The tyranny of the well-meaning do-gooders

All Londoners will no doubt know about the campaigns launched against adverts in tube stations that have been rolled out under the premiership of Sadiq Khan. In his list of pledges in his mayoral manifesto in 2016, Khan promised that he would bring in legislation that would see adverts for junk food and adverts that body-shame become a thing of the past.

It’s been two years since these pledges were made in Khan’s manifesto, and it was recently announced that the first of these bans – a ban on junk food adverts – would be brought into effect by the end of February 2019. This policy is planned not only for tube stations across the capital but also for bus shelters, buses, and overground trains. 

While one can certainly see the underlying reason for wanting the adverts removed from the public eye – with obesity on the rise in the UK – that does not make it right. There is a perceived obligation on the part of the state to intervene where it deems that free will needs to be policed, where it believes it knows what’s best for its people, and while in some cases you can certainly argue that this is helpful, when interfering to prevent companies from advertising their products on the tube, a line must be drawn. 

Sadiq Khan certainly has a right to air these concerns about advertising on the tube, after all as mayor he is the head of Transport for London, and he certainly has done this in the past by criticising the controversial advert by Protein World which allegedly body shamed other women, and to some degree one could argue men, who used the tube. 

However, when the powers that be intervene by banning adverts then one cannot escape the realisation that there is something relatively illiberal about the state, which in a supposedly liberal city, and country, is rather confusing.

Individuals should always be afforded the luxury of having the right to free will – to allow themselves to use the logical reasoning they have developed throughout life. They should be able to choose for themselves when they see an advert for something like a cheeseburger or a McFlurry, whether or not they go to the fast-food chain and purchase them, or if they find healthier alternatives instead. 

This obviously falls under the umbrella of public health and how we as a society should, and can, change habits in order to lessen the risk of diseases associated with eating foods rich in fat, salt and sugar. But something that has been forgotten in recent times is the role of personal responsibility, and by extension freedom of the individual, in making decisions.

The policing of adverts on the tube and other methods of public transport for me falls under the term used by Professor Jordan Peterson in describing similar issues: “the tyranny of the well-meaning”. While those who seek to remove these ads may believe they are acting in good faith, it is a rather arbitrary step to remove adverts simply because one feels an obligation to “help” others.

Professor Peterson issued that quote in response to an article which stated that the Advertising Standards Authority was preparing to ban adverts that depicted gender stereotypical roles. While this is concerning another issue altogether, one can certainly see the similarities. Both instances seek to remove a point of view, or commercial advertisement, in the hope that they will be doing the “right” thing. 

However, there is an aspect missing from this: what is and is not offensive to someone is entirely subjective. There is a trend in modern Western culture where if one person happens to find something like the Protein World advert offensive, then it must, as a result, be offensive to others, not taking into account the number of people who would either not find it offensive, or simply not care.

There is an overbearing sense on the part of those who make decisions that they know the interests of society, and so it is their role to alter what the rest of us see in order to preserve the greater good.

But if we are to remain a truly liberal country, we must cease to police things as trivial as adverts on a tube. We must instead remember what individual responsibility is, and allow people the free will when they see an advert for fat-laden food or protein powder to make their own decisions on whether they should buy the product being advertised, or whether they find it offensive to their own body image, health standards, or even gender roles.

If we can resist the urge to decide for others what is right and what is wrong, then we can return to a society based on individual liberty, rather than the opinions of the well-meaning do-gooders, who often cause the most harm in the end.

Written by Kurtis Prosser

Kurtis Prosser studies History at Swansea University.