Updated: Feb 12
“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in a rather scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master — that's all.” Lewis
Carroll, Through the Looking Glass
We’re living in an age of daily assault from a plethora of social media platforms, hashtag movements, online “thought leaders” (the inverted commas were deliberate!) and instant connectivity which seem to have taken the concept of personal freedom so far left that it has
emerged as far right. At least, that is how I experience it. Not content with imposing Orwellian – or, indeed, outright grotesque – descriptions of gender preference and orientation on a captive public, the current generation of social media zealots has turned its bullying, arrogant gaze on other sectors. God help those daring to employ the English of the Oxford Dictionary and Shakespeare.
It started some 50 years ago, when Evelyn Waugh in The Loved One – and later Jessica Mitford, in The American Way of Death – exposed the monstrous, and often hilarious, contortions of the funeral industry to cushion the hard reality of bereavement for families needing the services of undertakers. Thus, “the corpse is in the mortuary” became “Mr Jones is lying in the slumber room”, and other contrivances. Fast forward 30 years or so, and the corporate sector began overhauling and sanitising its vocabulary too, eventually filtering these into what became the HR industry, as we know it today. Hence, “harsh” words were Botoxed into nice, soothing, palatable ones so that – for example – those who had been retrenched could console themselves that they had not been retrenched at all, but "downsized”.
“Plagiarism” went out the window too, to be replaced by the much more impressive phrases “best practice” and “benchmarking”. Employees who were unable to deal with their workload were “debottlenecked”. Said employees’ inability to cope with the workload may have because they were incompetent (oops, sorry, I mean “challenged”) or because of the unreasonable demands of their employers. Whatever the case, the often brutal expediency of the corporate world was thoroughly facelifted. While the language changed, though, the practices it purported to describe did not. Nor did the effects of those practices on those in the firing line.
A few decades later, the euphemistic wand – brandished with the celerity and reach of digital
technology – had been waved over almost all areas of modern life, including government, industry, finance, the military, the judiciary and education. It sprinkled a dazzling layer of stardust over uncomfortable realities, bending, plying and obfuscating language to “restore
dignity” to an emperor who disliked hearing that he was naked. And, of course, healthcare underwent the same treatment. Psychiatric language was comprehensively revised. Gone were manic depression and dementia, to be replaced by “bipolar disorder” and “cognitive decline”. Gone, too, was shock treatment, replaced by the far less foreboding “electroconvulsive therapy”. People were no longer blind or deaf, but “visually” or “aurally impaired”.
Within healthcare, the area of addiction (oops, I mean “substance misuse”) has been thoroughly disinfected, deodorised and disarmed. At U-ACT, we walk a precarious line between placating militant political correctness with the predicaments of the individuals who come to us. Confronted with the chaos of lives enslaved by substances or behaviours, and the devastating impact these have on addicts’ families, friends, colleagues and communities, we are bemused by the niceties of semantics. We are concerned with helping people save their own lives, not with ticking politically correct boxes. Addiction can be a spiritually disfiguring and merciless condition, no matter how many ways we change our vocabularies to shield ourselves from that fact. We dare not ignore the very real danger of estranging a word from what it is actually describing, because it leads by short routes to perdition. The architects of Nazi Germany – and in our own era, apartheid South Africa – were masters of euphemism.
The deeds committed by both regimes were doused in antiseptic, anodyne terms intended to obscure others (and themselves) from what they were really doing. In South Africa, we talked of “separate development” (read: apartheid), of “pluralism” (read: duplicity) and of “bantustans” (read: remote, unarable tracts of land which were conveniently hidden from the view of whites). In Nazi Germany, the claptrap ideology of “Aryanism” and the “master race” lent a veneer of respectability to the reality of oppression, looting and victimisation on a hitherto unknown level. “The final solution” (read: wholesale, industrialised, state-sanctioned
genocide) and “lebensraum” (read: the subjugation and exploitation of helpless countries) became the cris-de-coeur of the Reich.
The USA took this one step further, going to quite extraordinary lengths to distance itself from the outcome of its own judicial policies. A warder on Death Row responsible for implementing an execution is helped to delude themselves that everyone else, except him or her, is involved in it. Only one of the three buttons on the panel releasing the lethal chemicals administered to condemned prisoners is connected. The three warders, all pressing their respective buttons (in an alcove thoughtfully hidden behind a screen, so that they cannot see the result of their actions) simultaneously, never know which of them activated the apparatus. In this way, each of these individuals can go home reassuring themselves that they had no part in killing the prisoner – a neat detour around the glaring fact that everyone willing to work on Death Row, and participate in its macabre rituals, clearly endorses its policies and is equally complicit in carrying them out. The games being played with language are an almost exact replica of this contrived moral escape route.
At U-ACT, as I know and revere it, we prefer to tell the truth in the language that most aptly describes it. A shattered parent, faced with the prospect of losing their child to heroin; a family torn apart by an alcoholic father; a distraught wife facing bankruptcy because of her husband’s gambling obsession. Or the addict themselves, men and women steeped in the anesthesia of escapism, dimly aware that what they are doing is bringing grief and suffering to those they love, but unable to locate the values and moral foundation needed to gain a secure foothold. It is in this realm – not in semantic games – that our work lies.
We are reluctant to subscribe to the era of either illusion or delusion, however seductively these may be presented on our social media platforms, hashtag movements or trending watchwords. In our view, addiction – by its very nature – is already a condition fuelled by delusion. And delusion, we believe, serves nobody and nothing – least of all sustainable recovery. We prefer the truth, however gingerly we embrace it. No sugar coating. No mixer. No rubber gloves. Just the truth. Calling someone in the throes of despair an “addict”, rather than a “substance misuser”, is not an act of shaming. It is one of confronting that truth. As far as possible, we respect the sensibilities of those who declare themselves unable to confront what addiction really means and what it really does. But in our experience, pain is
best healed when we are able to locate – and then directly explain, to ourselves and others –
where it hurts.