The great infantilisation

“ANGRY-YYYY baby!!!!” by Harald Groven is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

It has puzzled me for considerable time now some of the truly childish “Warnings” that one finds on the side of food packets and generally throughout society these days. Nuts with the statement “Contains nuts”. Dried pasta products with “Do not reheat” on them. Takeaway coffee cups with “Hot” engraved upon the lid. Tobacco with “Smoking damages your health” insignia. “Danger – Inflammable” is my personal favourite, found in petrol stations up and down the land. If the truth be known, clown world started generations ago amongst the dark sheltering undergrowth of tough shoots that the short but sweet slogan offered the politically correct.

It all started innocently enough. The public health Nazis (and indeed they are, just look at what has happened to world over the past 18 months), rather than railing against a myriad of healthcare issues that truly deserved widespread public attention at the time, set their sights squarely on the tobacco industry. Although never admitted, I personally believe this was a deliberate act of virtue signalling, and the industry was an easy target with the obvious correlation between lung cancer and smoking. What could possibly hold more appeal to the fiesty do-gooder? Destroying an industry that kills its own customers whilst atoning for the use of coloured slave labour and at the same time marginalising over 50% of your populace for being a dirty, smelly, drug addict – seems the ultimate in affirmative political correctness. After all, if you went after the cotton industry you couldn’t really put dire warnings on bed-sheets or pillowcases unless maybe it was about allergies or the fire risk. The first of a plague of “Public Health Warnings” was then born, and provided the incessant and hypnotic drumbeat of censure to the point that almost 50 years later, smoking is as anti-social as cold-blooded matricide. As a smoker, I was quite happy with the compromise of a dank smoking room at work, a separate section in the pub and I didn’t mind in the slightest being confined to a smelly dedicated carriage on the tube to work. Somehow, this reasonable balance was overturned, and a full indoor smoking ban was instituted, much to my angst and many a soaking, having to sneak out unprepared for a quick tab to be met with a downpour. My chances of suffering pneumonia duly increased exponentially, and my regular pub visitations decreased to virtually zero. Why pay an exorbitant amount for a pint when I have to go outside for a fag?

Not satisfied, we now have property wide smoking bans that include open-air areas, which frankly, is totally ridiculous. I was once chastised for smoking in the street, which I found really quite amusing, as the person responsible drove a large 4×4 that omitted more noxious fumes than I ever could, even after a bad night on beer and curry. Naturally, there has been a corresponding increase in the “Sin tax” of every packet, and if smoking is as lethal as it is supposed to be, I should die a relatively early death, thereby saving the government considerable amount in pension payments as well. Having tried every cure imaginable to become “Socially acceptable”, the final straw was nicotine patches that left me with permanent tachycardia and almost killed me in the process. Even my GP quietly admitted that they were probably more dangerous than cigarettes, as I never suffered any heart problems before I started using them.

You can see the same model being used time and again. A recent “Infomercial” I came across on YouTube, is a case in point. It went to great artistic lengths to inform me that when ordering takeaway food I was to check that none of my friends had a nut allergy. I didn’t stick around to discover who exactly was behind this pearl of wisdom, but I can guarantee it wasn’t a conglomerate of Indian restaurants who frequently use various ground nuts to thicken sauces. This is just one in a series of PR campaigns that have their roots in the Public Information Film, government or corporate sponsored films that were donated free to broadcasters, cinemas etc. to be used as “Filler” where there was spare capacity. Probably the best known series in this genre was the “Joe and Petunia” cartoon series which first appeared in 1968, courtesy of the now abolished Central Office of Information. Unlike the stark and persistent written warnings we are regularly flooded with now, it was considered by many pithy and amusing, but in the woke environs of 21st century Britain, would now be considered politically incorrect as it stereotypes both stupidity and sexist values.

The difference between these genres of the PIF and the nudge unit driven psychological warfare is straightforward. We have gone from entertainment with a valuable message to crude, raw and viscous nagging. Whilst we can have a laugh at Joe and Petunia, the censorious “Warning HOT” label not only adopts a position of authority, it treats us like children. The reader is not just informed, rather they are left with a bitter aftertaste of patronisation, even more so when one realises the the majority of these labels are there to prevent lawsuits for civil damages. Nowhere does it truly address the larger issue facing the human race – stupidity. If I am unfortunate enough to suffer from a nut allergy, I deserve everything I get if I crack open a packet of KP and start masticating them. More troubling is the level of hygiene that is present in food processing plants, the warning “Made in an environment that also processes nuts” although purely precautionary, has a sting it its tail. How much cross contamination during food production is acceptable? According to the FDA, a lot more than most people would consider acceptable. The FDA food defect levels handbook [1] is not for the faint hearted, but I doubt if we will see any food labelling any time soon that honestly declares “Probably contains rat shit”.

Here lies the problem of all these warning labels etc. Rather than informing, they disingenuously lecture. Worse than that, they more often than not attack a straw man that is not really that dangerous or something that the reader is perfectly aware of, yet is happy with the risks. I have been driven through London at insane speeds many times, and out of these only once was I truly in fear for my life. The senior partner concerned was as pissed as a judge, and if it wasn’t for the fact that I would have been looking for a new job the next day if I refused to go with him, that I relented. I clearly survived that episode, although it did age me somewhat.  The closest in reality that I have ever come to ending up in a fatal car crash was accompanying a genuinely qualified advanced driver who, due to the number of miles and hours of work, would frequently doze off at the wheel. On the motorway. With drinking and driving being such a well known social sin nowadays, tiredness, drugs and the mobile phone are the current ways of severely reducing a drivers cognitive ability. Will we see large advertising campaigns by the telco providers, car manufacturers, drug dealers or gouging agency employers warning about this silent killer? Of course not.

As the old saying goes, the problem with common sense is that it is not that common. Part of being human is making mistakes and hopefully, surviving long enough to learn from them. Most of the warnings we come across these days – if ignored – will not result in our death. Looking at the instruction leaflets of virtually every new electrical domestic appliance will have pages of dire warnings before you come to the actual instructions. I purchased a food mixer recently and was tempted to fall into the classic male stereotype of chucking the documentation in the bin before using the device, but I resisted. By the end of reading it, I felt more paranoid than in any mood to bake a cake. Was I “Competent” enough to use the product without supervision? What would happen if I dared ran the motor for more than 600 seconds consecutively? Would the mixer spontaneously combust if I ran it for 610 seconds? Heaven help me if the power cord dangled over the side of the worktop. Yet not one single page was dedicated to getting the best results or how to make the lightest, fluffiest, sponge cake. All lecture, patronise, warn.

All of this feeds into an incessant information overload, a natural lack of real accountability on behalf of the authors of the warning, where the individual is then either too confused or too scared to do something. A classic example is the “Use by” and “Best before” dates on food. Many people think these dates are synonymous, but in reality the latter is just a marketing ploy as it only applies to the long-term quality of the product. Even “Use by” dates are highly suspect, please name someone who has suffered food poisoning from eating a perishable food an hour past that. I have encountered mince and chicken that was absolutely rank days before their “Use by” expiry, which proves that the quality of the ingredient and storage are just as important factors. The programming has been successful though, as we needlessly throw out millions of pounds worth of food each year.

These token gestures of “Advice” serve little but to treat their audience with the pretence of care, when in fact they are frequently just an exercise in arse covering, pernicious marketing or political propaganda. The end result, like the boy who cried “Wolf”, is that they eventually are just ignored, but the real damage has already been done. Like the little girl who dares not step on the cracks of the pavement, they condition us to follow some invisible authority, that under the guise of “Well-being”, can instruct us, often against our common sense, to play by their rules, which are not always in our best interests. We then become psychologically programmed to follow any seemingly authoritative instruction without thinking it through. We have become infantilised.

Anyone doubting that last paragraph just need look back to 2007, when Public Health England launched their “Catch it, Bin it, Kill it” campaign to counter the flu and Norovirus [2]. Deliberately designed to make people feel guilty, it is one of the many psychological or “Nudge” campaigns employed by the government. Fast forward to 2021, it is now clear just how effective and mainstream such subtle brainwashing has become.


[1] Food defect levels handbook
[2] Public Health England – Catch it, Bin it, Kill it campaign

© Rookwood 2021

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