In a comment this morning under the recent thread about the late Beulah Toombs, evicted from her HUD apartment for smoking in it, Audrey Silk wrote:
Third, the logic in preferring to support one affected individual rather than supporting something that defends her and all others who are in her position escapes me.
And my reply was:
The answer is: Rosa Parks.
Rosa Parks was not the only coloured woman to refuse to give up her bus seat in Montgomery, Alabama. She was just one affected individual among many. And so by your reasoning she should never have been given special attention.
Instead, precisely because she alone was singled out, she became an international icon of resistance to racial segregation….
I think this illustrates two different ways of thinking about and trying to solve the exact same problem. Audrey thinks that smokers will only get any justice when their case is taken to court. But I think they’ll only begin to get any justice when a glaring individual example of injustice captures public attention, and eventually results in laws being changed.
Or, to put it another way, she thinks that the law comes first, and I think that the law comes last. The law does not lead: the law follows.
And that perhaps simply reflects the fact that Audrey served in the New York police department, and I didn’t. Or, more generally, it reflects the fact that she is conversant with law, and knows how it works, and I don’t. I’ve never been to court about anything, ever. Starting a lawsuit is the very last thing I’d ever do. It’s almost unthinkable.
So I think that smokers need their own Rosa Parks. They need an iconic individual smoker who has been the subject of profound injustice. They need a lone figure like the guy who stood in front of the tanks in Tiannenmen Square. I think these have to be single individuals, not groups of people. And that’s why I was singling out Beulah Toombs as an egregious example of injustice. And ‘egregious’ just means ‘standing out from the crowd’.
It’s also why I created the Smokers’ Graveyard, which is full of individual smokers, real people with names and faces, who had lost their lives as a result of smoking bans or restrictions. Because I think you can really only empathize with individual, real people, not with abstract groups or classes of people. It’s only with individuals that people snap into focus. The crowd is a blur.
Rosa Parks was someone that people could identify with. And it wasn’t just people in the black community in Alabama who could identify with her, but all sorts of other people, of all colours, all over the USA, and all over the world. She was the catalyst for a civil rights movement in the USA that gained support from all over the world. Because anyone could empathize with her, being asked to give up her bus seat to some white person: the injustice of it was glaringly obvious to pretty much everybody (even to a small white boy in England).
Would the same thing have happened with lawsuits slowly moving through Alabama courts? The answer is, quite obviously: No. It required the glare of publicity to focus people’s attention. And the attention usually gets focused on some individual or other, because we can only focus our attention on individual people, one at a time.
Quite why some people attract attention, and others don’t, I wish I knew. There are probably a lot of key ingredients, and if any of them are missing, it doesn’t happen.
Anyway, I don’t look at the world the same way that Audrey does. And I think it’s a good thing that people look at the world in different ways. And I think she’s perfectly correct to think that smokers are only going to find justice through the courts: that’s what has to happen in the end. But I still think that it’s something that will happen in the end, not in the beginning.