Unthinking Compassion Doesn't Work When It Comes to Addiction
It has been the observation of many psychologists, philosophers, and religious leaders that the age we live in is beset by one singularly vicious malady – addiction. Indeed we have become collectively aware of this to a high enough degree that we will monitor things like our phone usage and sugar intake for signs of addictive behaviour. However, in this age of addiction there has taken place in parallel a swell of support for the legalisation of drugs. This is often accompanied by a call for a more compassionate attitude towards addiction, which, taken together with legalisation, is seen as a move towards destigmatising drug use and thus making the problem of addiction easier to solve.
A wide public conversation over the issue of addictions has taken place in Britain for over a decade now. Actor Matthew Perry has long argued for the disease-model of addiction that emphasises the helplessness of the addict in the face of his or her compulsion. Nine years ago, he received pushback from journalist Peter Hitchens in a Newsnight interview. This interview showed how far opinion had swung towards treating drug use as a medical problem rather than a criminal one, as Hitchens was mocked by Perry and even host Jeremy Paxman for his view that drug laws should be more stringently enforced. Having experienced addiction myself — not to the extent that Perry has, but enough to understand its psychological mechanics — when I first encountered Hitchens’ views I thought them an expression of sheer emotional laziness, someone preferring to stay in clean rational territory rather than engage with the messy emotional depths of an issue.
However, after watching a recent interview between Hitchens and YouTuber Alex O’Connor, I found myself in vehement agreement with Hitchens. It seems necessary, therefore, to articulate a fuller view of addiction that is compassionate but also disciplinarian. By insisting on the force of the law and maintaining — at the very least — the prohibitive status-quo around drugs, I think that Hitchens understands the depths of addiction better than a casual advocate for legalisation like O’Connor. He can be said to understand addiction because, in opposing the consumption of drugs full stop, he positions himself in exactly the same place that a recovering addict like Perry finally crawls to after years of drug abuse – abstinence.
Hitchens clearly is not the person to come to for a sympathetic chat about your time as an addict, but that doesn’t mean that he, and the law, is not in some other sense a friend. My own experience with drug abuse was a brutal lesson in my own inability to govern myself, not in Perry’s sense of being unable to choose not to succumb, but in being ignorant to what was in fact good for me: what my mind, my body, and indeed my God, required of me. Addiction is, I would argue, a religious phenomenon, but of a distinctly heathen kind. It promises transcendence but fails to deliver every time: just like how the pagan sacrifice of children could never really guarantee a good harvest of crops.
In advocating for the maintenance and the enforcement of the criminality of drugs, Hitchens is speaking to the now oft-forgotten aspect of the law that wants to express, like a father, what it knows is best for us. Jordan Peterson said it best in a 2021 interview: “You tell people that you love how to avoid the road to hell. And you don’t do that because you’re shaking your finger at them, or because you’re a moral authority. You do it because you don’t want them to burn”.
The law is not simply a collection of regulations that limit people’s freedom. Rather, the law must at least try to support and enforce the loving spirit of guidance that a father would take to their child, not by embodying compassion (because the law is not a person and so simply can’t) but discipline. Hitchens’ paternalism is a necessary component of the collective struggle against addiction, whether he can empathise with the hellish depths of the condition or not. Certainly his perspective is not a complete one, but without it we will fail utterly to understand, and thus properly treat, addiction.
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