I 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. And I don’t recommend disagreeing in public with Hollywood royalty, either, which is how it happened. In such a clash, most people will think you are wrong and Hollywood is right, especially if your opponent is Chandler Bing, the beloved character from Friends. Of course, he wasn’t really Chandler Bing, just an actor called Matthew Perry—but an actor with an entourage so big it filled an entire elevator at the BBC’s new studios in central London where we quarreled.
Our debate wasn’t even supposed to be about addiction. I’d been asked onto the corporation’s grand but faded late-night current affairs show Newsnight to talk about drug courts, one of many stupid ideas suggested by the idea of addiction. I reckoned my main opponent would be the other guest, Baroness (Molly) Meacher, whose name sounds like something out of The Beggar’s Opera. While she looks like the sort of harmless, kindly housewife who knits next to you on the bus, she is in fact a campaigner for the wilder sorts of drug liberalization. If this Chandler Perry wanted to horn in, well and good. Who cared? Yet when I began to sense sarcasm mingled with unearned superiority oozing from the character from Friends, I decided to let my impatience show.
Hence my rash, irreversible plunge into an argument which has been going on ever since, consuming billions of electrons on social media, and which will probably still be going on when I die. I heard myself using the words “the fantasy of addiction.” There. I’d done it. Let the heavens fall.
Chandler Bing called me various names and was even more sarcastic than before. He is extremely good at sarcasm, even if he understands very little about the drug problem. I have never heard the words “your book” pronounced with such eloquent contempt. The final “k” seemed to contain two whole syllables. Is this a Canadian thing? He was referring to my modest volume on the topic The War We Never Fought, so energetically ignored by reviewers and booksellers that it is known among London publishers as The Book They Never Bought.
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.
Words are congealed thought—in some cases, very congealed indeed. Some words are congealed lack of thought. When we use words badly, it is because we are too lazy, or too hurried, to think about what they mean. This is most of the time, which is George Orwell’s greatest point in his matchless essay on “Politics and the English Language.” If the words that come out of your mouth or your keyboard do not make a picture in your mind, then they will certainly be dull and will probably be wrong.
But if we pause to let words unfold and grow, then we understand and use them better—or abandon them, as we abandon clichés and exploded theories.
The chief difficulty with the word “addiction” is the idea that it describes a power greater than the will. 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? Once or twice I have managed to explain to a few of my critics that this is what I am saying. But generally they are too furious, or astonished by my sheer nerve, to listen.