Before I start this article, let me just say that I won’t be watching the new Cruella de Vil prequel starring Emma Stone. I am not 10 years old, for starters. But in general I have pre/sequel-phobia; an intense aversion to films that have had their five minutes of fame. Do we really need to know the whole backstory to Cruella de Vil?
Cruella, however, caught my attention when I found out that producers had scrapped her iconic cigarette holder. Any fan of 101 Dalmations will know this is a crucial part of Cruella, along with her pathological hatred of dalmations (alive, at least). But that’s over now. Stone has told The New York Times that no one is allowed to smoke onscreen in a Disney film and she doesn’t want to promote it. Furthermore, this Cruella will not “in any way harm animals”, according to the producers. Is this even Cruella?
You’re probably wondering what all this has to do with politics. Well, the story got me thinking that cigarette-less Cruella didn’t happen in a vacuum; she is, in fact, part of a wider societal trend across the West, whereby organisations – and the state – now think it’s their role to parent people. Disney presumably thinks it’s preventing the next generation of children from smoking (personally I think they’re missing an opportunity to help kids associate tobacco with evilness). And this “nudge” instinct is all too common in other corporations, which appear to view themselves as guiding forces on health, morality, politics, and actually most things.
One of the most virtuous organisations is Twitter (a site that I spend far too much time on, incidentally). It now issues warning signs if you want to share content, saying “Want to read the article first?” A lot of its signposting comes across as a knee-jerk reaction to Brexit/ Trump, when “disinformation” was used to explain why voters voted the way they did. Thus, tech companies are trying to “help promote informed discussion“, as Twitter puts it, using instructive messaging. In fact, the “want to read the article first” signs feel like the social media equivalent of being in Waterstones buying a book for your friend, only for the shop assistant to pop up and ask “want to read the book first?” None of your business, you would think.
Our paternalistic culture has not been helped by the Coronavirus crisis, which greatly increased people’s need for instruction in their everyday lives. At the beginning of the pandemic, MPs advised people on the nature of the disease, but since then we’ve been taught everything from “how to give a hug” to how to interact with others in our own house. Even to have two friends over for dinner post May 17 is to feel like the character from Crime and Punishment, as you anxiously cross-check the Government website to ensure compliance with the rules. The amount of advice out there is startling. Worse still, it seems unexceptional these days; the default to expect it.
The State had been interfering in people’s lives more and more before Covid, despite most people’s belief that Boris Johnson would be libertarian on many issues, particularly obesity. Instead, shortly after he became Prime Minister, the Government developed a strategy that included banning adverts for high fat, salt or sugar products on the TV and online before 9pm – among other tough measures.
I don’t count myself as someone who gets particularly vexed about sin taxes, incidentally – it’s actually the area I’m least libertarian about – but given that we have just had a year in which we were told how to hug, I’m starting to think all this has gone too far. We seem to have embraced a new variety of what Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, the authors of The Coddling of the American Mind, would call safetyism – the increased societal efforts to protect children from emotional/ physical harm, which in turn make them less resilient. Nowadays businesses and policymakers treat children and adults as though they can’t be trusted to think for themselves.
To even utter the phrase “use your common sense” is to be frowned upon in our current climate. Take, for example, when Michael Gove said “it’s always better to trust people’s common sense” on wearing face masks. It was interesting to note a letter that followed in one newspaper shortly afterwards reading “I no longer trust people’s ‘common sense’ in dealing with coronavirus. We need real leadership” (leadership being synonymous with more rules). When I wrote my own article arguing that face masks shouldn’t be mandatory, I was surprised to find people disagreeing with me, warning how useful they can be. But I wasn’t disagreeing with that; merely saying that I trusted people to wear them without legislation. I thought this wouldn’t be controversial.
The result of this nudging, and governmental advice over how many people can come over for a cuppa, and the rest won’t be good. Already we are seeing signs that people have become more worried about going back to “normal” because of the lockdown restrictions, with The Office for National Statistics finding that just 39 per cent met people outside their support bubble indoors after May 17. My own age group 30-49-year-olds) were some of the most hesitant. What are they waiting for? More state encouragement? A Twitter notification (“want to go out soon?”) The Government must roll back its powers; it must help personal judgement become the norm again. Organisations must relax. Give us back our Disney villains, at least.