Cognition & Reality

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

“Alcoholism”

As I read a history of the disease theory of alcoholism, there is much about how describing addiction to alcohol as a disease de-stigmatizes those deemed to drink too much. For example, Bill W. thought that portraying excessive drinking as a “disease” was a useful metaphor, rather than a medically accurate description of the syndrome, because it removed blame from users. The problem with such metaphors, as the history of the “computer metaphor” in cognitive psychology shows, is that they are inevitably taken too seriously, leading to massive confusion and misunderstanding. In the case of alcoholism, it is widely assumed that it is, indeed, a disease of the brain, subject to treatment by medical professionals, although the the evidence that it represents an actual disease entity is thin, at best.

There are many reasons why the disease concept of alcoholism persists, among them that the confusion caused by applying the disease metaphor to the excessive use of alcohol benefits the makers of alcoholic beverages. If those who ruin their lives with alcohol are suffering from a “disease,” that takes the onus off alcoholic beverages and those who make them. It’s a perfect out. Temperance advocates at the turn of the previous century did blame the makers of alcoholic beverages for the “scourge” of drunkenness, as well as the moral weakness of those who drink. For that reason, the sellers of beer, wine and spirits have to be extremely happy that the approach of the rehabilitation movement blames neither them nor the users of alcohol. Instead, the problem is caused by a disease entity.

By taking the blame away from the substance and from the the user, the treatment of alcoholism as a disease resembles the date rape drugs phantom.

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