Language: Abandoning “Addiction”

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from Brooks Hudson, a PhD student in history at Southern Illinois University. Brooks is joining Points as a contributing editor for the 2018-2019 year, so look for more posts from him to come. Enjoy!

Historians change their language for all sorts of reasons, specifically when it dehumanizes other people. The humanities have abandoned pejorative and race-based terms, whether it’s “negro,” “colored,” or “oriental.” We understand these terms are powerful and demean others. Similarly, individuals with disabilities no longer face the indignity of having their medical condition be synonymous with who they are as people. Within the last century, we discarded “mentally retarded,” “lunatic,” “imbecile” and “feeble-minded.” Now, we use first-person language, for example, “a person with a mental or physical disability.” Within my lifetime, it’s gone from acceptable to unacceptable to use homophobic language to paint the LGBTQ community as “deviant” or prone to “unnatural desires.” Only in the last five years have mental health professionals acknowledged this mistake and declared that transgender individuals do not suffer from mental illness (“gender identity disorder”). This revision is from the updated Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5). Progress has stalled when it comes to another health issue, however: “drug addiction.” Interestingly, another revision in the DSM-5 was taking out “addiction”—partially because of its “uncertain definition”—and replacing it with substance use disorder. Adoption of this change is underway, but not too many historians are breaking down barricades to enter the debate.

There are a thousand reason to reject “addiction.” It is imprecise. It is laden with value judgements. It is embedded in a history of religious rhetoric. It cannot be separated from largely fact-free government propaganda campaigns, not to mention the newspapers archives that are filled with word, usually within graphic and hysterical accounts that have little basis in reality.

Few have adequately addressed this issue. Fewer have proposed ways to resolve it. Arguably, the closest attempt might be Bruce Alexander’s Globalization of Addiction. In it, he dedicates an entire chapter to disentangling the various meanings of the word, marking distinct usage by subscript—admittedly, a distracting strategy, though one that reduces misinterpretation.

Screenshot 2018-08-24 15.18.28

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