By Andy Pragacz

The Meaning of a word as Wittgenstein writes in The Philosophical Investigations (paragraph 43) “is its use in the language.” With this inmind I want to consider Colberg-Parseghian’s article from last week entitled “Lighting a fire under the administrations ass.” She writes: “The proposal of this ‘Tobacco Task Force’ is particularly disturbing to me.because there is not a single smoker on [it and].because we don’t live in Stalinist Russia where secret police can criminalize private behavior.” I first want to note that there is at least one smoker very involved in the task force and that Stalin should be left in the USSR. Beyond that, my question is this: what is a private behavior? Are not all behaviors fundamentally social? And, why is smoking counted amongst them of these ‘private’ things? Rights are not individual, by virtue of the fact that they are socially used, but are applied on an assumed unity of self we call ‘The Individual.’ To call smoking ‘private’ is to open it up for regulation; the task force was set up, presumably, with the understanding that because this private action is having (negative) public consequences it can and should be controlled. The same line of argumentation is used to legitimize gun laws, cell phone usage while driving and noise control ordinances. “Your rights stop, where mine begin” and smoking is considered an infringement on the rights of others.

Make no mistake, my claim that smokers are a community (and thus are entitled to the benefits other communities have) could also be construed as a rights-based argument; it is a possible call for communal rights. I also believe, however, that the way we understand the word ‘smoker,’ the way it is applied in the world, implies a community. We do not speak about a ‘smoker community’ per se but we readily refer to someone as a smoker and we understand that it means more than a person that engages in the act of smoking. When a ‘former smoker’ smokes, for example, they always say: “I used to be a smoker, but now I only smoke on occasion.” You may laugh at this and proclaim that this person is in fact a smoker, but let’s consider the point further: how many cigarettes do you have to smoke in a day, a year or a life-time to be considered a smoker? Some, I guess, but certainly not even one or two a day (maybe). Rather, ‘to be a smoker’ is to be engaged in a certain ‘form of life’ of which smoking is a part, but which contains other things that could logically not be part of the act (walking to the gas station, smoker circles, buying cool lighters, fingerless gloves, etc.)

Congregating for the purpose of smoking is one such practice, one that did not pre-exist ‘smoking bans.’ When one could smoke anywhere there was no sense of community. By forcing smoking into certain parts of life and physical location (outside, when ‘going out,’ near warm places when its cold, etc) smokers became a community. Like all identities the ‘smoker’ identity is empty (who is the Smoker? Answer: no one person you will ever meet) and reactive. The fact that a community exists, however, seems to give the smoker a positive (both in the philosophical sense and the more common usage) attribute. The reason I am against the notion that smoking is a ‘private act’ (whereas I agree with most everything else Colberg-Parseghian says, even if I am not onboard with her tone-for political purposes mostly) is because all positivity of the smoker would be lost. The smoker in her and the administration’s construction is centered on a ‘freedom from’ concept of rights that is purely negative; if rights need to be protected and are considered the ‘absence’ of harm, what kind of ‘positive’ content can they hold?

Next week I want to go back to the 2.19.2010 edition of the Mac Weekly and discuss Professor Emiritus Reedy’s piece “Humanists and Scientists: A Response to Nelli Thomas.” We will be trying to deconstruct realist reality with a smile.

Andy Pragacz can be reached at apragacz