22 June 2010

On "benign" myths

In the car this morning, I caught part of "Woman's Hour" on Radio 4. (Heading link goes there, available for seven days, relevant bit about 30 minutes in.)

It was a discussion about drinking in pregnancy, and it was very refreshing. One of the contributors talked about how some of the strident advocates of prohibiting alcohol consumption in pregnancy, saw the topic of possible foetal damage principally as a way of "telling a good story" which would command attention in a wider campaign against the evils of drink. Another, asked about the labelling of alcohol in the US with warning about drinking during pregnancy, agreed that the initiative was principally traceable to the desire of drinks companies to cover themselves against litigation, regardless of the truth of the claims. Further asked if the labels had made any difference to the incidence of foetal alcohol syndrome, she was very clear--none at all.

This discussion exposed more clearly than anything I have heard or seen in mainstream media for years, the supposedly benign drift from factual reporting of risk to supposedly benign but infantilising myth-making, which not only undermines the capacity of grown-up people to make their own judgements of risk, but also undermines their confidence in anything they are told by the Ministry of Truth.

Not that it is new; Plato started it. Different context, same principle:
How then may we devise one of those needful falsehoods of which we lately spoke—just one royal lie which may deceive the rulers, if that be possible, and at any rate the rest of the city?....
...Such is the tale; is there any possibility of making our citizens believe in it?
Not in the present generation, he replied; there is no way of accomplishing this; but their sons may be made to believe in the tale, and their sons' sons, and posterity after them.
(Plato, the Republic, book III)


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