I want to talk about 3 things:
Boaty McBoatface, Mt. Dew, and Heroin.
Yes, they’re related.
Recently, there’s been a big to-do about the UK Navy (or some office connected with it) running an online poll about the naming of a new research ship.
An online poll, its infinitely democratic wisdom, determined that this ship–this billion-dollar vessel which will sail to the ends of the oceans bearing the British flag–should be known as… “Boaty McBoatface”.
A name only the Internet could love. The UK Science minister (or whatever his title is) has, of course, announced that this experiment in British democracy cannot stand. Which, well, hasn’t surprised anyone.
But it makes me think: what did you expect? From an Internet poll, I mean. Here’s an example to illustrate how wrong things can go:
Just a few years ago, Mt. Dew ran an Internet contest to name its latest caffeinated soft drink. “Dub the Dew.” Maybe you remember it.” Pepsico–the maker of Mt. Dew–described the new flavor as “Classic Mt. Dew with green apple attitude.” Internet, do your thing–name that flavor.
Now, if you’ve been around the Internet at all–seriously, at all–you know there are dark and sticky places on it. With virtual anonymity, it can bring out the worst in people. In large numbers.
So, you might imagine Pepsico’s abject horror when the collective wisdom of the Internet chose “Hitler Did Nothing Wrong” as the name most befitting a citrus-y, green-apple soda. By a very wide margin.
–Seriously, that’s not a joke.
That is what the Internet decided. (Though, some argue the poll was hacked.)
What does Hitler and Holocaust Denial have to do with Mt. Dew?
Nothing. –Except that it would make Pepsico’s marketing department squirm at ignoring The Worst Name Ever.
The practical lesson here, to me, seems pretty simple: Don’t give people a [mostly anonymous] choice to decide issues which don’t actually affect them.
When people bear no consequences for their decisions, there is no cost to choosing arbitrarily. There’s really no meaning, no point or purpose. But people strive to create meaning from nothing. And those choices can become almost sadist. Because if it doesn’t affect THEM, at least the choice can still affect others. And if the choice doesn’t affect me directly, maybe how my choice affects me will still affect me.
Thus, the power to affect others imbues the choice with meaning. And for whatever reason, we as human beings so delight in the misfortune of others. Perhaps, if only that it’s a lot easier to break something than to glue its pieces back together.
In this way I suppose, Boaty McBoatface should never have surprised anyone. Now, to their credit, and in true British style, Boaty McBoatface voters kept it light and playful. –But still right awful enough to upset some UK minister.
But rather than honor the democratic choice which was decided upon–that decision will be quietly swept aside and ignored. But, didn’t those voters expect that anyway? Surely, there was no way the UK would ever allow such an absurd outcome. In a way, each vote for Boaty McBoatface itself, was a little rebellion at having been given a choice which doesn’t matter.
What do boats and soft drinks have to do with heroin?
We all–well, most of us, hopefully–know not to use heroin. Because if you do, you might experience some very bad things. And many think that if you use heroin, then you deserve all the natural consequences which follow. And there are many: social, financial, physical. No one thinks those outcomes are fun or desirable. Even addicts don’t.
But then we pile-on the man-made penalties to the already-destructive natural consequences. Partly because we hope the consequences will deter people from use (in practice: they don’t seem to). And partly because we don’t really care about the consequences that we pile on: “They deserve the consequences–whatever they may be.”
“I don’t use heroin. The consequences don’t affect me.”
“My son would never use heroin. I don’t have to worry about that.”
And so we see that rational: the consequences of my decision do not affect me.
Beyond this, it’s not like voters think the politicians will listen. Or that bureaucrats will care. And–as we might expect from Boaty or Hitler McDew–this combination of meaningless choice and apathy just seems to turn neighborly folk into a vindictive sort, taking small pleasures that someone else can be affected. Hurt more, even. And a lot of drug policy seems to stem from this place.
So long as drug control policy means that our individual choices don’t make a damn difference–i.e. there’s nothing we can do to fix the problem–maybe we should expect people to persist in thinking that harmful policy is the best choice. Again, is there a more foolish way to solve a problem than by giving people a choice in how to do it, when those people have no real stake in the outcome?