IN 1946, master of expression George Orwell wrote an essay on “language as an instrument for expressing and not for concealing or preventing thought”.
“Political language — and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists — is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind”, Orwell wrote.
In his essay, he listed some of the hackneyed phrases so beloved of political writers of the time that could be “tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated henhouse”.
Our list today would be different, but the principle is still with us — and not just in career politicians but in most writing that seeks primarily to serve an ideological end.
Phrases like “political correctness gone mad” (a favourite of the political right) or a suggestion that something is “offensive” (more likely to come from the left) are essentially gag motions, designed to intimidate an antagonist into silence.
When it comes to debates around preventive health, the phrase “nanny state” plays a similar role in stifling debate. Or at least that often seems to be the aim of those who use the term.
Rather than dealing with a public health proposal on its merits, they evoke the spectre of totalitarian forces seeking to take control over our lives and reduce us to a state of helpless infancy.
Does anybody really believe a TV ad campaign designed to reduce binge drinking is that powerful? (I could ask whether a TV ad campaign can substantially affect binge drinking rates, but that would be a different question.)
An article in The Australian last week was a classic of the genre, going so far as to suggest “pandering to the advocates of the nanny state” — variously described as “the public health lobby” and “the preventative health industry” — could pose a serious political risk to the current federal government.
I doubt controls on junk food advertising, or even more ambitious but less likely measures such as a tax on high-sugar drinks, would change too many votes.
The article suggested the sinister forces of public health activists, having largely won the battle against tobacco, were now turning their attention to the alcohol and junk food industries, citing as an example the recently announced campaign by a coalition of health organisations to reduce consumption of high-sugar drinks.
An unnamed industry figure told the article’s author that the health activists’ ideological starting position was a belief that individuals were helpless in the face of corporations and that their ability to make their own decisions must be disregarded as a result.
I’ve never met a public health advocate who held such views, but then they don’t get a voice in this article, apart from a brief quote from the University of Sydney’s Professor Simon Chapman.
The author of the article, Christian Kerr, also writes for conservative think tank the Institute of Public Affairs, which has a whole Nanny State web page seeking to examine “paternalist government regulation”, including that designed to shield people from “voluntary risk-taking behaviour”.
Alcohol, junk food, speeding fines are all targets, though curiously I can’t find any articles championing the right not to wear a seatbelt, surely a stand-out example of voluntary risk taking.
The “nanny state” rhetoric has long been popular, not just with ideologues on the right, but also with the tobacco industry and others keen to protect their commercial interests from government interference, as Professor Mike Daube from Curtin University outlined in a 2008 article.
He quoted one tobacco company, for example, complaining about “the nanny state where government determines for its sheep-like citizens what is good for them, and what is not”.
Preventive health programs are a valid subject of debate. We can and should argue over their role, their effectiveness and the balance we might strike between individual freedom and the desire to protect from harm.
But talk of nanny states simply clouds the picture, shifting our focus from evidence to ideology.
If George Orwell was with us today, I reckon he’d see the term as “a lump of verbal refuse”, to be sent to the dustbin where it belongs.
Jane McCredie is a Sydney-based science and medicine writer.
Posted 29 January 2013