‘Vaping’ has just won the prize for ‘Word of the Year’, announced this week by the Oxford Dictionary. Does this tell us something about the increasingly ‘vapid’ state of contemporary society and politics? Matt Flinders shares his provocative thoughts…
There has to be something seriously wrong with the world when the ‘Word of the Year’ for 2014 is declared to be ‘vape’. What the dickens is ‘vape’! I’ve never heard it, none of my kids have ever heard of it – even my students look at me with a quizzical stare. OK, so there is nothing that unique about the quizzical stare of my students but the word ‘vape’ is so ridiculously empty and meaningless that I can’t help but think that there is something deeper – and more worrying – going on.
Apparently ‘vape’ means ‘to inhale or exhale the vapor produced by an electronic cigarette or similar device; while both the action and the device can also be known as a ‘vape’’. Apparently New York banned indoor vaping in April 2014 while London led the world by opening the first vape café – The Vape Lab – just weeks later. But what does the emergence of ‘vaping’ actually say about the world around us? Does the fact that ‘vape’ is the ‘Word of the Year’ (of course this has to have its own funky little acronym so in future it will be ‘WOtY’) actually matter?
As a boring and over-thinking academic I’d have to come up with some argument that it does matter and in this case it has to be something to do with how contemporary society attempts to deal with the issue of risk. For many people vaping was a safe and socially acceptable alternative to smoking; it was cool and trendy; and you could even have funky flavors that made it all such fun. Just like the cake that doesn’t make you fat, the exercise that does not involve sweating, the laxatives that taste of chocolate (I kid you not) and the ‘adventure’ holidays that are perfectly safe, ‘vaping’ offered all the pleasure of smoking but without the pain. And it’s this vacuous nature of modern society that worries me. There is an existential quality to ‘vaping’ that gives it a meaning and relevance far beyond the public carrying of a – if we are honest – rather embarrassing bong. Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984) keeps coming into my head but I have neither the time, interest or energy to explore why. It has to be something about the vaunted erosion of risk in society…but now Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents (1929) has popped into my head…no one told me that vaping had such intellectual off-shoots but it seems there is something unquestionably meaningless about ‘vaping’ that fits within a broader social-psychological fabric.
The other contenders for ‘WOtY’ (how cool am I) offer a similar menu of meaninglessness – ‘normcore’, ‘slacktivism’, ‘budtender’…that each in their own ways point to an unbearingly bleak vision of social emptiness. But now the World Health Organisation has spoilt all the fun by highlighting the dark side of vaping. Apparently e-cigarettes emit just as many potentially dangerous chemicals as good old-fashioned cigarettes and have similar passive smoking risks. Could that actually be good news? Do we all really want to live in a sanitized risk-free world? Is it really making us happy? So, go on, hold your head high and have a little vape – puff out your chest and puff out some steam! But, then again, if you don’t like the risks- just stop smoking. Period. That would have meaning.
Matt Flinders is Professor of Politics and Director of the Sir Bernard Crick Centre for the Public Understanding of Politics at the University of Sheffield. He is also Visiting Distinguished Professor of Governance and Public Policy at Murdoch University in Western Australian and is Chair of the Political Studies Association of the United Kingdom.
Note: this article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Crick Centre, or the Understanding Politics blog series. For more follow our twitter discussion #understandingpolitics.