Monday, February 24, 2014
Corrupting the Word
I was raised in a medical family; my father and uncle had a clinic attached to the house, my mother was their first assistant/secretary, and most of their friends were doctors or dentists or nurses. I grew up reading medical journals and medical texts, and learned quite a bit thereby. I might have gone into medicine myself if I hadn't been so bad at mathematics. One thing that came to annoy me considerably was the misuse of medical terms, ignorant or otherwise.
I am very tired of people misusing the word "addiction". "Addiction" is a precise medical term describing a specific physical phenomenon -- namely, the body's adjustment to regular doses of a foreign substance, to the point where removal of the substance causes a painful readjustment back to normal. In other words, there is no such thing as a "mental addiction", regardless of what ambitious politicians and their flacks may say. You can become addicted to morphine, cocaine, alcohol, and even caffeine; you can not become addicted to marijuana, sex, or video-games. The mental phenomenon whereby people lust madly after such items or actions is properly called "obsession". Yes, obsession can also be joined to addiction, which is what really makes the addiction hard to break; there are countless cases of non-obsessed patients walking away from addictions without a backward glance, but any doctor can tell you the difficulty of weaning a patient away from an obsession.
So why has the term "addiction" been used so sloppily? My guess is that the accurate term, "obsession", implies that the problem is all in the patient's mind -- which is true -- and that s/he could free themself from it if they really wanted to (which is also true). In other words, a person with an obsession is responsible, while a person with an addiction is a victim. Everyone knows that responsible people get sued, while victims get to do the suing. In our present lawsuit-mad society, this is a serious consideration.
But more to the point, an obsession is a personal problem while an addiction can be manipulated into a social problem -- and from there into a political one. You can stump up more than money by declaring war on an addiction than an obsession, and the more addictions to raise hysteria about the better. You can get yourself a political reputation as a great moral crusader by going after a so-called addiction, and ride that hobby-horse into high political office. Or you can ruin a businessman's product, or a whole industry, by calling it "addictive", thus clearing the market for your own -- or your cronies' -- product (for which the cronies will be grateful at election time). This is exactly what happened to marijuana, originally called hemp, which was a major industry prior to 1932.
This is why corrupting language is so useful to politicians, big businessmen, and their assorted minions. Hitler and Stalin were far from the first practitioners of this trick, and our current crop of VIPs will certainly not be the last.