn more about life in good ways, they meet new friends, their horizons are widened, and so on. Their child is also not making a bad choice: they are not getting drunk, falling into fights, at risk of dying, and so on.
Read those words – see the directions involved: “it will be a good time”, it is “chosen and planned” and the young people “learn more about life”. The New Puritan denies the possibility of pleasure for reasons of pure hedonism – fun for fun’s sake, if you will! Entertainment must only be entertainment with a purpose – the frivolity of mere fun is sinful. Or, as adherents to the Church of Public Health will say, ‘not in the interests of wider society’.

So youth work – activity taking place outside of formal education – seeks to indoctrinate young people with the tenets of the New Puritan faith: communalism, judgmental environmentalism, the stigmatising of sinful pleasures and the avoidance of risk.

This suppression of adventure, of exploration and of enterprise is carried forward by the New Puritans into their attitude to adult entertainment – the requirement for social meaning in art and literature, the preference for the uplifting story and the morality play, and the use of documentary to bend opinion towards purposeful pleasure and the denormalisation of hedonistic behaviour.

And educationalists grasp this in what they present to learners:

This unit helps students understand how artists can be influential in shaping human values. It does so by addressing social and global issues such as poverty, starvation, crime, discrimination, sickness, war and the environment. Students are encouraged to consider the subjective and expressive currents in art of our time in relation to these issues.
The idea that painting, music, reading and theatre are escapes from our workaday lives does not figure in the New Puritan’s mindset – these things are tools for passing on selected, preferred social values up to and including the denormalisation of those activities that are not approved.

That people continue to enjoy themselves – to reject the prescribed pleasures from the Church of Public Health in favour of hedonism remains a glint of sunlight in an otherwise bleak society. What we can hope for is that, as was the case in New England all those years ago, the search for real pleasure will triumph over the direction and denormalisation directed by our elders and betters:

Pursuing pleasure for its own sake, New Englanders seized on solemn occasions as pretexts for parties. Austere funerals turned into lavish affairs; "ordination balls" celebrated the installation of ministers; execution days took on "a carnival atmosphere". Notwithstanding jeremiads from the pulpit, alcohol was ubiquitous; under its influence, militia drills could descend into drunken brawls and corn-huskings into trysts. "The tavern became the new meetinghouse": a centre of news, politics, trade, and entertainment. In the more permissive atmosphere of the eighteenth century, men and women flirted at singing schools, drank and danced in alehouses, devoured romantic novels, and engaged in a good deal of premarital sex.”
*The two New England quotes are from a review "Leisure and Recreation in Colonial New England" by Bruce Daniels


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