Saturday, August 1, 2009

How to Lose Students and Alienate Community

In the Albuquerque Journal this morning, there was an article discussing the new smoking bans on the university of New Mexico campus. Here's a map of the designated smoking areas with perhaps the best one-sentence summary of the issue. Initially, it is easy to sympathize with the college - in an ideal world, no one ever dies of lung cancer from second hand smoke, and that's a noble aim. But noble aims go pear shaped all the time.

When I was a high schooler, I helped engineer and pass a ban on smoking at UU youth conferences in my district. I'd lost a grandparent to lung cancer not long before. I was no fan of smoking, and high school conferences had previously had a problem of an exclusive community of smokers existing. That in turn led to people who wanted to spend time with their friends either breathing a lot of second hand smoke or starting smoking themselves, both of which are far from ideal for a religious youth conference. On top of it all, UUs tend to have a high ratio of asthmatics/those with breathing problems, and smoke itself was a hazard for them. So many of us moved to pass a ban by majority vote. We succeeded.

What happened, then, was a lot of destruction. Con-goers who smoked would come with their addiction, but being high schoolers, without the income to have nicotine gum or patches instead of cigarettes. Or they would sneak off to try and calm their addiction so they could be present for community, and we'd ban them from coming back. A few youth, in the middle of high school, just stopped coming to cons outright, feeling unwelcome and hated by their peers. It was against the spirit of the community, and the values of the religion, and the ban remains to this day. It is by far the most lasting decision I had made as part of that community, and it causes harm. What it doesn't do is get people to stop smoking. Our noble aim failed utterly.

The ban didn't actually address any real problems. It was a prohibition, and it attempted to excise a behavior. Had we been concerned about the health of the asthmatics, we would have kept smoking outside and away from entryways. Had we been concerned about the health of smokers, we could have provided nicotine patches for them, and let them still be part of our community. And had we cared for the whole of the community, we would have enacted a policy by a system of consensus, not a majority vote, and certainly not by a handed-down ruling. We did none of this, and instead shifted problems around. We lost people, we made others feel uncomfortable, and we violated our own principles.

The UNM smoking ban is well-intentioned. But it is a frustrating prohibition forced upon legal adults, and it goes beyond necessary restriction (like 30 feet from entryways) to become an obsessive nanny state policy. And it might ultimately have the desired effect, but I still feel that it shows a disregard for the capacity of adults to make personally responsible choices. Part of giving people freedom, and giving people responsibility, is giving room for mistakes. Here, I think, it'd do well to quote Lux Alptraum:
And this is, perhaps, the crux of a progressive discourse: to be able to recognize the reality and rationale of bad decisions, while still pushing forward with an idea of what we all should be doing, of what our best decisions look like. Because it’s only with the knowledge of what we should be doing, and why, that we have the ability to stray safely — to make those mistakes and live to regret them (or not regret them, as the case may be).
In order to be rational people, we have to have that range of decision making. Forcing people's decisions simply doesn't work.

1 comment:

Alymaybe said...

That's a very good point. In the Clara Barton district, you can only smoke in a designated, outdoor area if you brought your own cigarettes with you (so you can't bum or start there), and you can only smoke alone so it's not a social activity. Tulane's policy never made sense to me either. Instead, there should be lots of campus-wide promotions to get people to quit in a gentle way, rather than making people feel out-casted.