Making the rounds of news sites and blogs yesterday was the report that, following a complaint by a viewer (or, presumably, the parent of a viewer) a UK channel had decided to excise positive depictions of smoking from Tom & Jerry cartoons. Which is obviously the cue for all right-thinking lovers of liberty to break out their emergency stores of derision and lament the takeover of our airways and public media channels by a hand-wringing horde of politically correct yahoos imploring us all to please, for the love of God, think of the children. Under other circumstances, I might have joined in the collective eye-rolling, but in this case I'm not convinced that the decision is unwarranted, and I suspect that it may do more good than harm.
The thing is, cigarettes are evil. They're the worst of the legal drugs--by all accounts, far worse than at least some of the illegal ones. By a bizarre confluence of common sense and ruthless self-interest on the part of cigarette manufacturers, we have somehow managed to avoid creating yet another criminal empire devoted to their distribution, and have in fact stumbled upon what may be the only effective method of combatting the proliferation of an addictive substance--we tell people that smoking is stupid. We educate them about the dangers of smoking, and make damn sure they know that cigarettes are as addictive as they are because the cigarette industry has, for decades, engaged in a methodical, systematic campaign to make them so while concealing the risks they pose (which reminds me that I've been meaning to go see Thank You for Smoking). If people choose to smoke in spite of this knowledge, they're free to do so*, but the prevailing attitude of our culture should be that this is an incredibly stupid decision, and nowhere should that attitude be more strongly felt than when dealing with the youngest and most impressionable members of our society.
I'm as annoyed as anyone else by the fact that, in adult entertainment, smoking has become synonymous with evil, and no positive characters are ever allowed to indulge in that vice**, but that's because I'm an adult. I can accept that a sympathetic character has habits I disapprove of without losing my affection for that character or taking up those habits myself. Guess what? I'm not the target audience for Tom & Jerry cartoons. The ability to separate a person's faults from their strengths and to admire the latter while still deploring the former is a learned skill, and one that most six year olds don't possess. While obviously no kid is going to pick up smoking simply because they saw a cartoon cat do it once, these images have a cumulative effect--taken together, they create the perception of smoking as something normal, and we don't want that.
My one caveat is that I don't think it's right to air the cartoons with the smoking scenes excised. There are artists whose names appear on the work and who are now going to be associated with an edited version which they didn't approve. The offending cartoons should be shelved, not redacted.
* Within the bounds of reason. There's nothing quite so ridiculous as a smoker complaining about the 'crusade' against smoking in public areas. It takes a special kind of chutzpah to argue that you have the right to indiscriminately poison complete strangers.
** Given, however, that popular culture has spent the better part of a century glorifying smoking, maybe it isn't so far beyond the pale to ask for a decade or two of its vilification.