Fragments

By Andrew Pragacz

As many of you already know, Macalester is considering a smoking ban on campus in conformity with the attack on smoking (and smokers) throughout the country. As I see this as another example of Macalester bending its ideals and ‘sense of self’ to meet the demands of liberalism, with its emphasis on individual autonomy and its ‘freedom from’ mentality. Moreover, the desire for Macalester to ‘quit’ probably stems from an administrative focus on ‘cleaning up’ Mac in order to market the school as a healthy, progressive institution (without regard for the people who actually have to live here). If this ban were enacted the blight of cigarettes butts littering campus in full view of wealthy donors and the presence of grungy smokers on campus tours would be a concern of the past.Besides the impossibility of enforcing such a ban (especially given the small size of the campus), what would a smoking ban say about who we are as a community? The form of a ban implies that what is banned is exactly what the community from which the thing is banned is not. This also means that to ban smoking would be to define the Macalester community as ‘those who do not smoke,’ also meaning that smoking would forever be associated with Macalester even if in a negative sense. The ban on smoking proclaims: “We are not smokers, in fact we are the opposite of smokers.”

I have already pointed out how the moralizing discourse around smoking locates smokers in an inferior moral position vis- -vis none-smokers. Smokers are routinely seen as beings of excess or prisoners of addiction; smokers are irresponsible, not caring, easily manipulated and generally lacking the pre-requisites for citizenship. These kinds of sentiments work to strip the act of smoking with any significant (political or not) outside of medico-moral discourse. Certainly I have overestimated the discourse, but not as much as one might think.

The question that needs to be addressed and has not been is this: can the act of smoking be divorced from the persona of ‘the smoker’? Are smokers an identity group? The ban as a law does not legislate identity or motives, but focuses on the act of smoking. It says, “You, all of you, cannot smoke here” and in that sense it is non-specific. There is no doubt, however, who the ban will affect the most: smokers. It does seem that with the, sometimes vicious, attack on smoking over the past several decades the smoker has been elevated to the status of a persona, a subject in the Focaultian sense. We can delve into the mind, spirit, heart, and life of the smoker with the all the certainty of a psychologist or talk show pundit. The law of identity building states: what ever is under attack will be more highly valued than ever before and it will produce a typology, a being, where none existed before. And if you don’t believe read some post-colonial literature.

I argue that smokers are a community, a group of people brought together by a tenuous similarity and (more importantly) a common source of antagonism. The smoker community, however, should not be defined by the act of smoking no more than the gay community can be defined by ‘gayness’. A community implies something more than shared interest, a community gives a sense of self and provides important social bonds on which that person can rely for whatever reason. Many smokers will tell you that smoking facilitated their first relationships at Macalester. If my proposition is correct, or at least alludes to correctness, then banning smoking for the smoker would be tantamount to outlawing any other marker of social grouping (baseball hats, hattas, political t-shirts, bras, etc).

There can be no denying that smoking can be annoying to the non-smoker. Smokers stand in front of doors and walk carelessly with second hand death billowing into unsuspecting faces. But is banning the only solution? Of course there are other options (and moving the ashtrays away from the doorways would certainly help). The administration has neither consulted nor made any kind of gesture to include the smoker community. Of course if they did then the communal status of smokers would be acknowledged and in that sense it is a good political move not to. By leaving smokers out, however, a good opportunity is missed for Macalester to demonstrate inclusiveness and community building techniques. If we want Macalester to be a place for everyone, then everyone should be allowed a place or at least not be denied one. Wouldn’t it be a bigger win to convince smokers to be more considerate? Or to include the former blight of society in a productive and humane way? (Aside: I might add, if the goal is to encourage students, staff and faculty to not smoke I could not think of a more ignorant way to do it!)

For me, Macalester is a place of refuge for those who don’t really belong anywhere else; it is a place for those of us who are marginalized and devalued in the larger community to thrive. It is a place where for once those of us who are ‘different’ are not marked only our ‘difference;’ it is a place for people who have been on the ‘wrong’ side of advantage. Maybe we are going away from that, but why would we ever want to tell someone they don’t belong here a priori?

“But,” you may reply, “smoking is a life-style choice.” To this I reply: “Who are you, you with all the moral certitude of the Catholic Church, to decide what is and what is not someone’s choice? Is being queer a choice? A man? A woman? A professor? A coffee drinker? A political activist? Are any of these choices?” To claim that someone has ‘chosen’ to be such and such, is to (potentially) reduce their sense of self to choice, in line with the neo-liberal mantra: buy yourself! We all know that ‘queer’, ‘man’, ‘woman’, ‘professor’, ‘coffee drinker’, ‘political activist’ and so on are all social constructions but that does not make them any less important or unworthy of respect.

Next week I may continue on the topic of smokers (or maybe not). If I do then it will be to demonstrate the positive nature of a community organized around the act of smoking.

Andy Pragacz can be reached at [email protected]