In mid-September, the New York City Board of Health approved the Bloomberg administration’s controversial ban on large sodas and sugary drinks. Four days later, Master Marvin Chun of Berkeley College announced a new policy confining smokers to one bench in each courtyard. This past Friday, amidst a renewed emphasis on safety by Yale’s higher-ups, the 2012 edition of what I like to call “Danger Dance” motivated student dialogue urging moderation towards alcohol.
In each of these situations, it is possible to discern motives for instituting each policy rooted in rational egoism. NYC does not want to foot medical bills after citizens drink buckets of lard and show up at the emergency room to order their deluxe triple bypass with fries and a Coke. Berkeley College adopted the policy in response to numerous student complaints about secondhand smoke’s odors and effects on asthmatics — as well as a fire that almost blazed out of control last April. Administrators’ fears of civil liability and damage to the university’s reputation doubtlessly fuel the discussion about reducing alcohol abuse on campus. And students probably find public urination somewhat inelegant.
But if those arguments seem to constitute a cold, unattractive and incomplete explanation for the trend of increased public health-related paternalism, it’s because they do. When we argue for policies that restrict individual liberty — whether in the biggest cities in the world or the smallest college courtyards — we are rarely motivated solely by self-interest. We traverse the well-worn road to serfdom not for tyranny’s sake, but out of concern. We act out of genuine desire to better the lives of our friends and neighbors. We act with or without their cooperation, because we think we have made wiser choices than they have.
Granted, comprehensive central planning should always make us a little uncomfortable, even in its most useful iterations. But it’s an especially strange thing to try to paternalize Yale students, who are ostensibly some of the more mature, thoughtful, intelligent young people this country has to offer.
Yalies are told to be independent decision-makers, to take the path less traveled. Is it ever truly legitimate, then, to pressure our peers to change their patterns of behavior and conform? When we find certain habits — whether sexual, dietary or otherwise — unacceptable, are we overstepping bounds? How can we be sure we are not arbitrarily trampling legitimate preferences? What if our friends don’t want to live forever?
While I don’t think we ever can be certain we are right, that’s not a compelling reason to excuse our fat, chain-smoking, alcoholic friends. We’re often told that the greatest learning experiences we will have will come from one another, and as a senior, I’ve found that to be absolute gospel. But we’re also told that in order to learn from one another, we need to accept diversity in even its most grotesque manifestations.
In reality, we only can learn when we approach each other’s choices with a profound skepticism. We have an obligation to listen, but also an obligation to challenge. They might be right, but we’ll never find out if we avoid these hard conversations.
If ideas about restricting smoking, soda or spirits are to gain traction, they need a first mover to challenge orthodoxies. At some point, one individual first conceived of the idea that we should stop smoking. Over time, that idea gained enough traction to persuade Berkeley College Council and Congress to enact policies.
But policies aren’t enough to change preferences. True cultural changes come only with sustained personal engagement. Unless we convince Berkeley smokers to kick the habit, they will just retreat beyond the college walls. And so, I encourage you all to reach out to that friend, remind them that you care and make the case for a correction in behavior.
I’ll end by practicing what I preach. Guys — and you two know who you are — I promised I’d shame you in a public forum, so here it is: You know smoking is incredibly harmful to your health. I don’t think you’re making a rational choice. I love you both dearly, and will accept no excuses from either of you failing to attend my grad school graduation, my wedding, my funeral or any other significant events in my life. Knock it off, before the consequences set in and make us all a lot less happy than we’re meant to be in 25 years.
Michael Magdzik is a senior in Berkeley College. His column runs on alternate Tuesdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .