A Concession to Pragmatism

I’m writing this mostly to clarify my own thoughts and question my own impulses, but I hope I might also contribute to the struggle of other oppressed groups. And for the record, I wish to make this contribution not as a “cishet” white guy telling people how to express themselves, but as a recovered drug addict and somebody who has written and advocated for the liberation and empowerment of drug users and addicts, another oppressed group, for five or six years now. Where oppression is concerned, our struggles are not only related but all involve the pursuit of similar goals in the face of similar attitudes – lessons for one will often apply to another.

I get pretty angry sometimes. People say a lot of cruel and dehumanizing things about drug addicts, and I feel rage welling up inside of me. My instincts, at times like this, is to repudiate the views which have offended me as completely and relentlessly as I can. I feel the urge to spew fire onto the page and show my enemies for the heartless, ill-informed dullards that they are. Sometimes I do.

And sometimes people tell me I should be more polite if my intention is to change minds: I’ll catch more flies with honey. Something about this has always pushed my buttons.

My people are dying, they’re jailed, they’re faced with militant repression, and they are ostracized from society. They’re afraid of police – the people who should be entrusted with their protection have declared war on them and must be avoided. Some of them are even afraid of paramedics. I’ve seen people who are so afraid of authority that they’re scared to call an ambulance when their friend is dying. That’s the atmosphere with which they live: even when they are in dire need of help, they must shy away from the outside world because of who they are.

So when people tell me I should try being more polite, I usually lose my head. Are we expected to get on our knees and beg for our lives. Are we being told to ask nicely for the boot to be lifted from our throat, to take the answer ‘No’ graciously?

But in general, the people who make this suggestion are speaking purely from a pragmatic point of view. They’re not saying we should /have/ to act nicely, or that we should need to alter our behaviour to change people’s minds; they’re simply arguing that in the context within which we have to argue, certain tactics are likely to be more effective. Whether or not you want to adopt those tactics, it’s the context which is offensive, not the suggestion that we might have to adapt to it. It’s not a value judgement.

And maybe they’re right. My anger and passion is totally valid and understandable. I am not wrong to feel this way, and if I suggest others might change the way they react to people who they disagree with, I’m not questioning the validity of their passion and anger, either. But the point is valid, and I’ve started writing this to give an intelligent response to it, based on reason rather than emotion.  Should I change how I interact with people on the topic of drug law? The question I need to ask myself, in deciding this, is /what are my goals?/ Why do I write? What is it I’m hoping to achieve?

In a nutshell, the answer would be that I want to provoke empathy and understanding in the general public. I want to work towards the acceptance and wellbeing of people who suffer from addiction, and I want an end to the war on drug users. So I have to pause and wonder whether I can really advance these goals with angry screeds against prohibitionists.

There’s more to this question than is immediately obvious. One thing that should be kept in mind, I think, is that the discourse on the issue is already watered down and barren of emotion, when we’re talking about the enforcement and cost of prohibition, and highly emotive when we’re being told that drugs are bad. It’s a policy which causes mass misery, disease, death, fear, and incarceration, and this very dark reality is largely kept out of the reporting on it. At the same time, emotion is invoked by the prohibitionists. They get to talk about how ice “ravages” people and communities while they ravage people and communities. They portray themselves as being concerned with welfare whilst advocating for mass incarceration and intimidation. Do we fight fear with mild-mannered, unemotional statements of fact?

Sometimes, maybe. I guess the only reasonable conclusion is that we must be judicious in order to be effective. We shouldn’t totally divorce our speech from our emotion, but nor should we simply rain hate upon anybody who disagrees with us.

If anger generally provokes more anger, then it is generally true that getting angry at people who disagree with us will achieve very little. But there are exceptions. I find it useful to shut down extremists aggressively and publicly. For example, the last angry piece I wrote was in response to John Adams calling for the reintroduction of the death penalty for drug offences. While it will not sway him, taking an aggressive tone may help to sway spectators.

More mainstream views, on the other hand, should probably be treated respectfully no matter how stupid or ugly they are. We must be firm and clear in rejecting these views, but anger will only cause people to double down.

And there is a third way which I think is the most effective of all. We can be very emotive without directing anger at anyone. We can paint the visceral despair of people affected by prohibition, we can express the anger that people feel about the situation they are in, we can make it utterly clear how horrific our drug laws are, and as long as we aren’t directly attacking anybody in particular, they have no reason to get defensive.

Sometimes I think this kind of writing, using the style of ‘New Journalism’ to simply show how bad prohibition is, is probably our best bet if our goal is to move society to compassion and sanity in their approach to drugs and drug users. Some of the people who make the pragmatic argument, flies and honey, also say that the reason no advancements have been made in public opinion on drug policy is because we have failed to engage in a well-reasoned and non-hyperbolic way. This is patently false. We have been doing precisely this for 50 years. Clearly it makes little difference. People are emotional creatures and they do not respond to the facts. Clearly we need a new approach.

‘New Journalism’ involved using novellistic techniques in nonfiction. In other words, telling true stories as they might be told in a novel. It is the perfect style for making the reader feel that the drug war is wrong. In particular, we can use portraiture to tell the stories of the individuals who are harmed.

We’ve already spent so much time telling people why prohibition is wrong, and it doesn’t seem to have got us anywhere. Perhaps it’s time we tried showing them.