Bloody hell, this is a bit long for you, Raith…
Yeah, I’m chewing over doing some more long format stuff – but as I have a lack of focus on these matters, and these matters being massively complex and nuanced, I have no idea how it’ll turn out.
But fuck it, if you don’t try, etc etc.
The Denormalisation fallacy, and why it’s a waste of all our time.
Something that has seen a rise in public health policy lately is the concept of denormalisation.
Denormalistaion doesn’t actually have a specific definition in public health/public policy terms (it actually originates to management of data in relational databases to improve read performance at the expense of write performance, effectively) as it is, in that context, a made up word, but the meaning is quite clear – to make something appear to not be normal.
To not be normal means to not be acceptable, or societally justifiable in broad terms of this context.
So lets take a slightly closer look at this.
Denormalisation is something that typically happens – in the real world – from a grass roots level. For example, someone having sex with an animal is seen as being not normal, which is then accentuated by whatever societal rulesets are in place at the time be they religious tenets, or in more modern times, based around the rule of law, psychology, or just whatever societal norms are prevalent – these days, you could argue, it’s ‘what can you can get away with posting on social media without getting hundreds of nasty reactions’.
Although if you posted a video of you fucking your dog on Facebook, you’d get a bit more attention than just a few ‘angry reacts’ – you’d probably get arrested. That’s likely a good thing, as everyone can agree that shagging your dog is generally not a good thing to be doing, no matter how how short a skirt the dog was wearing at the time.
Sex with a dog is considered so abnormal that’s it’s seen as abhorrent – all without the input of government or religion. We just know it’s not something you should be doing.
What we see these days, however, is the attempt to *manufacture* denormalisation for far milder slights; this is far harder as generally, if society hasn’t already defacto agreed that something should be deemed wrong across the board (like animal abuse) , and the subject is something that many people already do (unlike animal abuse), then the only way to do this is to create a narrative and disseminate it publicly, and see if the public picks up on it.
The real problem is when this comes to social habits that have always been seen as normal. Drinking, smoking, and illicit drug taking (which, regardless of what anyone will tell you, has been part of human culture since agriculture was a thing). have always been considered as normal, or not far off of normal, as having a long lay in bed on a Saturday morning; it’s just something we all do at some point and no-one really minds it, as long as it doesn’t impact on those outside of the person doing the behaviour.
These are very strongly normal practises – they are how everyone (yes, even the more well heeled of us, not just the working class) – unwind after a long week, after a hard day, after difficult personal times; this is about as normal as it gets.
You have a shitty week, you have a bottle of wine on the Friday night and you fuck Saturday off to the hangover.
The car breaks down and you need to drop a notable chunk of your income to repairing it, lest you lose your job due to not being able to make it in – you sit down and have a joint and let the cannibinoids unwind your neck and shoulders, and the THC lighten your beaten spirits.
You get a phone call that a relative has died, and as a smoker – perhaps a regular one, perhaps less so – you spark up a fag and let the nicotine rush to your brain and give you a few minutes to gather your thoughts.
These things aren’t considered normal because mass media tells or government tells us they are; they are considered normal because they’ve been normal since before mass media or even formal government was even a real thing.
So attempting to denormalise them is not only a challenge, it brings up the question of whether we *should* attempt to denormalise them, given that this concept predates attempts at social engineering – which is what this, at heart, is
How does denormalisation work?
When it comes to the how, we have various examples of governments and pan-national bodies attempting this. Probably the most obvious example is the attempt to denormalise communism – a political movement. This took the might of the entire West working in concert to make The Red Menace appear to be a thing that screams “I am unnatural. I am wrong”. This, despite it being (at the time) a fairly functional, if slightly odd to us in the west, form of government. It was not what we in the west were familiar with, but it generally did what government was meant to do, which is to keep it’s populace mostly fed, and mostly not at war with each other. Mostly. It had it’s problems just like capitalism does, but it’s not as if communism is a fundamentally broken premise at heart – although to be fair, it only seems to last as long as their citizens start to realise the value of individual wealth, but that’s a different argument for another day.
Anyway, this concept mostly worked, but lets be honest, it wasn’t the government saying that communism was bad that got people on their side – it was the nuclear missiles and games of brinkmanship that really won the day – there were real stakes at play, and the public went with it due to them not wanting to see the result of those stakes playing out, rather then because they understood why communism was a sub-optimal form of governance.
More recently, we’ve seen massive public health ordnance to denormalise smoking, which have predictably failed, because the stakes are seen as being much lower; the reaction you get when someone kicks (or fucks) a dog is one of utter disgust. The reaction you get when someone finds out you’re a smoker is ‘meh’ with possibly a request you pop out the back of their house to spark up, as they don’t like the smell.
You are, in fact, more likely to get a strange reaction if you tell someone you don’t drink. Being teetotal is not considered a bad thing by anyone who has an IQ greater than 60, but it is considered to be quite outside the norm. Not drinking is something that society deemed to be unusual as it’s outside of the common accepted experience of most of us. It’s never been denormalised, because from a societal standpoint, it was never normal. Note, not good or bad, just not normal.
So how do we currently try to denormalise, lets say, smoking and drinking. Well, we have huge public health campaigns, most of them viciously demonising, and specifically designed to divide and conquer – to set one side up as the heroes (public health, non-smokers, non-drinkers) and one side up as the villians (smokers, drinkers, tobacco companies, alcohol companies). You then play a narrative which shows that one side is out to get you, and the other wants to save you, by infringing on the rights and behaviours of the bad guys, for the Greater Good. This description is hyperbolic, but at it’s core, is how it works.
However, this fails at the most fundamental step, which is making the assumption that the public don’t know that tobacco companies have a shady past, that cigarettes are dangerous to those who use them, that regularly drinking to excess is bad for you, etc.
It’s massively patronising, and often contains outright lies; the black lungs of smokers were always dyed pigs lungs (fun fact – smokers lungs are often used for transplants because they’re perfectly good compared to those of the person requiring them, and any damage clears up pretty quick when you take the act of smoking away – there’s barely a difference in recovery rates for the transplantee); the Helena Miracle (that is, that heart attack rates drop when smoking is banned in public) was an example of statistical number stretching of legendary degrees, literally never replicated anywhere, ever – but used almost everywhere as the basis to ban smoking in public despite being laughably poor evidence, if it can even be called evidence at all.
Those who pointed out that this evidence was low quality, and that harms from second hand smoke were being massively overblown were excommunicated from the public health tobacco control field. This is not hyperbole, this literally happened on multiple occasions to people who, until they showed they were not going to toe the ‘party line’, were considered to be at the top of their field.
This is how far some factions of public health are prepared to go to ensure that their narrative to justify an attempt at ‘denormalisation’ is not upset.
Of course, what they seem to forget is that the public are, in short, not as stupid as many in government (and especially in public health) would like to think.
The Problem With Denormalistion
The main issue with this tactic is that while you can wheel out quotes about the power of stupid people in large numbers, this isn’t really a strong argument; it is, in fact, quite a poor one. The fact of the matter is that you can tell people till you’re blue in the face that smoking will kill them, but if they enjoy it, they’ll keep smoking.
You can harp on about the social costs of drinking, but as 90% of the public don’t go out on a weekend long bender and get utterly wrecked and try to fight a lamp-post, then they will ignore you because they are not the ones who are part of the problem.
You can tell a cannabis smoker that it’s been shown in mice to slow mental processes, but they’re an account manager at a mobile network and they’ve been promoted twice in the last three years – that rather goes against that little theory.
When you try to deny any benefit of something, and only play up the negatives – that is, to demonise someone’s personal choice – then people stop listening to you. You undermine your own currency amongst most, and you seriously damage your credibility among those who take the time to look into it in more detail.
So what now?
Well, all this rambling aside, what’s a more useful way to get people to elect to change their behaviour? The answer appears to be fairly self evident, but instead of denormalising ‘bad’ behaviour, a likely more useful response is to normalise more desirable behaviour.
Take smoking – there are ways to massively reduce the harm from wanting nicotine, such as snus and e-cigs (my personal way), and even chewing tobacco – basically, any form of tobacco (or nicotine containg substance) that isn’t burned is massively, hilariously less harmful than burning the stuff.
Rather than trying to ‘denormalise’ smoking, instead, encourage and attempt to normalise the less harmful forms of nicotine.
To attempt to denormalise smoking is far, far too large a task and will never happen, ever – regardless of whether any given government sets goals to have a ‘tobacco free world’ (or more recently, as reduced harm options have become available, we see this being twisted to a ‘nicotine free world’ – so that they can demonise even those who have given up smoking) the fact of the matter is people enjoy their vices; it’ll never stop entirely and to claim otherwise is either rank stupidity or wishful thinking – backed by rank stupidity.
I am not exaggerating when I say that anyone – and I mean anyone who sincerely wants to see a tobacco free world and genuinely thinks they can achieve this is utterly deluded, to the same degree that anyone who wants to see a murder free world and thinks they can achieve it would be – it’s a literal impossibility.
Such people should be ridiculed at every opportunity, because nine times out of then, they’ll be using taxpayers money to try to push for their demonstrably impossible goal.
When it comes to drinking, there is very solid evidence that moderate drinking – that is, a couple of pints here or there, rather than blasting through ten pints in three hours – is actually at worst, of no impact to health, and at best, somewhat beneficial.
Yet again, however, we see public health attempting to demonise almost any imbibement of alcohol, with the CMO recently stating that every time she has a glass of wine, she thinks about cancer; what she is actually saying is that if you drink and don’t think about cancer, you’re doing it wrong. This is clearly an insane position to take, and one that quite rightly got her lampooned in the press because you be damned sure that when she’s at official functions supping on taxpayer funded wine, she’s not thinking that at all. It’s virtue signalling of the highest order.
The fact is that there is objectively little wrong with the odd drink here and there; the problem comes when you can’t get by without a drink, or when you must get falling-down-drunk to have considered yourself to have had a good time. And that is already considered to be socially unacceptable by the vast majority of the public. We have already denormalised problem drinkers; what needs to be done is to normalise helping problem drinkers, rather than demonising them, or sweeping the problem under the carpet.
As for cannabis, the only problem with it is that it’s supply is entirely illegal; legalise it for recreational use, and suddently it’s no longer viewed as dangerous and rebellious. Almost every ‘evidence’ of harm from cannabis is correlative, not causative, it’s important to note; links to mental health strongly side on it being self medication, not the cause of the mental health problems. There is a similar links between schizophrenia and smoking, but no-one seriously claims that smoking cigarettes makes you schizophrenic.
Make it better quality and price comparable with street cannabis (not difficult, frankly – cannabis isn’t something that requires massive reprocessing, unless your cutting it with bulking agents, as illegal producers do…) and surprisingly enough, people might not be so tempted to try whatever else they get offered by their local dealer because they won’t be interacting with their local dealer.
Nor will they be offered freebies, or loans when they’re short, then end up getting beaten up in a back alley for not paying up, as dealers aren’t exactly known for being sensitive when handling debts.
If you normalise cannabis (or at least, stop trying to denormalise it) then it just becomes part of life. Hell, maybe encourage harm reduced ways of getting it (dry burners, etc) if you really feel the need to ‘do the right thing’ but denormalising it has clearly not worked, along with the rest of the war on drugs.
Long story short
You don’t denormalise existing behaviour, that’s just something that doesn’t really work at a societal level as that’s something society, not government, does – but you can encourage the normalisation what you consider to be better behaviour, if you do it right and without stepping on everyone’s toes.
And chances are, society already agrees with you, so the best thing you can do is just get the fuck out of the way and let us get on with it by ourselves.