Debate : Traditions like smoking are not worth defending

The opponents of Bavaria’s strict smoking ban have lost, just like most people whose arguments are based on tradition rather than reason.

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New smoking ban in Bavaria.Foto: dpa

The tough new smoking ban in Bavaria gives reason to hope German cities will soon be free of graffiti, dog poop will eventually disappear from our sidewalks, and video replays will finally be used in professional football. Of course, such high hopes need to be explained.

It helps if we remember how the discussion began. The debate used to be about banning smoking in the metro, in planes and on train platforms. The United States took the lead while Europe dragged its heels. ”Never!” an aggrieved Old World cried, ”We’re different, more individualistic, more anarchic, not as health-obsessed. Europe and smoking bans – it’ll never work!”

As if guided by a secret signals, European traditionalists stood up and protested. ”What would films, pop music, talk shows be without a cigarette? They’re a part of our culture and our identity. Banning them from restaurants, bars and public life – imagine Parisian cafés without a pack of Gitanes! – would be a symptom of the decline of our culture, and a betrayal of the nature of Europe.” Everyone knows what happened next.

But it’s interesting that other debates seem to follow the same pattern. The rule is clear: if one side has strong interests (for instance, its own health) and justifiable arguments, it always has a mid- to long-term advantage over the side that resorts to nebulous terms such as tradition, culture, identity or human nature.

The statement ”We’ve never done it that way” is a feeling, not a reason. It can whip up a short-term mood, but it will never make a particularly convincing argument.

So many debates in which something new has slowly and tortuously won out after a long struggle have the same structure. The loosening of retail shopping hours in Germany were fiercely opposed by both trade unions and churches. Germans letting go of impractical pacifism involved getting over our post-war identity. Likewise, gay marriage and reproductive medicine still come up against resistance based on an inflexible image of human nature.

Similarly, a lot of people still can’t accept that Germany is a country of immigration. And those people opposing the Bavarian smoking ban dig up the same tired terms – tradition, culture, identity and nature. But they are fighting a losing battle against something clearly in the right.

That’s why it might be somewhat optimistic to predict that other outdated taboos will soon be broken, but it’s not wholly unrealistic. Like in Berlin now, there used to a massive graffiti and dog poop problem in New York City, but draconian enforcement measures soon got both under control. It’s all a question of will-power.

And it’s the same with video replays for questionable calls in professional football: to dismiss it on the grounds of tradition (suggesting refereeing errors are part of the game) is taking refuge in dogma. It’s just a shame that so many people like to remain so set in their ways.

The new is not always good, of course. It has to be backed up by reason. But when it is, then no tradition can help win the argument.

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