On the afternoon of Sunday 2nd February 2014, Oscar winning actor Phillip Seymour Hoffman was found dead in his New York apartment, yet another of heroin’s long list of victims. Following reports of his death, news outlets across the world invited film critics and colleagues of the respected actor to discuss his body of work and the lasting legacy Hoffman’s films would have on the industry.
After this initial period of sombre recognition was over however, the conversation began to turn, as the news presenter went in search of answers to explain such a premature demise. Though not verbatim, the presenter’s line of enquiry can be summarised as the following; why would Phillip Seymour Hoffman feel the need to take heroin given his personal wealth, family security and successful career?
The first thing to point out is that such a question is practically impossible for anyone to answer, even Hoffman’s closest friends would rightly struggle to comment; so to put a film critic in such a position is entirely irresponsible of both the presenter and network. However, once you look past the stupidity of the query you stumble upon the fundamental ignorance it reveals about our understanding of the concept of addiction.
The question whilst undoubtedly ill judged, is far from uncommon in such a situation. News coverage following a high profile death often misses the point entirely, by questioning why people who seemingly had everything would take such potentially devastating risks.
Drug and alcohol habits are still simplistically associated with the impoverished in society, so much so that the emphasis of coverage revolves around irrelevant context, rather than focussing on the most damaging facet, the addiction itself.
That such ignorance is exhibited in newspapers across the world is hardly surprising, as these publications merely seek to reflect the prominent schools of thought that exist in society and often fail to overly interrogate them.
Following the death of Hoffman, I sent a tweet bemoaning that yet another life had been lost to a dangerous addiction and then conveyed my anger that ‘idiots’ like Peter Hitchens still openly dispute that such a condition even exists. Whilst the initial response I received encouraged me that only a minority held such a dangerous perspective, some of the replies I woke up to proved to be markedly more worrying. The first I received was from Peter Hitchens himself, a man who presumably searches for his name on Twitter. As I was unaware he had Twitter, I didn’t include his handle in my tweet; I’m fairly confident that he isn’t amongst my humble list of followers.
Hitchens’ tweet read, “You do realise that your argument is circular? Perhaps you don’t care.”
Before commenting on Hitchens and the obvious condescension of his remark, I’ll move onto the next tweet I received from a user who stated that Hoffman’s death wasn’t as a result of an all consuming addiction, just a lack of willpower.
“No it’s a case of having the moral courage not to start using drugs in the first place.”
Though Twitter is home to many clans of insatiable Internet trolls, this pair’s comments stuck with me because I know that they’re not alone in their view on addiction and quite frankly that terrifies me.
Once described by The Guardian’s James Silver as “the Mail on Sunday’s fulminator in chief”, Hitchens is no stranger to a controversial opinion. Yet for the purpose of this article, his attitude towards drug addiction interests me the most.
In 2013 Hitchens twice appeared on Newsnight to discuss his views on drug addiction and the manner in which the UK Government manages it. In each appearance Hitchens was positioned opposite a recovering addict and a professional in the field of treating addiction, with the recovering addicts just so happening to be celebrities Russell Brand and Matthew Perry.
During his appearances on Newsnight, Hitchens expressed his dissatisfaction at the manner in which drug addicts are treated in the UK, stating that drug abuse is just a crime committed voluntarily by people in search of a pleasurable high. Hitchens went on to describe his disdain for methadone programmes and drug courts, which he believes are flawed schemes that simply mug the taxpayer, before subsequently stating his belief that a strict and severe justice system is the only way to truly discourage drug usage.
With over £15 billion spent each year on policing and treating drug addiction in the UK and around 150,000 patients prescribed methadone to deal with drug addiction, Hitchens’ frustrations are understandable to a degree. Although a strict and severe justice system could prove somewhat effective in deterring first time drug usage, Hitchens fails to accept that while the use of such substances may begin with a choice, for many it becomes a debilitating necessity.
If the war on drugs were to intensify as Hitchens’ wishes, history would suggest that such well-intentioned ideas don’t always lead to the best results. The failings of prohibition are well documented and Latin American countries hard-line campaigns against drug cartels have seemingly only served to exacerbate the level of violence that now accompanies the distribution of these illegal substances.
When confronted by Matthew Perry on his views that drug addiction is first and foremost a criminal issue not a health issue, Hitchens revealed he didn’t believe in the “fantasy of addiction”, demanding that Perry provide him with an “objective diagnosis to determine the presence of addiction in the human body.”
Delivering a talk at last year’s Festival for Dangerous Ideas in Sydney Opera House, Hitchens reinforced his believe that addiction didn’t exist stating that “it’s an excuse people make for a lack of human will, a philosophical concept that’s designed to relieve people of responsibility.”
Though the beliefs of one man who’s known for his controversial opinions are easy to disregard, Hitchens is far from alone in his views on addiction. The 2012 Attitudes to Drug Dependence survey carried out by the UK Drug Policy Commission found that 58% of people questioned agreed that one of the main causes of drug dependence was a lack of self-discipline and willpower.
The same survey also produced the oddly incongruous results that 68% of those questioned agreed that as a society, we have a responsibility to provide the best care for those dependent on drugs. Such contradictory results convey how little we still know about the concept of addiction and how we should regard those in the clutches of such damaging compulsions.
At present social attitudes towards addiction can be categorised as falling into three main schools of thought; those who believe addiction is a purely substance driven condition; those who argue certain people are genetically predisposed or more vulnerable to addiction than others; and finally, those who believe addiction is simply a display of poor willpower. While it would be easy to state that one group is more accurate than the other, in reality isn’t it more likely that they’re all contributory factors in what is an incredibly complex condition?
Firstly, to deny the existence of addiction and purely blame an individual’s willpower is to argue against an incontrovertible weight of phenomena and human experience. Hitchens’ demands for an ‘objective medical diagnosis’ are pointless as they illustrate an ignorant reification of addiction. Like most mental illnesses, addiction doesn’t exhibit easily identifiable symptoms, it’s a little more complex than the common cold, and so those who misidentify it as a platonic ideal are missing the point entirely.
Scientific studies recently highly publicised through Russell Brand’s backing have investigated the neurological effects of drug usage. Such ad-hoc science has led to one group taking up the position that certain people are more vulnerable to addiction due to defaults in the way their brains process dopamine or pleasure levels. Although such theories would be comforting to trust, these studies have yet to provide conclusive evidence over a long period of time, so while biological and genetic conditions may well lead to addiction, such a reductive perspective negates the role of other contributory factors.
Finally, there are those who believe that addiction is a purely substance driven illness. Such a belief is unsurprising due to the way in which drug addiction is covered in the media and the fact that possession of substances such as heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine is illegal. While it is undoubtedly true that such drugs contain powerful addictive chemicals, studies have shown that alone they cannot justify compulsive consumption and self-destructive behaviour.
One argument continually ignored, or uncomfortably avoided when brought up in such discussions, is that of how cultural trends in thinking are directly culpable for the creation of addiction in the first place. One could strongly argue that since the industrial revolution we have created a society that revolves so heavily around the values of want and need that addiction was simply an inevitable by-product. Cultural iconography and symbolism play a massive part in how people identify with the world and regard what or who resides within it.
To provide a simple and somewhat crude example, what would’ve happened had we spent the past 100 years advertising cabbage in the same sexualised manner as we have done with chocolate? Chocolate, alcohol and cigarettes are just three examples of consumable products that we have promoted as a society, in such a manner that they’ve become acceptable vices, synonymous with pleasure, relaxation and coolness. During the same time frame, the criminalisation of drugs has led to those with dependency issues being stigmatised as simple delinquents, rather than recognised as people whose problems are far greater than breaking laws on substance possession.
The exhaustive exaltation of British phrases coined during traumatic moments of war such as ‘keep calm and carry on’ and ‘stiff upper lip’ has led to such values bleeding into the way in which we think today. Both expressions were originally used to represent the stereotypical views of Britons as hardy people, who persevere unfazed by problems or obstacles; today they have been corrupted and instead reflect an obsession with keeping up appearances at all costs, regardless of inner turmoil. Such attitudes have persisted into the present day and as a result the stigma around addiction leads many to hiding their problems instead of pursuing the help they require.
The dilemma with social attitudes towards addiction is that because so many identify with one particular view on what causes such a condition, their reductive perspective means they fail to appreciate the complexity of such an illness. Education on what addiction is and the complexities of how it develops is sorely needed if we are to effectively address such a damaging disease. The longer we remain ignorant, the longer we remain part of the problem.