When I was eight years old, in 1963, I gave my parents an ashtray for their anniversary, a ceramic swirl of dusty coral with gilt trim. They displayed it on the coffee table. Boyhood satisfaction glowed when my mother pulled a cigarette from her red red lips and placed it on the curlicued edge. Smoking was very glamorous.
Ten years later, as a college freshman, a poster on the main corridor of the administration building featured a black and white close-up of a haggard woman with a butt hanging from her lower lip beneath the words, ‘Smoking is very glamorous.’ My parents had quit smoking by then; I have no idea what happened to the ashtray.
In the past fifty years, smoking rates have been cut by sixty percent (CDC, 42.4% in 1965; 16.5 in 2014). How did this happen? The 1964 Surgeon General’s Report documented smoking is hazardous to our health. Cigarette packages bore warning labels, laws prohibited sales to minors, increased taxes made cigarettes more expensive, evidence of second hand smoke damage prompted bans in workplaces, even bars. A massive public advertising campaign changed our perceptions: smokers who once released halos of intoxicating vapor in clubrooms became curbside pariahs snatching furtive puffs in the rain.
The campaign to ‘Make Smoking History’ comes back to me as I contemplate a very different public health threat: mass violence. The violence in Orlando, like San Bernardino, Charleston, Newtown and so many other place names now synonymous with tragedy, has triggered the requisite calls for gun control, for better coordinated law enforcement, even ‘lone wolf’ teams. Any of those steps might deter mass violence; none of them will eliminate it.
As long as disenfranchised, mentally unbalanced, (mostly) young men spin grandiose visions through the lens of an assault rifle, mass violence will continue. We’ve created a culture where such delusions are permissible. We can create a culture where they are verboten.
We’ll need a few Madison Avenue Mad Men to envision what a public service campaign against mass violence might look like. Warnings on video games and Mad Max movies? Statements confirming tolerance read in institutions that enjoy government support or non-profit status? Billboards that iterate: The United States – You have the right to believe whatever you choose. You have the responsibility to tolerate everyone’s beliefs.
Reaction One: this is too naive to actually work. Simple solutions are always the most effective. Tolerance is not an easy message. It doesn’t ring with the gut satisfaction of ‘might is right’ or ‘my truth is the only truth’. Thankfully, tolerance is the true American value. Although our history is littered with ugly examples of bigotry: African slavery, Japanese internment, Communist baiting, Civil Rights, the arc of our nationhood bends towards increasing acceptance for every person. This trajectory is threatened by the glut of narrow, unvetted media that conflates the number of hits with Truth and reinforces extreme beliefs. Against irrational rage boiling in isolation, tolerance deserves – requires – constant iteration.
Reaction Two: mass violence is a different public health problem than smoking: smokers are agents of their addiction; targets of mass violence are blameless victims. A campaign to curb mass violence should not mirror the one against smoking. Rather, the smoking campaign offers one model of successfully shifting consciousness. We are all susceptible to persuasive advertising. Let’s direct it beyond selling detergent.
Reaction Three: mass murderers are lunatics beyond the reach of conventional messaging. We may not be able to reach him directly, but we can create a more open environment for those around him. We can change the perspective of the wife or acquaintance that suspects; make it easier for her to intervene. A public campaign to promote tolerance can prompt each of us to question how well we accept others. Tolerance breeds tolerance. It trickles down to embrace us all.
Public service campaigns don’t succeed in a vacuum; we’ll still need legal and economic restrictions to curb mass violence. Ads won’t even correlate a particular message with a given response. Trigger events, like Orlando, shock our culture in the moment, but real change takes time.
I remember laughing at cigarette-warning labels. Did they convince anyone to pass up buying a pack? Fifty years later, they’re so ubiquitous we hardly see them. But in those intervening years, the warnings seeped into our consciousness, along with other anti-smoking messages. Millions of people stopped smoking, millions more never started. Quitting wasn’t simply an intellectual decision about health; it was a social decision. As our vision of being glamorous changed, so did our behavior. Let’s make tolerance cool, sexy, glamorous. Let’s make mass violence history.