April 13th, 2016
Editor’s note: The debate on The Influence began when we published Johann Hari’s piece—Should We Stop Using the Word “Addict”?—earlier this month.
This week, we published a critical response by Meghan Ralston: “Why I Can’t Accept Johann Hari’s Defense of the Word “Addict.”
Below is Johann Hari’s reply.
I am a huge admirer of Meghan Ralston—I interviewed her for my book—and I think she speaks a lot of sense here, and elsewhere. I think Meghan and I essentially agree on almost everything she says, and every change we want to see in the world—we both agree on the urgent need to remove stigma and the war against people who have addiction problems; I have nearly lost some of the people I most love to this, and she has been through that hell herself.
So I will weigh what she says with a lot of respect; when somebody you admire expresses a disagreement, you should think about it carefully.
The only thing I’d say as an initial response is that Meghan has in two ways I can see (understandably; this is a really charged and personal subject for both of us) slightly misunderstood some of my positions, and it might be useful to clarify what I was saying.
1. Meghan says—“And finally, Johann—isn’t it patently ridiculous to continue stigmatizing people as “addicts…”?
Yes, it is. That’s the point of my book, and the work I’ve been doing for the past five years. That’s not the nature of the (small) disagreement between us.
We agree that the term “addict” is very often used to stigmatize people—just as calling someone “gay” 50 years ago (or when I was a gay kid, 20 years ago) was stigmatizing. That’s not the question I was asking in the original piece. The question I was asking was—could we help to remove the stigma by reclaiming the word (and by the many other measures Meghan and I support every day)? That’s what gay people have done: It is now not a stigma (for many people) to be called gay; call me gay and I regard it as a factual statement, not an insult.
Perhaps Meghan is right, and the term “addict” is so charged and so soaked in stigma that we can’t do that—this is worth thinking about carefully. I am open-minded on this, and a lot of what Meghan says in this piece: It needs careful thought.
But it’s plainly not right to characterize this specific conversation as a debate between a pro-stigma side and an anti-stigma side. If this was an argument for or against stigma, Meghan and I would be lined up against stigma every time—as we are in our public work every day of the week.
2. Meghan argues that my case for continuing on occasion to use the term “addict” is based simply on a desire to be pithier, and to express myself more quickly.
“I’m not troubled if you are inconvenienced for a few seconds when wondering how to describe a woman struggling with chaotic meth use. I care about that actual woman struggling with chaotic meth use, whose humanity you are about to casually undermine.”
But my case for sometimes using the word “addict” is not simply that it is faster, but that it may be more comprehensible to the public we are going to have to persuade if we are going to end the war on addicts; and that if we can successfully de-stigmatize the word, it won’t undermine her humanity.
A key chapter of my book is about Marcia Powell, who was cooked in a cage for being having a serious meth and crack problem: I spent months exploring her human story, and there isn’t a day that passes when I don’t think of her. Meghan and I are united in asserting her humanity, and the need to build respect for it in a world that literally murdered her for it. Like Meghan—who’s done amazing work on this for the Drug Policy Alliance for years, which I really urge people to support—I know we need to stop that killing. And to stop it, we need to persuade a lot of people, fast.
My concern is that if we talk in a way that is incomprehensible to people, with misleading terms like PUDs (People Who Use Drugs), we actually in practice (but not in intent) may deny those people humanity, by talking in a way that 99 percent of the public can’t understand, and therefore can’t be persuaded by.
We have to de-stigmatize the way people with addiction problems are seen, to change the way they are treated and abused. I suspect it will be easier to do that if—at the same time—we de-stigmatize the word “addict,” just as attitudes to gay people were de-stigmatized alongside the word. Meghan thinks it would be more effective to de-stigmatize people with addiction problems by abandoning the word, and adopting a different term. It’s perfectly possible that she’s right and I’m wrong. But the conversation should be based on an accurate characterization of what everyone in the debate is saying.
3. I don’t know that this is a disagreement, so much as a point for further discussion.
Meghan suggests a number of alternatives like “chemical dependence” or “people who use drugs.” But as I argued in my original piece, these terms—like the term “addict”—have really substantial drawbacks: Most people who are chemically dependent are not addicted; and most people who use drugs are not addicted. (I explained why I think so here). These terms may actually prevent us from getting help to people with addiction problems. My concern is that these terms can—although this is absolutely not Meghan’s intent (indeed, it is contrary to her intent)— feed false and damaging ideas about drug use that reinforce the drug war.
I do think Meghan makes a strong case that, in most circumstances, “people addicted to X” is better than just the term “addict.” I want to think about the rest of her piece more carefully. I’d be interested to hear other people’s thoughts on it—and this wider discussion—too.
Johann Hari is a British journalist and author of the New York Times best-selling book Chasing The Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs. To find out why Glenn Greenwald, Noam Chomsky, Bill Maher, Naomi Klein and Elton John have all praised it, click here. Another of his columns for The Influence was: Why Is Marijuana Banned? The Real Reasons Are Worse Than You Think. You can follow him on Twitter: @JohannHari101.