Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Many Anti-Smoking Advocates Don't Want to Hear Any Dissent

I have received quite a negative response from fellow smoke-free air advocates regarding my suggestion that perhaps regulating smoking everywhere outdoors as well as in the private home may be going too far. A number of colleagues have asked me to stop sharing my opinions, even though I am doing it on a list-serve whose purpose is to allow members to share their opinions about various issues.

Here are two recent pleas to me to stop voicing my opinions which were sent directly to me:

"It does neither of us any good for you to send notes like the following [a note questioning whether regulating smoking in the home is going too far] to me. Please stop it."

"Do you really need to have the whole text of this personal opinion delivered into my mailbox, when I have the option of reading it on your blog... . Wouldn't posting it on your blog, or posting a link to the blog, suffice? Mercy! Please!"

These, by the way, are the "nice," "kind," and "respectful" notes I have received. You don't want to see the "mean" ones.

The Rest of the Story

First, allow me to paraphrase these notes so that we can really see what these advocates are saying:

"It does neither of us any good for you to disagree with me. Please stop it."

"Do you really need to post an opinion on this list-serve which disagrees with the dogma of the movement? Can't you just post it on your blog and spare the rest of us from having to deal with any dissenting opinions? Mercy! Please!"

I have to be honest and say that I have never seen people who were so intolerant of dissenting opinions that they expected an individual not to post any opinions on the list-serve that disagreed with their own views.

Essentially, what these individuals are saying is that I should not post any opinions that differ from theirs. Perhaps what I should do is send them my notes before I post them to make sure they agree first. If not, then the note is destroyed.

I would never even think of writing a note to someone on a list-serve asking them to stop stating their opinions, simply because I disagree with them. I can't even fathom that.

But what really strikes me here is the degree to which these colleagues feel that I'm intruding upon them. They are pleading for mercy. My opinions are not just ones they may disagree with, but my expressing them is apparently causing them great pain.

There is a button on a computer called the "Delete" button. A magical thing happens when you press it. The post you are reading disappears and is gone forever. You don't have to read it. No one is holding you down and forcing you to read it.

The fact that these colleagues feel compelled not to simply delete my posts but instead to plead for mercy, asking me to stop expressing my opinions, is mind-boggling to me. But it suggests to me that there is something very bothersome to some in the tobacco control movement about any dissent. It just isn't acceptable, and cannot be tolerated.

There may be a ray of light, however. It is possible that the defensive reaction I am observing is an indication that my commentary is hitting a nerve. In other words, that it is bothering people because deep inside, they realize that there is some truth to it, and it creates dissonance that is difficult to tolerate. If it were truly not resonating at all, it would be easy for these colleagues to simply dismiss my opinions (that's where the "Delete" button would be eminently useful).

I have to acknowledge that given the mentality that I have observed (and been a part of) in the tobacco control movement, it takes a lot to be able to see that perhaps there is some degree of validity in arguments that run counter to the prevailing dogma of the movement. For many years, I simply assumed that everything we were doing was right and that anyone who criticized any aspect of our agenda must be somehow connected to tobacco interests. That is what I had been taught. It took many years, and a fair amount of willingness to actually read and get to know what FORCES was about, for example, for me to understand that FORCES was not a Big Tobacco front group but an organization of individuals representing their own interests.

I also had been led to believe that no dissent was allowed, that it was wrong to criticize anything a tobacco control organization was doing. And it took me a long time to break out of this indoctrination and be able to (and courageous enough) to publicly express my viewpoints. So it is perhaps to be expected that people would be very resistant to hearing the dissent that I am expressing about some aspects of the anti-smoking agenda.

Nevertheless, the rest of the story is quite alarming to me. Even some of my most vehement "enemies" have never suggested that I stop expressing my opinions because my views were causing them undue suffering and they needed mercy. These "enemies" actually looked forward to the opportunity to refute my opinions and show me how and why I was wrong. That seems to be an appropriate response to dissent, and the resulting discussion would I think advance the quality of the movement.

But no. Instead, I'm being asked to simply stop expressing my opinions. Mercy! Please!

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