The Halifax Scent Police

  When 17 year-old Gary Falkenham put on some Aqua Velva deodorant before school, to keep himself fresh, he had no idea he would run afoul of the law. But Gary lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia. There, deodorant is cause for suspension and a call to mom from the police station. You might think that not wearing deodorant would be cause for arresting teenagers, but Halifax recently passed a new law banning cosmetic fragrances. Well, to put it bluntly: that stinks. This case merely highlights the absurdity of using law to deal with all matters of social conduct. And it's a cautionary illustration of the dangers of abandoning a healthy appreciation for manners and using law to fill the vacuum. When Gary's typing teacher took offense at the scent of his toiletries, she decided she'd had enough. Instead of asking Gary to wash it off or to consider changing brands, she invoked the new law and had him removed from school. Reports indicate that at least 10 more students have been suspended for the same reason. And it's not just teachers. The Boston Globe reports that an 84 year-old woman was "booted out of City Hall for wafting her customary cologne . . . and another woman was ordered off a city bus for smelling too sweet." Perfume prudery has even caught on in the private sector: Halifax's major newspaper, the Chronicle-Herald, declared "strong mouthwash" off-limits for employees. Really! Now, all of us have experienced too much perfume in a closed space -- and it's not pleasant. But the experience is no worse than encountering those who fail to use deodorant or mouthwash. By and large, people try to use a moderate amount precisely because they are concerned for their neighbors' sensibilities. It's a matter of manners and etiquette -- some go too far, others not far enough. In this case, the Canadian concern for politeness, animated by an environmentalist fervor, resulted in an annoying but relatively innocuous ban on fragrance. But as any civil libertarian can tell you, introducing law into the realm of manners and personal restraint is not always benign. The impulse to make manners the province of law doesn't just stop with Right Guard. Canadian radio censors Laura Schlessinger's broadcasts -- and Focus on the Family -- when their "religiously derived views" express what the censors consider "hate speech." Yes, this is Canada, not the U.S. But trendy ideas are often born in more liberal cultures like Canada, and in the case of Canada, quickly migrate south. As social scientist James Q. Wilson puts it, there are only two restraints on behavior. One is moral, the restraint of conscience. The other is external -- the law, enforced by government. The heavy hand of the law steps in when internal restraints fail. The fewer inner restraints we have, the greater the force of law, so that eventually, the state can come to control personal conduct -- even to the extent of regulating the use of deodorant. We need to explain to our neighbors that a healthy society requires polite and civil citizens. And this is a matter, not of law, but of inculcating manners. The death of manners in due course can lead only to the birth of tyranny. And that's a stench no amount of perfume -- legal or otherwise -- can cover up.


Chuck Colson



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