3 weeks into the lockdown and we now have a new set of ‘normals’, things we do now which would have seemed very odd back then. Thursday evenings we all gather outside our houses to clap, cheer and bang saucepans in support of our NHS. It is customary these days to queue patiently 2 metres apart to get into a supermarket and that same social distancing is strictly adhered to by most people when taking our daily exercise.
I found taking my shirt off during exercise helped maintain 2m exclusion zone for social distancing
I’m amazed by how quickly the suggestions made by government and experts have been taken on board. Three weeks ago, you would feel guilty keeping your distance from someone you knew if you met them on the way to get essentials or some exercise. At first we all performed a strange dance wondering who should go left and who should go right to keep the 2 metre exclusion zone. Whilst at the same time we apologised for even considering that the person walking towards us might be anything other than ‘pure’. 3 weeks on you get glares from people whose faces are covered with surgical masks or scarves if you go anywhere near them.
It got me thinking about personal freedom and collective decision making. This is a free country, but we decide together to make decisions that will collectively benefit all of us.
Take for example that question of walking on the Mumbles front and who goes which way to avoid getting too close. We have the privilege and freedom to walk anyway and anywhere we like. Imagine if the same was true with driving a vehicle. Thank goodness we decided to all drive on one side of the road. I’m not suggesting we do the same for walking on the Mumbles front, but I have to say at the moment some form of walking etiquette guide might help us all.
The question is, when do we make rules, or laws, and when do we work under guidance or advice?
The last thing we want in a liberal democracy like ours is to make laws for the sake of them. Far better to get the people to understand the problems we are facing, and then ask them to work together for the common good. But if we are going to give people advice then the message needs to be clear and consistent. It may take time but if we are consistent then people will change their actions. And with a mixture of laws, guidance and education it is possible to change people’s mindsets for the better.
It might be hard for young people to believe but once upon a time it was almost acceptable to drink and drive, when I was a kid we didn’t wear seat belts in cars and for decades advertising hoardings up and down the country used to declare the benefits of smoking one brand of cigarette over another. In fact, many adverts featured doctors promoting their favourite brand of cigarette.
In all of these instances a dual approach changed society. There were advertising campaigns showing the effects of say, drunk driving or not wearing a seat belt whilst at the same time Parliament passed laws that made such activity illegal with serious penalties.
I still find it hard to believe that when I was a kid there were smoking sections in trains and planes and a trip to a pub or club meant even if you were a non-smoker your clothes stank for days of stale cigarette smoke.
Education played a role in reducing cigarette addiction. Advertising campaigns showed pictures of lungs full of tar and eventually iconic cigarette packaging was replaced by horrific pictures showing the physical harm smoking has on the body.
Of course, these same tactics of laws and propaganda can be used in negative ways too. You only have to look at how the Nazi’s used their control of parliament to bring into law all sorts of discriminatory legislation against Jews, Communists, Gypsies, Homosexuals and any number of other ‘minorities’ that they didn’t like. By the time the people were brainwashed by the propaganda the laws brought in by Hitler and his zealots seemed a natural way of dealing with an ‘obvious’ problem.
One of the big issues in many of the tabloid papers over recent years has been ‘Political correctness’ or as many of them would prefer to say, ‘Political correctness gone mad’. It’s been all too easy to find some daft decision made in the name of being PC whilst forgetting how much being ‘PC’ has changed society for the better.
Growing up in Britain in the 60’s and 70’s it would be normal to hear racist words on an everyday basis, in school and in work. Even ‘family’ TV sitcoms actually used these themes as the basis of their humour. Race was one issue, sexuality was another. People were ‘branded’ as ‘queer’ or ‘bent’.
Are you being served – John Inman
You could argue that ‘sticks and stones may break my bones etc’, but I am sure looking back, having those words used so freely in society had an effect on our thinking about what was allowable, what was right and ‘normal’. It affected the way people thought about other human beings. By grouping them together under a term which was definitely not meant as a compliment it made them other and different. If you ever heard those words being hurled at someone in an argument or a fight you would know the venom and hatred they carried. They were meant to hurt.
In the end it needed laws to make sure this use of language was addressed head on but at the same time ‘political correctness’ stopped these words being ‘normal’. As a result, I believe our society became a better place for all of us to live in. Those words haven’t gone away but nowadays, just like drink driving and not wearing a seatbelt if you ever hear them they just sound plain wrong.
Over the coming weeks, as this lockdown continues the government has a difficult task managing how we all behave to minimise the effects of the crisis. Even they are learning. The early days had mixed messages which meant we weren’t really sure what we were supposed to do and what was optional. As the weeks have gone on those messages are now clearer and on the whole people are compliant, but not all. In the background there is always the threat that there will be legislation to compel us to act in certain ways to protect us if people don’t help themselves.
As always what we need are lots of honest questions. Political correctness should be called daft when its daft but when it works we should support it.
Even in these difficult days Government advice should be questioned and challenged. That’s not being unpatriotic, that is why we have a loyal opposition and an independent media. We are now giving away a lot of freedoms we have taken for granted and which our forefathers died to obtain. It is our duty to challenge their temporary withdrawal, but then it is our duty to keep to the new rules for the sake of us all.
And when this is all over it is our duty to make sure we get them back