When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro. - Hunter S. Thompson

10 September 2005

The Social Issues Research Centre

The Social Issues Research Centre, based in Oxford, England, is "an independent, non-profit organisation founded to conduct research on social and lifestyle issues, monitor and assess global sociocultural trends and provide new insights on human behaviour and social relations."

Their web site is a cornucopia of wonderful, intelligent and beautifully written observations and sociological analysis, much of it written from a perspective that can be described as simultaneously left-of-center *and* broadly libertarian, which is refreshing and useful (even if I don't always agree with it.)

Here, for example, is an excerpt from a work of true genius and insight, entitled "In Praise of Bad Habits." (Peter Marsh delivered this lecture to the Institute for Cultural Research in London, in November 2001.)
...[T]he notion of 'lifestyle correctness', founded largely on narcissistic health ideals, has come to shape the direction of people's lives in ways which once characterised the power of formal religions. In place of faith in the creeds and tenets of the established church, we now follow slavishly the equally false promises of the health promotion professions - those who would have us believe that if we lead the 'good' life we will have unending life and beauty.

This comparison between the pursuit of health and the search for God has been noted by a number of social commentators, including, for example, the Australian academic Deborah Lupton. In her book The Imperative of Health she argues:
"In this secular age, focusing upon one's diet and other lifestyle choices has become an alternative to prayer and righteous living in providing a means of making sense of life and death. 'Healthiness' has replaced 'Godliness' as a yardstick of accomplishment and proper living. Public health and health promotion, then, may be viewed as contributing to the moral regulation of society, focusing as they do upon ethical and moral practices of the self."
While the new religion of health enables many people in our society to gain a sense of moral worthiness, it also provides a valuable means of censuring deviants - those new outcasts in a world where the concept of 'zero tolerance' has somehow become a 'good thing'. (The currency of this term alone, in my view, is sufficient to illustrate the extent to which we have lost the moral plot.) People who are unwilling to succumb to what the late Petr Skrabanek (a renegade Czech medic) described as 'Coercive Healthism' - those among us with 'bad habits' - are the new outcasts in this increasingly fearful and intolerant world.

It is a long but extremely worthwhile read, and includes a scholarly discussion of why the term "health Nazi" is in fact both frighteningly accurate and solidly historically-based... we meet, among others, the Gesundheitspolizei, or "Health Police."

We don't know anyone like that, do we?

This magnificent riff comes much later in the lecture, in which Marsh quotes Professor Desmond Morris describing his elderly mother tucking into one of her last meals:

"It was a meal to make a food faddist swoon away in horror. My mother was piling her plate high with a greasy, fatty, fry-up of a mixed grill and tucking in with gusto. When I say 'with gusto', I mean she was eating with the urgent pleasure of a predator at a kill. Although she was born during the reign of Queen Victoria, she was more in tune with the robust food pleasures of the eighteenth century, when a feast was a feast, and nobody had heard about health foods, diet regimes, or table etiquette that demanded you chew each mouthful 32 times before swallowing."

"Watching her in action and trying my best to match her appetite, I glibly remarked that if she kept ignoring the words of wisdom of the health gurus and diet experts, she would die young. This may sound like a cruel thing for a son to have said to his mother, but the fact that she was in her 99th year at the time of the meal in question, helps to put my remark into perspective."

Please go and read the entire lecture now.

(Travellers to the UK would also be well-served to read SIRC's scholarly-but-accessible sociological and anthropological dissection of English alcohol culture, "Passport to the Pub: A tourist guide to British pub etiquette." Fascinating stuff.)

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