Creating Empathy for Addiction I: Competitiveness in Society
Every few weeks, we get a call from a family member who asks us to explain why their loved one cannot stop drinking or using drugs. These family members are often social drinkers or admit to having the odd joint back in college. If it is a parent of an addict*, they often feel responsible. While family members want to help, they often feel powerless because they cannot understand what causes a person to be an addict. Meanwhile, people who have no personal experience with addiction are less sympathetic; they will argue that a person is addicted because they are lazy or unintelligent. It is not surprising that societal attitudes like this create a stigma for individuals and their families that are struggling with addiction. There is, however, an effective way to reduce the stigma of addiction. Understanding addiction from a medical or psychological perspective is a good start but it is not enough. Society must also learn to empathize with the addict.
Understanding Addiction at the Individual Level
Understanding addiction at the level of the individual involves psychology and biology. For example, you could read up on what happens in the brain of an addict – otherwise known as neuroscience. Psychology is another way of understanding addiction at the level of the individual. For example, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy theorizes that drugs are used as a way to cope with problems they experience in life. What biology and psychology have in common, however, is that they both treat addiction as an individual, not societal or social, problem. Obviously, an individualized approach to treating addiction helps the addict, but an education in psychology or biology is not enough to create empathy in society for individuals struggling with addiction.
Understanding Addiction at the Societal Level
How does a person who is unfamiliar with addiction learn to empathize with an addict? The key is to understand the societal contributors to addiction. By examining two of these societal contributors – competition and distraction – it is possible to empathize with the addict and, hopefully, start to reduce the stigma of addiction. In part one of this article, the focus will be on competition.
Science Has Been Used to Argue That Competition is “Natural”
Many justify society’s competitive nature by pointing to science. Competition proponents say that human beings are hard-wired for competition. Charles Darwin and his “theory of evolution” have been used to justify the idea that life is naturally a competition or “survival of the fittest“. Interestingly, Charles Darwin never actual used the term survival of the fittest. Herbert Spencer first coined the phrase.
Spencer took Darwin’s concept of “natural selection,” which argued that species with certain genetic features survive and reproduce more than species with other, less successful, genetic features. Herbert Spencer applied Darwin’s natural selection to economics, arguing that “this survival of the fittest, which I have here sought to express in mechanical terms, is that which Mr. Darwin has called ‘natural selection’, or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life.”
In other words, Spencer argued that his race, whites, were genetically superior to blacks, browns, etc. Although this theory has been debunked by science again and again, the pervasiveness of the idea that whites are naturally superior to other races is still seen today.
Race, like stereotypes based on gender and social class, all assume that competition is a natural part of being human. It may be unclear how competition contributes to addiction in society until we consider two central assumptions: there are rules to the game of life and in this game there are winners and losers.
Competition Assumption #1: In Life, There Are Winners and Losers
Society considers winning to be desirable and losing as undesirable. Winning imparts a sense of belonging and acceptance while losing brings shame and a sense of rejection. When other human beings are perceived as competitors, there is an immediate sense of separation. Competition, therefore, can be destructive when it leads to an envy of those deemed as winners and pity or scorn for those deemed by society as losers. The end result of destructive competition in society is separation among human beings.
There are many examples of destructive competition. Driving is a good example. Many people get annoyed with someone cuts them off when changing lanes or is driving too slow in the passing lane. We’ve all been in these situations and know that the anger and frustration associated with these situations. Perhaps, deep down, it comes from a sense of feeling that we are losing in a race. No, we don’t actually call everyday driving a race, but our behaviour says otherwise.
SportChek portrays life as a race in its commercial:
How does this commercial make you feel? Do you feel inspired and happy or does it make you fearful? I would argue that this commercial plays to our fears. Its message is that if you don’t work hard enough you will be a loser; you will be rejected by society. Nowhere in this commercial is there a sense of having fun, feeling good about your body, or working as a team. This is an example of destructive competition.
Competition Assumption #2: Those Who Don’t Play By The Rules Deserve to Be Punished
Shoppers lining up at a supermarket checkout often get their competitive juices flowing and get upset when someone cuts in line. Think about how you would react to “cheaters” as depicted in the popular ABC show, What Would You Do?:
As this video demonstrates, society has lots of rules about how individuals should conduct themselves. The notion of “cheating” has a competitive aspect to it as well. For example, when we see athletes who use steroids we applaud the authorities who punish them with suspensions. Similarly, society often characterizes addicts as cheaters. If you have ever heard radio talk shows about addiction you will notice that there is lots of discussion about how addicts are lazy. A closer look at this characterization of addicts as lazy is the assumption that all addicts are homeless and unemployed. Therefore, an addict is “cheating” society by living off of the hard work of others. The argument goes something like this: “I worked hard and got a job and learned to support myself and my family. I played by the rules. You the addict, on the other hand, thought you could loaf around and drink all day. If you’re having problems, it’s your fault. You didn’t play be the rules so you get what you deserve.”
The notion of the addict as a “rule-breaker,” however, isn’t supported by research. Many people with substance or alcohol use disorders have post-secondary degrees, families, and careers. This is the usually the case for our clients, with most paying for their own alcohol treatment or drug rehab program. Their stories show that addiction is not about lazy individuals not playing by the rules.
What We Can Do to Reduce Destructive Competition in Society
Competition doesn’t have to have winners and losers. Competition can be a win-win scenario. When you compete in sports, the scoreboard might tell you there’s a winner and a loser but in actuality players from both teams benefit physically, mentally, socially, and spirituality. When you are in traffic or in a lineup, catch yourself being competitive and choose to not participate in these destructive forms of competition. Lastly, remember that associating laziness and cheating with addiction only further perpetuates the “survival of the fittest” mentality that pervades society.
(*) Note: the term “addict” means a person with an addiction; it is not used with the intent to disparage or belittle people with addictions.