Peter Hitchens says he "never meant to start an argument about addiction. I had carried my private doubts on the subject around in my head for years, in the “heresy” section where I keep my really risky thoughts." But having taken up the gauntlet, in an exchange (on the BBC show "Newsnight") that included the actor Matthew Perry, Hitchens seems pretty darned pleased with himself:
I took a while to realize what I had done. Only for a moment did I feel that chill in the innards which always follows any sort of dangerous speech. The more I thought about it, the more pleased I became. It was a bit like the long-ago days when I had begun to change my mind about revolutionary socialism. I was wholly liberated. I had found the courage to say what I really thought, and so was more fully human than before.
Here is Hitchens' own summation of his "dangerous speech":
The chief difficulty with the word “addiction” is the idea that it describes a power greater than the will.1 If it exists in the way we use it and in the way our legal and medical systems assume it exists, then free will has been abolished. I know there are people who think and argue this is so. But this is not one of those things that can be demonstrated by falsifiable experiment. In the end, the idea that humans do not really have free will is a contentious opinion, not an objective fact.
So to use the word “addiction” is to embrace one side in one of those ancient unresolved debates that cannot be settled this side of the grave. To decline to use it, by contrast, is to accept that all kinds of influences, inheritances, and misfortunes may well operate on us, and propel us towards mistaken, foolish, wrong, and dangerous actions or habits. It is to leave open the question whether we can resist these forces. I am convinced that declining the word “addiction” is both the only honest thing to do, and the only kind and wise thing to do, when we are faced with fellow creatures struggling with harmful habits and desires. It is all very well to relieve someone of the responsibility for such actions, by telling him his body is to blame. But what is that solace worth if he takes it as permission to carry on as before?
Full disclosure: I have gone through a "Twelve Step" program for addiction. I recall my initial impression being similar to Peter Hitchens': If I'm actually "powerless" over my addiction, which is what the first step requires me to admit, then what earthly good can the remaining eleven steps do?
That, as my fellow addicts helped me to understand, was "stinking thinking"; and so, by and large, is Peter Hitchens' crusade against the very idea of addiction. Hitchens takes the strongest possible understanding of addiction--that it leaves us literally powerless--and points out that experience proves otherwise and that addicts in fact quite frequently manage to quit their addictions:
We are ceaselessly told that cigarettes are “addictive.” Most powerfully, most of us believe that the abusers of the illegal drug heroin are “addicted” to it. Once again, the public, the government, and the legal and medical systems are more or less ordered to believe that users of these things are involuntary sufferers. A British celebrity and alleged comedian, Russell Brand, wrote recently, “The mentality and behaviour of drug addicts and alcoholics is wholly irrational until you understand that they are completely powerless [my emphasis] over their addiction and, unless they have structured help, they have no hope.”
Brand is a former heroin abuser who has by now rather famously given up the drug. But how can that be, if what he says about addiction is true?
Hitchens is smart enough to know that the admission of powerlessness is only one step in the process of recovery. He is also smart enough to know that the "powerlessness" confessed to is that of the unaided individual and that Twelve Step programs are designed precisely to provide the individual with the aid and support he or she needs. But Hitchens just can't let go of the fact that the notion of addiction, taken literally, ought to rule out any hope of recovery at all. In fact, he says, in our current paradigm addicts never recover from being addicts; they only (if they're lucky) manage to stop using, one day at a time:
Conscious choice plays little or no role in the actual state of addiction; as a result, a person cannot choose not to be addicted. The most an addict can do is choose not to use the substance or engage in the behavior that reinforces the entire self-destructive reward-circuitry loop. So even if the supposed “addict” ceases (as many do) to be “addicted” in practice to the addictive substance or activity, he remains “addicted” in some spiritual, subjective way, which cannot actually be seen in his behavior.
The defender of the concept of “addiction,” confronted with evidence that many “addicts” cease to be “addicted,” will say that of course he didn’t mean to suggest the phenomenon was wholly irresistible and could not be mastered by will. Oh no, he will say, reasonable people quite understand that it is not like that at all.
Hitchens is not simply hung up on semantics here. He believes that the "addiction" paradigm undermines personal responsibility, and that it leads to a whole lot of irresponsible slackers getting government benefits when what they really need is a good dose of punishment and social disapproval:
The consequences of this (verbal) usage, in medical practice and law, are huge. Actions once punished or scorned are sympathetically treated as if they arose from diseases rather than choices. Persons repeatedly caught in possession of illegal drugs (a crime that in theory attracts a prison sentence of several years) are not punished according to law, but supplied by the authorities with clean needles, put into the care of doctors, and, in some jurisdictions, given free substitute drugs at the expense of the taxpayer. It is no longer acceptable to disapprove of certain selfish and inconsiderate actions, some of them illegal.
The fact that such disapproval is "no longer acceptable" simply underscores, to Hitchens, his own courageous iconoclasm--truth to power and all that. Of course, Hitchens provides no evidence that either prison sentences or scorn are effective in combating the bad behaviors that go with "addiction," but that doesn't seem to be his purpose; rather, his purpose is to combat what he calls "selfism," the false gospel of modernity that has supplanted the Christian understanding of human beings endowed with free will and responsible for the use of it.
Hitchens, it seems, is a Christian moralist preaching old-time religion:
Having arisen, selfism has easily shouldered its rival aside.2 In free competition, how can a faith [traditional Christianity] based upon self-restraint and patience compete with one that pardons, unconditionally and in advance, all the self-indulgences you can think of, and some you cannot? That is what the “addiction” argument is most fundamentally about, and why it is especially distressing to hear Christian voices accepting and promoting it, as if it were merciful to call a man a slave, and treat him as if he had no power to resist. The mass abandonment of cigarettes by a generation of educated people demonstrates that, given responsibility for their actions and blamed for their outcomes, huge numbers of people will give up a bad habit even if it is difficult. Where we have adopted the opposite attitude, and assured abusers that they are not answerable for their actions, we have seen other bad habits grow or remain as common as before. Heroin abuse has not been defeated, the abuse of prescription drugs grows all the time, and heavy drinking is a sad and spreading problem in Britain.3
Moralist that he is, Hitchens wants us to abandon the illusory paradigm of "addiction" and replace it with a time-tested alternative (i.e. "sin"):
We all prefer the easy, comforting falsehood to the awkward truth. But at the same time, we all know exactly what we are doing, and seek with ever-greater zeal to conceal it from ourselves. Has it not been so since the beginning? And has not the greatest danger always been that those charged with the duty of preaching the steep and rugged pathway persuade themselves that weakness is compassion, and that sin can be cured at a clinic, or soothed with a pill?
As bold as Mr. Hitchens believes himself to be, his concerns and complaints are not new. The medicalizing of vice has been worried over for some time now; back in 1973, Dr. Karl Menninger wrote a book called WHATEVER BECAME OF SIN? And, more radically, Thomas Szasz spent his entire career questioning the reality of mental illness, a construct which he believed (as Hitchens believes about addiction) undermines free will and personal autonomy.
More importantly, Hitchens is simply taking one side of a false dichotomy: are aberrant behaviors to be understood as symptoms of disease or environmental influences or as free (and therefore condemnable) choices? There are, it turns out, other options that respect both individual responsibility and the limits of our supposedly "free" will. Kent Dunnington, for instance, has written about ADDICTION AND VIRTUE: Beyond the Models of Disease and Choice. The Amazon blurb explains that Dunnington's book explores:
What is the nature of addiction? Neither of the two dominant models (disease or choice) adequately accounts for the experience of those who are addicted or of those who are seeking to help them. In this interdisciplinary work, Kent Dunnington brings the neglected resources of philosophical and theological analysis to bear on the problem of addiction. Drawing on the insights of Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas, he formulates an alternative to the usual reductionistic models. Going further, Dunnington maintains that addiction is not just a problem facing individuals. Its pervasiveness sheds prophetic light on our cultural moment.
I suspect that Peter Hitchens will not like the notion that addiction is somehow related to "our cultural moment"; it seems to allow the addict a bit of wriggle room, if not to let him off the hook entirely. Worse, Dunnington, in an excerpt published at The Gospel Coaltion, goes further:
What exactly is it about our time or our culture that seems to make addiction itself such a compelling option and the concept of addiction such a natural way of interpreting and describing our behavior and experience? I believe addiction is, in fact, a kind of embodied cultural critique of modernity and the addict a kind of unwitting modern prophet.
"Modern prophets" uttering " a kind of embodied social critique": this assuredly is not how Peter Hitchens sees addicts.
Addiction is a subject that merits our attention. One of my favorite bloggers, Richard Beck (Experimental Theology) is just beginning a series about addiction, inspired at least in part by Kent Dunnington's book:
If you've read Reviving Old Scratch you know that, because of my life at Freedom Fellowship, we spend a lot of our time walking alongside friends struggling with addiction. One of the reasons I've grown disillusioned with progressive Christianity is how little it talks about addiction. Addiction stalks the margins of our society, like a hungry predator, so if you want to stand in solidarity with the margins you need to have something to say about addiction. But not many Christian bloggers write about addiction.
That said, I'm not particularly impressed with conservative conversations about addiction either.
In short, there's a gap here in our theological reflection, among both conservatives and progressives, and I think Dunnington's book is a provocative and helpful contribution.
I'll be interested in reading what Beck has to say. In the meantime, on the subject of addiction, I offer this relevant quotation from Anne Lamott: "You can get the monkey off your back, but the circus never leaves town."
1 You know who else believed in "a power greater than the will"? The guy who wrote this: "I do not understand what I do...For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do--this I keep on doing. Now, if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it. So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God's law, but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members. What a wretched man I am!" There's not an addict on the face of this earth who doesn't get this, Christian or not.
2 Hitchens' facile reference to "selfism" stands in sharp contrast with the more nuanced insights of James Hurth about the "totalitarian self" (see my previous post).
3 Heroin abuse, prescription drug abuse, and alcoholism all antedate Twelve Step programs and the modern approach to addiction. You could as easily dismiss Christianity by pointing out that in two thousand years it hasn't managed to eliminate sin; whereas Christianity is in fact built on the recognition that we are all sinners and remain so despite our best efforts, just as Twelve Step programs accept that addicts remain addicts even when they're clean and sober.