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When did we let the morality police have all the power?

Something has gone wrong in society when we privilege morally coded coercion, when we don’t question the harm-based arguments reached for by those seeking to control our behaviour.

By Rachel Cunliffe

“The cry, ‘If I can’t, you mustn’t’, had some trace of justification, however sullen and unlovely the sound of it,” wrote the author Simon Raven in 1998. “Nowadays we hear instead an even less lovely cry, ‘If I don’t want to, you mustn’t’ i.e. ‘It is just possible that I am, after all, missing out on something of value which you have been shrewd enough to detect and I haven’t, and that wouldn’t be fair and equal, now would it?’” 

I wish I’d had this quote at my fingertips the night a drunken fellow student urged me to “value” myself more than go back with a man I’d just met, insisting casual sex was immoral. In the decade since I ignored his advice I’ve often wondered why it is some people so desperately want to tell others what to do. If Raven was exasperated in 1998, I dread to think what he’d make of today’s keyboard warriors virtue-signalling on everything from Brexit to pronouns to proper grammar, the way our identities have all become cultural battlegrounds, or the newspaper headlines ranting how Meghan Markle’s fondness of avocados is “fuelling human rights abuses, drought and murder”. 

The censorious have always lived among us, from Cato decrying the spread of Hellenic culture throughout Rome to the Puritans closing down London’s playhouses. We might like to think our liberal, secular society is immune to such sanctimony. But once you start to look out for them, you’ll find the anti-Ravenist moralisers are everywhere. 

The pandemic brought them out of the woodwork. Behaviour that has no impact on the risk of transmission – sunbathing, taking children to a playground, declining to wear a mask while outside in the open air – has over the past 18 months been held up as an irresponsible breach of the societal code. It is interesting that, during the first lockdown, resting on a park bench would attract a slew of judgemental glares and perhaps even a police warning; yet the entire country was urged to step outside every Thursday and risk far closer proximity with our neighbours in order to clap for the NHS.  

Later that summer, mass demonstrations for the Black Lives Matter movement descended on UK cities – with some of the staunchest social media admonishers breaking their own strict Covid code to join in. A worthy cause, I thought, but weren’t these activists berating teenagers for sitting in the park just a week ago, on the grounds that they posed an inexcusable risk to others? Had that risk evaporated now there was racial injustice to correct? Or is it possible it was never quite as risky as their scolding suggested? 

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I don’t blame the lockdown policers for their overzealousness, not really. People were terrified, struck by a feeling of helplessness at a moment of national crisis. And for some, the way to alleviate helplessness is to exert whatever control they have: fiercely restricting their own actions and resorting to moral pressure to compel everyone else to do the same.

But something has gone wrong when we privilege that morally coded coercion, when we don’t question the harm-based arguments reached for by those seeking to control our behaviour and accept their protests that they know what’s best for us. It hurts us and it holds us back. In terms of Covid, maybe it would be easier to have a sensible conversation about moderate measures like vaccine passes if the alarmists didn’t call for a return to full lockdown every time someone caught a cough. 

Or look at the UK’s misguided drugs policy. We ban individuals from making personal choices about substances less harmful than alcohol, nicotine or even caffeine, while handing power to criminal gangs and incarcerating non-violent drug users. The available evidence suggests the war on drugs causes far more harm than it allays. But we let the prohibitionists set the terms of the argument and cause untold misery by claiming the moral high-ground.  

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Then there’s campaign by Christian lobbyists to prevent sex workers from making a living on the online platform OnlyFans (the campaign was briefly successful, before the company U-turned). Women apparently don’t deserve a safe space to achieve financial independence if people disapprove of the work they do. The lobbyists’ supposed concerns over underage and trafficked users on the platform rings hollow; sexual exploitation increases when sex workers are driven underground. The safety of the women they wanted to force off the platform clearly mattered less to them than their aim of ending pornography outright. “If I don’t want to, you mustn’t” all over again. 

And I can’t help but see the same idea at the radical fringes of the environmental movement – activists who ignore technological solutions like carbon capture, nuclear power or lab-grown meat, but who champion “degrowth”, no matter how many people would be pushed into poverty, or even “voluntary human extinction” (that we stop having children). Do they really believe the hair shirts they insist on wearing will better solve the climate crisis than the full force of human ingenuity? And if they do, do the rest of us have to listen?

So to those who don’t want to take drugs or watch porn or have casual sex, who will shun nightclubs and pubs long after Covid has disappeared or who adopt a meatless, childless, pre-industrial standard of living, I have this to say: congratulations on your self-restraint. You do you. But denying others pleasures you yourself choose to reject doesn’t make you a better person. And if I make different choices, it’s not my morals that are at issue: it’s your insecurity.