A recent discussion posed a question regarding the likelihood that the current movement among vapers to influence politics could actually have the intended effect. This straightforward question has a rather layered answer.
The first layer, generating enthusiasm, is the intent behind motivating people with the notion that they can make a difference. The analysis is correct in that influencing the election of a presidential or even a federal senatorial vote is a far reach. However, influencing a house of representative, state house, or county and city outcomes is more attainable. The reasoning behind this is that where there is a high proportion of voters to elected official there is little influence a small group can conceivably have. However, when the ratio of voters to official is smaller the opportunity for influence becomes greater. Thus it is not likely that the current effort will change the outcome of the election in a sweeping movement, however it is quite likely that significant electoral changes can be influenced by the ‘I Vape I Vote’ and similar movements in the community. A second issue is the Get Out The Vote (GOTV) effort that is part of this. This gets people to the polls and is the real attention getter. Even if the outcome isn’t changed, the delivery of a substantial increase in voter turnout from the vaping community demonstrates a significant bloc of influence. The third issue is generating visibility. Vapers who show up at political rallies with signs like “I Vape, I Vote” gain free publicity and will increase public awareness that there is an issue that is important. This strategy is much more spontaneous and far easier to achieve than a massive protest rally and has far more beneficial results.
The second layer, focusing the issue, is a persistent problem. The current rhetoric focuses too much on a single issue that is of little relevance to the general population. To be sure some have ties via friends and family, thus an observation that there could be a family come-along effect is valid. However, the issue at hand is simply uninteresting. However if the issue is, for example, the regulatory micro-management of the affairs of citizens then a much broader interest is obtained. This is what the issue of vapor product use bans represents though it is rarely, if ever put forward succinctly enough to be recognized. Furthermore, there are far too many ad-hominem attacks on individuals in the opposition than on the ideas they represent. Attack the issue, not the person. The consequence of doing the latter is to alienate those who have some trust of the opposition, rather than giving them a reason to change their allegiance.
The third layer, relying on science as a neutral arbiter, is a failed notion. This is not because there isn’t the rare entry of good science in the public arena but more because the regulatory capture evident in the misuse of science creating a straw-man or false authority has irretrievably poisoned the well. The average citizen is woefully bereft of the tools to understand science at best, as evidenced by enthusiasm to ban dihydrogen monoxide and a shocking financial support for the nutraceutical industries’ modern day snake oil tactics. It isn’t that they are completely stupid, more that they lack the tools necessary to obtain a true perspective on science and risk. Legislators and regulators are just as poorly equipped to understand the science or realize the truth that science is showing. Their overwhelming use of legal reasoning has produced logically legal results that defy scientific truth. Even when they do understand the truths shown by science, the bureaucracy is stacked towards the gainsmanship of votes and budget over the truth that science may provide.
The fourth layer, that political society acts with reason rather than reacts emotionally, is an idealist’s dream. It has never been borne out in actual practice. Indeed, the very fact that a tiny fraction of a society even spends time to question, test, and discover answers only to be met with resistance fabricated from emotional lies and self-serving half-truths that affirms the truth of this perspective. In short, the majority of the public is completely uninterested in factual discourse, unless there are a few random facts, often poorly understood, that they can use to justify their beliefs about the world. They reach for these simply to fit a complex issue into their continuum of belief in the most economical (of time/effort) manner possible and then go about their lives. The public does not have the time to put forth the effort of real reason; it has been cultivated out of them. Instead, they use the expedient of sound bites whose content confirms their worldview and ignore (at best) or vilify anything outside of this comfort zone. Again, it isn’t that they are stupid, they have been conditioned to respond this way.
The fifth layer, that this is an institutional problem solvable by science and truthful discourse, has significant challenges. While the integrity of the institutions and participants appears to be a significant challenge the main challenge is that the problem is not scientific at all but fabricated out of a nexus of ideas that create a belief that is essentially a lie masquerading as common sense. To understand this it is necessary to grasp the broader tapestry from which the anti-tobacco beliefs have sprung. It boils down to a few simple notions:
1. Smoking has a byproduct that is unpleasant… It stinks, and that stench has a rather long persistence. This byproduct also leaves behind residue in the environment, difficult to remove, that exists long after the generating act has ceased.
2. Even the most rational people succumb to the notion that humanity is the master of its fate; that diseases such as cancer, heart disease, COPD can be mitigated solely by changing human behavior. The emotional notion that “Grandmother wouldn’t have died if only…” feeds the belief. The truth that unmodifiable factors play a greater role in the outcome is rejected.
3. That there is a significant “other” whose mission is to oppose or interfere for profit in the efforts of everyday affairs. This “other” is often identified as a faceless, yet easily identifiable actor in public affairs. In this case, specifically there is Big Tobacco and Big Pharma. To an even greater extent, the real “other” is Big Government but that is little mentioned, and often opposed by the notion that the Government is “of, by, and for, the people”.
When these three notions are combined through the skillful use of propaganda, including pseudo-scientific or ‘common sense’ propositions, a nexus appears wherein the public believes that cigarettes, and their counterparts, are pushed by the Evil Big Tobacco and that, because they stink and despoil the area where they are used, they must be harmful beyond the effects on the end-user, thus to solve the problems of disease they “cause”, they must be banished from society and those who oppose this “truth” should be forced to pay a high penalty. While none of this is a rational belief, it is the essence of the battleground wherein we must change public policy.
No amount of science is going to mitigate the public belief that the byproducts of smoking are harmful. Anyone who’s ever cleaned an ashtray will view such a proposition as daft. Thus arguing, even correctly, that the diseases linked to smoking is an effect on at best half those engaged in the activity, let alone that the mortality is only years of life lost and is a much smaller percentage than imagined, falls on deaf ears. Science can provide this perspective, but only when an audience is willing to entertain the notion.
So the problem then falls into a realm outside of science. The goal of the solution ought to be to create a willing audience for science’s truth. But the means to get to that goal will not rely on formal hard science but rather the use of propaganda and coalition building.
The use of propaganda has a well-earned negative connotation. However, propaganda is nothing more than using messaging to convey ideas. When those ideas are honest and true, propaganda makes it possible to spread those truths broadly without compromising their integrity. What propaganda does in this instance is find the means to reach audiences with analogs of truth that they understand. Consider the complexities of the human digestive tract. When explaining the phenomena of peristalsis it is easier to find an analogy that is more immediately comprehensible to a broad audience. Such an analogy might be that the gut moves much like a stretched slinky toy, a movement at one end travels down the slinky until it meets the other end. Then explain that the muscles in the bowel work to produce that same effect. That is using propaganda to convey an idea.
Coalition building comes when the messaging reaches others and they find connections between the message they are hearing and causes they care about. One of the obvious connections is the notion of personal freedom; the notion that an individual should be free to engage in activity they choose so long as that activity does not cause harm to another. Further opportunities come from messaging that targets the problems of government micro-management, fiscal responsibility, and human rights. To gain these audiences the propaganda needs to display the elements of the cause in juxtaposition to the elements of related causes. This can done directly or by inference, but the point is that the message is based on principles, rather than focused on overly specific details.
When the public is able to pay attention because they have an emotional investment gained through effective messaging then, and only then, can the science be proffered. This must be done carefully, laying the groundwork for comprehension, addressing the prior aberrations and the reasons for them, and then fitting the science into a perspective that has personal value. When the science is comprehensible and has personal value it will be adopted and defended. That is the moment the movement wins its objective. That is when Vapers will have changed public opinion.