I read somewhere recently that when Martin Luther King was shot dead in Memphis in 1968, he was out on his hotel balcony smoking a cigarette, and afterwards somebody removed the cigarette in order to “preserve his image as a clean-living man.”
It’s not the first time that I’ve heard that story. I get the impression that there were a lot of people who did that. In private they smoked and drank, but in public they maintained a squeaky clean image.
And, in my view, they were all hypocrites. They were all frauds. They were people who were saying “Do as I say, not as I do.”
Lana Del Rey seems not to be a hypocrite of this sort. One hour and one minute into the video below, she asks on stage for a cigarette, and gets one.
And that sent a very different sort of public message. When she asked for a cigarette, I wondered if armed police would show up, and drag her off the stage. But they didn’t. And her band didn’t seem bothered about it. And neither were the watching crowd.
And her message was that it was OK to smoke. And it was a one-woman revolt against smoking bans. And a one-woman revolt against “sending the right public message”. For nobody else on the stage lit up, as far as I could see.
And perhaps smoking bans are all about keeping up appearances. It seems that for some people morality is all about appearances, and nothing else. For them, it doesn’t matter what you actually do: the only thing that matters is what you are seen to do. You can be a serial killer, but if you dress well you’ll be met with approval.
So public smoking bans are maybe all about maintaining appearances. People mustn’t be seen to smoke. They also mustn’t be seen to drink. And perhaps they mustn’t be seen to eat.
Dr W, the antismoking doctor in whose house I once lived, had this sort of public-private duality. He once shocked me by telling me privately that, for public purposes, he was not in favour of sexual promiscuity, but in private he was all for it. The shock was to learn that he was one thing in public, but something completely different in private. And he just looked to me like a two-faced hypocrite.
Perhaps the objection that such people have to prostitution – which is a form of promiscuity – is not that prostitutes will sell themselves, but that they will very publicly sell themselves. And in their view prostitution is perfectly permissible as long as it is practised very discreetly by women who preserve all the appearances of chastity or marital fidelity.
And the crime of smokers is not to smoke cigarettes, but to publicly smoke cigarettes. And the crime of drinkers is not to drink alcohol, but to publicly do so.
It reminds me of a line by Nassim Taleb in Skin In The Game, chapter 18:
My friend Rory Sutherland claims that the real function of swimming pools is to allow the middle class to sit around in swimming costumes without looking ridiculous.
I think he’s almost right, but with a slight difference: Swimming pools (and beaches) are places where people can take most of their clothes off without attracting censure.
Theatres and dance halls also used to attract the same sort of puritanical censure. And perhaps that was because they were places which allowed other kinds of behaviour – dancing, singing, etc. – which were also publicly impermissible.
Preserving appearances, in this system of morality, is the primary imperative. So soldiers must march in step. This preserves the appearance of unity and common purpose. And it doesn’t really matter whether or not they can aim their rifles accurately. They only need to appear to be able to do so. It’s all a charade.
I don’t think morality is about keeping up appearances.