The sanitation of public life continues with a ruling that “knockers” is an unacceptable word in a tabloid headline. In October Brisbane’s Sunday Mail reported sexual harassment complaints against President Donald Trump under the headline “Knockers come out”. The humourless adjudicators at the Australian Press Council decreed last week the newspaper had gone too far.
The headline “could be taken by an ordinary reader to refer to women’s breasts being revealed”, their adjudication read. A suggestive sub-headline — “Number of Trump accusers swells” — had made the crime worse.
“The vulgar use of the word ‘knockers’ in such a context could be read as mocking women who raise allegations of being sexually harassed, in focusing on a physical characteristic of women, and trivialising their complaints,” they pronounced.
“The publication failed to take reasonable steps to avoid causing or contributing materially to substantial offence, distress or prejudice, and there was no sufficient public interest in doing so.”
The wowsers are back. That word was coined in late 19th-century Australia to describe the sanctimonious objectors to alcohol, gambling and smut. A wowser, wrote CJ Dennis, was “an ineffably pious person who mistakes this world for a penitentiary and himself for a warder”.
Then as now the subtext to wowserism is social conceit; it is the declaration that they know better than us and it is time we mended our ways.
The wowser is tenacious in turning small personal vices into public anxieties. Obesity is transformed from a matter of individual or parental indiscipline into a plague fast consuming all mankind.
This year the wowsers finally caught up with the Easter bunny, who stands accused of feigning merriment for the purposes of making kids fat.
“It’s time Australia prevented the confectionery industry from profiteering by advertising unhealthy products to our kids,” two earnest academics wrote in an ardent online journal called The Conversation.
How should the average parent counter the influence of this small, furry, chocoholic mammal on susceptible children? Ensure that his basket has more nourishing treats than confectionery, the academics recommended. Hand-painted hard-boiled eggs for instance. Or you could liven up the egg hunt.
“Design a special course with obstacles, sign posts, hints or even GPS mapping.”
The anti-sugar movement has all the characteristics of a temperance crusade. For the prohibitionists the source of all evil was the saloon bar; for the sugar prohibitionists it is the supermarket aisles and vending machines supplying syrupy substances to the bloated masses. Advertising must be banned, sales restricted and taxes imposed to enforce better habits.
The justification of such coercive measures is built on the assumption that consumers are too dumb to know what is good for them. The evidence, however, suggests the opposite.
Sugar consumption per capita has fallen steadily in recent decades, particularly among children, according to the authors of a new report. The reported intake of added sugars (grams per day) in national dietary surveys declined between 26 per cent and 34 per cent for children aged between two and 18 years.
The proportion of energy consumed in sugar-sweetened beverages including juice declined 15 per cent in adults and 40 per cent in children and youths. Industry data also shows that consumption declined over the same timeframe based on sales and sugar concentrations of soft drink variants.
The assumed causal link turns out to be a myth; the population has become more obese even as sugar consumption has declined.
Empirical evidence, however, is seldom enough to destroy the articles of faith that inspire wowsers on their symbolic crusades. Their minds are fixed and they are deeply uncomfortable with any challenge to their imagined expertise. Mundane aspects of everyday life, like the wording of newspaper headlines or the food packed in children’s lunch boxes, become matters of great significance in the battle for moral authority.
The exaggerated forms of etiquette adopted by today’s elites vary only in degree from the enforced social manners of the 18th-century European regal courts to which Voltaire took such strong objection.
The strictures against causing public offence prosecuted by bodies such as the Press Council and the Australian Human Rights Commission may seem ludicrous, even comical, to those on the outside.
But the force with which they are policed suggests they are much more than that.
Enforcing the rules around language — political correctness as it has become known — is an undefinable restriction on free speech.
Seldom have so few been willing to speak up on the vital moral questions of the day, held in check by the sanctions imposed on those who presume to challenge conventional wisdom.
For a moment the presentation of a free speech award to Human Rights Commissioner Gillian Triggs last week seemed a joke, but one look into the eyes of those who awarded it suggested they were completely serious.
In the topsy-turvy world of elite logic, the woman who tried to silence a newspaper cartoonist is being honoured for “her fearless work in pursuit of people’s rights”. The sponsors call themselves Liberty Victoria, and the prize will be presented at the Voltaire Award Dinner.
“A civilisation unable to differentiate between illusion and reality is usually believed to be at the tail end of its existence,” John Ralston Saul wrote in a book aptly named Voltaire’s Bastards.
Were Voltaire to reappear today, he would be outraged by the edifices the establishment has built to guard its moral authority. “He would deny all legal responsibility and set about ﬁghting them, as he once fought the courtiers and priests of eighteenth-century Europe,” wrote Saul. If only Bill Leak were here to draw the cartoon.