Wise men, from the first millennia suburbs of Athens to today’s Ph.D.s in linguistics at MIT, have long observed that if a problem, social or otherwise, is to be solved, it must be stated accurately. This is an observation shared by many of us, wise or unwise, who simply seek the truth. “Going out” is not enough of an elucidation of my son’s nocturnal activities to support a meaningful discussion. More words, more data are needed to obtain the blessings of him who pays the note on the family car and is, as yet, responsible for the behavior of this son.
It is particularly dangerous to use empty or misleading words today, the era of legislative explosion, since we favor words for their social innocence and gentility. But sharpness of definition is always required; especially for social and legislative purposes. Take”drug abuse,” “substance abuse,” and “alcohol abuse.”
What deceptive, inaccurate phrases! We don’t punish the drug; we punish ourselves.
“Abuse” means to mistreat. We don’t mistreat drugs or alcohol. Literally the word might mean that we punish a fine imported beer by pouring it into the gutter. “Take that, you devil.” But that’s not usually what we mean. Notice how differently we use the term “spouse abuse.” There, in fact, the first term in the phrase is what’s mistreated.
Drug abuse is mistreatment of our own bodies, which belong to us. We have a right to do with our bodies as we will. But my point is not our freedom to do so; it’s the grammatical clumsiness of the term and the false and thorny paths of thought it leads to.
The real statement of the problem, the statement that our culture shies away from, is that drugs, smokes, and alcohol are pleasurable, and many people are willing to buy present pleasure with future pain. That we don’t say.