Addiction addicts

spiked editor Mick Hume in The Times (London).

Mick Hume

Mick Hume
Columnist

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We are becoming a nation of addiction addicts. Our society has become hooked on the habit of blaming human behaviour on some form of addiction. Apparently normal people – doctors, scientists, politicians, lawyers, even journalists – seem incapable of resisting the urge to inject ‘addict’ or ‘dependency’ into any discussion of social problems.

Britain is going MAD (Made-up Addiction Disorder) crazy. Yesterday’s papers gave front-page space to claims from US researchers that foods high in fat and sugar can be ‘as addictive as drugs such as heroin and cocaine’. The suggestion that people could not help stuffing their faces with cheeseburgers and chips would once have been laughed out of the court of common sense. Yet today, nonsense about obesity being caused by a biochemical compulsion to eat Big Macs can be presented as serious science, then seized on by politicians and health crusaders who want a crackdown on behaviour they deem to be bad; by compensation lawyers keen to make a killing from fast-food companies; and by therapists seeking to counsel the victims of addictive victuals on the NHS. Show them a problem and they will show you an addiction.

Just this weekend, The Times reported a credit counsellor’s frankly loopy claim that debt can be an addiction (perhaps credit cards should be available only on prescription), while another broadsheet argued that Britain’s transport crisis had been caused by ‘our addiction to the automobile’ (reinforced, presumably, by the railways practising aversion therapy).

The language of the addiction addicts is catching in high places. Of all the revelations in the official report on Harold Shipman, for example, none was more shocking than the conclusion drawn by the judge, Dame Janet Smith, that the murderous doctor was probably ‘addicted to killing’. Perhaps we shall soon see recovering serial killers attending self-help meetings of Homicidal Maniacs Anonymous.

Those who think this sort of psychobabble is the preserve of wet liberals might note President Bush’s prewar declaration that Saddam Hussein was ‘addicted to weapons of mass destruction’. Cue visions of the fallen dictator holed up in a WMD house, sniffing anthrax and jacking up with rusty warheads.

What is behind our newfound dependency on addiction as an explanation for everything? A fundamental assumption of the addiction addicts is that drinking, drug-taking, smoking, gambling or eating fatty foods are psychomedical problems, diseases that individuals are incapable of resisting. This notion of ‘uncontrollable urges’ chimes well with our society’s diminished view of human resilience. We are prone to believe the MAD men, not because they have proved that the pull of burgers or beer is so powerful, but because it is accepted that people are weak-willed puppies these days.

To brand something as addictive means to demonise it as modern-day sinful behaviour. But this is sin with a difference. Under the old religion those confessing their sins can expect to do penance to avoid the wrath of God. Those admitting to addiction, however (usually through the confessional box of the mass media), can expect only sympathy and therapy. This is because they are not really confessing their own sins, but those of others: the sins of the companies who sold them cigarettes or burgers, or even the sins of their parents being visited on them through their damaged DNA. Take the sad case of the former football star George Best. Commentators complain that Best, who has had a liver transplant after years of heavy drinking, is ‘in denial’ about going back on the booze, but he is also in denial in another way.

‘As for calling this self-inflicted,’ he said at the time of his transplant, ‘I didn’t decide to drink myself to death. It is a result of alcoholism.’ Which sounds like a twenty-first-century equivalent of ‘the Devil made me do it’.

Society’s growing reliance on notions of addiction is a dangerous dependency. It encourages people to regard themselves as victims of things beyond their control, of demonised substances or toxic relationships, even of their own traitorous biology. Addicts are seen by definition as pathetic and powerless, incapable of surviving without lifelong counselling. Yet this dim self-image is contradicted by experience. People can and do choose to give up drinking, drugs, smoking or gambling all the time. No doubt some can even steel themselves to resist the siren call of a burger.

The addiction addicts would deny us the moral autonomy to take responsibility for our actions. Such powerful illiberalism will prove to be more harmful to the human condition than any amount of fatty food. It seems high time that we broke the bad habit of dependency on what they feed us, and made a stand for our right to make the wrong choices.

This article is republished from The Times (London)

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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