Cigarettes and cultural/social change

Posted on June 18, 2010 by Anne Basye

I really appreciated Mark Goetz’s June 11 post, “Ziplock Bags and Deliberated Choices” about decisions that we don’t make ourselves but let the dominant cultural “flow” determine for us.

Swimming upstream is hard work. Ridicule is usually involved, as Mark has discovered as a washer and reuser of plastic bags. But take heart, Mark! Your commitment can help turn around a culture.

Mr. and Mrs. Barham were the parents of my best friend Janet. Today they would be Abe and Val, but in 1970, one didn’t address one’s friends’ parents by their first names. One also took for granted that smokers could light up whenever and wherever they pleased: grocery stores, movie theaters, offices, everywhere but church!

In California in 1970, it was more acceptable to march against the Vietnam War than to ask someone to extinguish a cigarette. When a dinner guest drew out a pack and asked my anti-war, non-smoking parents, “mind if I smoke?” they were too polite to refuse.

The Barhams weren’t. Early members of GASP—the Group Against Smoking in Public—they put up signs, passed out fliers, and lobbied city hall and state government to begin considering the rights of non-smokers. For teens like Janet and me, trying to fit in with the prevailing culture, their passion and commitment were really embarrassing. I would shrink down low in the car whenever they stopped to pick up a new batch of supplies.

Forty years later, the clouds of smoke that once fogged restaurants and church social halls have been banished forever. And the Barhams did this! Their willingness not just to resist but be considered wackos invited others to question and eventually dismantle one huge cultural assumption and replace it with a new one. Now the rights of non-smokers are upheld by a whole system of laws and customs and behaviors that relieve shy people of the need to say, “why yes, I do mind.”

Val Barham died a year ago; Abe Barham died in May. I wonder how many old GASP posters and bumper stickers are turning up this week, as Janet and her sisters clean out the house where they lived for 55 years.

When people feel discouraged about whether we’ll ever stop driving, ever stop polluting, ever stop throwing things away, ever stop doing whatever dismays them and start doing something healthier and fairer, I bring up the Barhams. To me, they’re proof that when individual commitment links to a larger process of advocacy, the fringe becomes the vanguard becomes the status quo.

Keep washing those plastic bags, Mark!

Anne Basye,  Sustaining Simplicity

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