"The Nightmare of Recovery" and "The Morality Police"

Readers respond to Laura Miller's review of "Hooked" and Charles Taylor on protecting children from images of sex and violence.

Published June 15, 2001 7:14PM (EDT)

Read "The Nightmare of Recovery" by Laura Miller.

Guess what? So-called traditional addiction treatment doesn't work. By their own shady estimates, programs such as A.A. that use the 12-step method have only a 5 to 7 percent recovery rate. That's effective treatment? Why has this inadequate form of therapy dominated the addiction treatment field when there are alternatives with much better recovery rates such as Rational Recovery (www.rational.org) or SMART recovery?

-- Stephen D'Amico

Your reviewer makes two critical mistakes in her article on Shavelson's book "Hooked." Her most important mistake could, if allowed to pass without comment, undermine drug treatment. Harm reduction is not a form of drug abuse treatment. The aim of drug abuse treatment is to help the abuser stop using drugs. The aim of harm reduction is to manage the consequences of drug abuse. For example, the aim of needle exchange (perhaps the most common harm reduction strategy) is not to stop the users from injecting drugs, it is to stop the spread of AIDS and other diseases. The efficacy of harm reduction is a matter for debate among reasonable people, but the definition is not.

The second error made is that your reviewer chides Barry McCaffrey for the relatively small amount of federal funding for drug courts. This is a misguided criticism. Drug courts are not federal institutions; they are state and local institutions. The drug cases that appear in federal courts are typically large criminal enterprises; the small-time addict winds up in state and local courts. The federal effort on drug courts is an educational one. McCaffrey was an outspoken advocate of drug courts during his tenure as drug czar, and his advocacy was reflected in the expansion of drug courts across the nation during his tenure -- if memory serves, a tenfold expansion. Drug courts are not and should not be a federally funded effort. But McCaffrey was the lead champion of them and saw his advocacy pay off.

-- D.B. Des Roches
Former Special Assistant for Strategy
Office of National Drug Control Policy

I don't know whether to laugh or cry when I read a piece like Laura Miller's "The Nightmare of Recovery," which is imbued with the notion that we're just not doing enough to help our addicts. You bet the war on drugs is a corporate joke that approaches the addiction problem ass-backwards. But while we debate drug courts and other supposed panaceas for addiction, let's not lose sight of the fact that addicts are ultimately responsible for their own condition. Their respective social and medical histories can be brutally unfortunate. But unlike, say, the cancer patient, who does not choose the affliction, the addict has made a conscious choice to pick up. That choice can be influenced or clouded by a host of emotional and physical problems (including those induced by the addiction itself), but the fact remains it is a choice. At a certain point it becomes ridiculous to think we as a society can construct a system that will be there each and every step of the way to save people from themselves. I heartily endorse full and appropriate resources for detox, counseling and other primary therapy. But this is alloyed by the cold reality that, ultimately, addicts are the only ones who can permanently stop their own destructive behavior.

-- J. Smith

I find it unsurprising that coerced treatment works. I am a recovering alcoholic. In a sense, I was coerced into recovery. My health was failing. My life was starting to unravel. I didn't come to the conclusion that alcohol was immoral. I came to the conclusion that it wasn't fun anymore. We call that a bottom. The truism I have witnessed is that those who make it have had low bottoms (note that the reverse is not true). It seems obvious to me that the threat of jail could contribute to one's bottom.

But what right have we to invent negative side effects in order to coerce others into treatment? Yes, if someone commits a violent crime to fuel a drug habit, we have every right to compel treatment (assuming an addict deserves what amounts to leniency). But what if the only crime is possession of the drug itself? We have no right to compel treatment in that case.

-- David Griffin

This article means a lot to me because I went through a horrendous nightmare about 10 years ago with my addict boyfriend, who finally killed himself rather than go back to jail. I had sent him to an excellent hospital and he had gone to lots of A.A. and N.A. meetings. When he relapsed I could not afford to send him out of state for 28 days again, so he was extremely lucky, we thought, finally to get a spot in a local rehab program and residence facility.

What I learned is that most of these programs, all of them around here at least, are today's nursing homes -- moneymaking schemes for doctors. They are poorly staffed with borderline "professionals," and the physical facilities are dismal. They are cruel jokes on people who see them as a hope for life. He and I talked many times about how wonderful it would be if money were put into rehabilitation rather than punishment, and I still agree with the theory. What absolutely terrifies me is that the rehab programs are all about the operators and very little about the addicts.

-- Rebecca Wall

I agree that treatment is a better solution to the drug problem than the "war on drugs." But I don't think it's the main solution either. Only legalization will have the kind of major impact on our society that is needed to end the problem. Legalization will remove the profit motive from illegal distribution. That will make all the difference.

We should still have drug treatment available for those who want it for simple humanitarian reasons. For those whose drug problems lead to antisocial behavior that impacts others, the drug courts could be a good compromise between punishment and voluntary treatment (which is the ideal).

-- Fran

Read "The Morality Police" by Charles Taylor.

While I can't help but agree with most of Charles Taylor's points -- I quite often felt like a member of the choir to his preacher -- one glaring inaccuracy made me stumble a bit. He cites the ratings system used by the MPAA and the associated effects (such as lack of advertising for associated films), holding it up as a perfect example of unconstitutional behavior.

The MPAA and all businesses associated with it aren't part of the U.S. government. The MPAA can, as an order of business, require the studios to do pretty much anything it wants without worrying about the constitutionality of its actions. Anyone's free to make a film containing adult material -- the media outlets that aren't government-owned or -controlled can decide not to advertise it, distribute it, promote it or show it without trampling the filmmaker's rights. To call that "unconstitutional" is like saying that not passing on something told you by a friend is abridging the teller's rights.

-- Scott Thomas

The MPAA's rating system has many flaws, but it is not unconstitutional. The First Amendment applies only to efforts by the government to infringe on freedom of speech; it has no application whatsoever to a private program like that sponsored by the MPAA, a trade association made up of seven of the eight major film studios. Even those studios are free to disregard the ratings system -- movies like "Center of the World," for example, are released unrated so that they can include material that would have triggered an NC-17 rating but still advertise in newspapers. (The decision of newspapers not to run ads for NC-17 films is, of course, private action and in no way unconstitutional.) And parents are free to disregard the ratings as well. Any child can buy a ticket to a PG-13-rated movie and parents can bring any child to an R-rated movie if they think it is appropriate. Anyone who edits a film to take out material that would garner an NC-17 or requires that a movie funded by the studio qualify for a PG-13 rating is making a financial and marketing decision, not a moral or public policy decision. No censorship is involved.

Taylor's friend decides to remove some material that he considers improper to protect his 10-year-old niece. That is certainly not unconstitutional, and it is also not censorship. It is no different from putting plugs in the electrical sockets and locks on the medicine cabinet or saying "No television until your homework is done."

Taylor may disagree with his friend or the girl's parents on the level of protection needed for a particular child or a particular age group, but I hope he would defend to the death the right of anyone charged with the care of a child to make that decision without interference. He undercuts his own argument by making a distinction between the material his friend removed and Henry Miller or "The Story of O" and between young children and teenagers (or between 13-year-olds and 18-year-olds). So what he is really saying is that children should be protected from some material, just not material that he thinks is OK.

Taylor says, "There is not a shred, not an iota, not an atom of proof" that images can harm children. On the contrary: There have been well over 1,000 academic studies about the impact of media violence on children. You can read some of them here. No one is ever going to prove that the more violence a kid sees on television, the more likely he or she is to become violent -- there's an unsolvable cause-and-effect problem there. But the studies do show that watching violence has an impact on the way a child sees the world and on the ability to consider the impact of his or her actions on others.

And what kids see does influence what they do. So far in 2001 alone, a boy has been convicted of murder for trying out WWF moves on a little girl and three teenagers have been hospitalized for harming themselves by imitating the MTV show "Jackass." I suspect there may be girls out there who were inspired by Buffy (or Chandler and Monica or Joey and Pacey) to have sex with their boyfriends. Billions of dollars are spent each year on advertising designed to influence the behavior of adults, and much of what kids and teens consider "cool" comes to them through movies, television and radio. Is Taylor really willing to say that people are not influenced by what they see in the media?

Efforts to protect children have been awkward at best, counterproductive at worst. But that is no reason to give up. Taylor fails to make the kinds of thoughtful, substantive, fact-based arguments that could make a contribution and instead relies on generalization and attacks. I do have a sense of irony, and I find it ironic that he complains about censorship when an article like this one is available to anyone with a modem.

-- Nell Minow

Anyone involved in education knows that when you are teaching someone something, you have to start simply and build from there. The more they learn, the more complex information they are able to incorporate into what they have already learned.

This is why I shelter my children, why I don't teach them certain things that Taylor thinks would be OK for them. They are not ready for them. Yes, life is very complex and often contradictory. But children aren't ready for those contradictions or complexities.

As each one gets older, I let them have access to more information. But I like to control it. I do read reviews of movies, not really relying on the ratings system. I rely on the ratings on the back of videos at video stores. I like public assistance in knowing what is appropriate.

Taylor's fundamental error is that he thinks it's bad that my children have fewer rights than adults. But this is the case in many areas. My children can't vote. They can't buy alcohol or cigarettes, legally. They can't drive. My children have far fewer rights than I and this is OK. They are not ready for them yet. The problem with sex is that most children are not ready for it, even when they are 14 or 16. Sex is far more dangerous than driving a car. Just think of the AIDS epidemic in Africa or the growing incidence of divorce and broken families due to adultery. Look at Holland, where the incidence of incest has skyrocketed and where penalties for it have weakened to the point of insignificance.

Sex is not some neutral pleasurable activity. It has very complex ramifications. My children know how babies are made, but there is a whole lot about sex they don't know. When they are ready they will know. The problem is that many children get this information or experience before they are ready. We as a society have an obligation to prevent this.

-- Richard W.D. Ganton

Even though I only have a B.A. in psychology, Taylor's review of the research on entertainment and violence is a vast oversimplification, and definitely misleading.

But even so, I find something more problematic in his type of debate. Is the right to free speech really the right to make disgusting sexual jokes or obscenity in public entertainment? I don't believe that the Founding Fathers wrote the First Amendment to specifically defend obscenity. Rather, the First Amendment is our right to criticize the government. This is a right that has been shirked by the public media, which seldom seems to take its responsibility to scrutinize certain public figures to the needed extent, while overblowing "sensational" stories.

As for entertainment, I find the obscenity that laces through our entertainment to be nothing short of laziness on the part of the writers. Why work hard to find a clever plot when you can make the audience laugh by just screaming out four-letter words? "Shrek," one of the more recent "children's" movies, also indulges in this kind of toilet humor. Considering its power in animation, the toilet humor jokes were totally unnecessary. But they were in there, it seems, because the creators could get away with it. And of course they could, as entertainment has deteriorated to the point where nearly every movie indulges in this type of vile humor. George Lucas didn't have to make jokes about people stepping in dog doo during the original "Star Wars" trilogy, but somehow this was "funny" for the "Phantom Menace." But did this communicate anything important, to see Jar Jar Binks placing his foot where he shouldn't? So much of the vulgarity is just simply unnecessary. And children will become desensitized to sex and violence. Just ask any teacher who hears children repeating the lyrics of certain rap musicians. Meanwhile, stories of real relevance, concerning the fate of our democracy, will be swept under the rug. This is where more free speech is needed, not less.

-- Benjamin Epstein

Charles Taylor disdains his friend's attempt to keep his 10-year-old cousin from seeing the word "f***" on the grounds that he is likely to have heard it already in the schoolyard. What a noble and ambitious standard; it certainly establishes Salon's credentials as pathbreaking thinkers. On those grounds, presumably, we can assume that Taylor would have no problem with media that printed articles for children referring to "cunts," "niggers" and "queers"?

-- Michael Huggins

You know, I agree with Charles Taylor, but the hectoring tone of his essay makes me hear it as less of a call for freedom of expression than simply another shot in the ongoing war between parents and those without children. As a father who endeavors to raise his kids in a spirit of openness and honesty and free of pernicious illusions, I submit that Taylor would be awfully surprised, were he a parent, to discover what seemingly innocuous tasks can come to feel like Herculean obstacles. It's a shame that Taylor's rhetoric makes an important and sympathetic argument seem to boil down to crankiness over the way we parents are ruining popular culture for the uniformly liberated and open-minded mass of childless adults out there.

-- Chris Green

Taylor's article was a breath of fresh air in the current climate, in which both parties seem eager for censorship. I would add a couple of things. One, the problem of overprotection of children seems broader than just the media. Why, for example, should everybody get stuck with back seat windows that only roll down a few inches? Aren't child locks sufficient?

Second, I've often wondered if our attitudes about sex and childhood make sexual abuse a worse experience for young victims. The fact that we are inundated with the message that sex is the worst thing a child can come into contact with, even by seeing it in the media -- that sexuality is to childhood what dry land is to a fish -- must make coming to grips with sexual abuse, even into adulthood, all the more difficult for victims. It seems to me that the anti-sex view reinforces, and perhaps is even solely responsible for, many victims' feeling that they have done something wrong or are permanently tainted.

-- Erich Schulte

I've long been alarmed at the increasing effort by well-meaning censors to reduce absolutely everything to a level appropriate for a 6-year-old. I don't want my ability to read and watch what I want to be constrained by anybody who thinks they know better than I do. When I was growing up in the '60s and '70s, my parents permitted me and my sisters to read anything we wanted to. They were there to offer unthreatening explanations of the stuff we couldn't understand, like sex or religion. We were permitted to watch scary movies (with the warning that they might cause nightmares later). We all sang and danced along to Mom and Dad's record collection, including such profane gems as the Rolling Stones' "Star Star" (though we knew better than to sing that one for Grandma or teacher). We may even have caught a glimpse or two of Daddy's Playboy magazine. Our neighbors' kids were carefully restricted in their reading (I remember one family that wasn't even allowed to read "Mad" magazine!) and moviegoing. Their parents figured me and my sisters, free as we were, were all going to hell in a handbasket. We were the only family on the block who never had a teen pregnancy or arrest.

-- L. Andersen

I saw a lot of "blaxploitation" movies in the movie theaters when I was a kid. Those movies were full of nudity and were somewhat sexually explicit. The characters used language that I was not allowed to use at home.

I saw "Coffy," one of Pam Grier's movies, recently. As I was sitting in the movie theater, I thought to myself: "I can't believe that my parents allowed me and my brothers to see this stuff!" But that thought was rooted in today's mind-set that children need to be "protected" from certain visual images. My parents did not see those blaxploitation movies, and I don't know whether, if they had known all that was being shown on the screen, they would have allowed me to go to the movie theater to see it. But I am glad they did!

Those blaxploitation movies were immensely popular. We enjoyed them. And after it was over, well, we went back to playing, homework, reading, daydreaming and whatever other harmless things kids do.

I am glad that my parents did not get in the way of my seeing those films. They did not hurt me.

I do think, however, that because so much entertainment is available now, parents should not allow their children to partake in so much of it. I don't think that it is the violence and the sex that parents should be worried about, but rather the amount of time that children spend absorbing them. There is something wrong with spending five, six, seven or more hours each and every day in front of a television, on the computer surfing the Internet or playing video games.

-- R. Robinson

Thank you, Charles Taylor, for saying what needs to be heard through the static of the for-the-children crowd. As a father of twin 3-year-olds, I feel more strongly than ever that the delusion of innocent childhood is an extraordinarily dangerous development in public policy. The lengths otherwise reasonable people -- everywhere on the political spectrum -- will go in the name of the young is frightening. My children are not my pets nor my possessions. They are adults in the making, and I have every intention of letting them grow up to be thinking people with healthy doses of skepticism, humor and open-mindedness. It is my fervent hope that the society they spend 50-70 (or more) years in as adults is as tolerant. To the morality police: Stay the f--- away from my kids!

-- Tony Del Bono

Thank you for this articulate description of exactly how I have chosen to raise my four children, ages 15 to 23. Never have I denied any information from any source to my children, for how can they become decision-making adults without as much knowledge as possible? Most people regard me as nearly a child abuser for this practice, but in fact all my children are thoughtful, responsible and self-reflective individuals. I provided (also without restriction) my own opinions and criticisms on everything they saw, heard or read. My children can pronounce, nearly word for word, my opinion on casual sex, violence and spiritual matters.

Instead of restricting their access to information, I supplement the information with critical analysis and encourage them to do likewise. I insist they understand the results of violence and the place sex will have in their lives. I gave them a religious education knowing that they may someday reject it, but I want them to know what they are rejecting.

With movies, books, music, television and the Internet so available and full of information, the trick is to teach a measured outlook to our children that allows them to form a diversity of opinions and have the intelligence to accept the choices of others.

-- D. Witter

Cheers to Charles Taylor for pointing out things most of us would never bother to question. It is wonderful to read someone finally take adults to task over the "it's best for the children" argument.

Looking back on my childhood, I realize it wasn't the Christian Coalition or the MPAA or some right-wing group that shaped my values, but rather my parents. My parents actually took the time to teach me right from wrong. I never shot up a school, or dropped an anvil on my siblings' heads, or got a girl pregnant. I was taught to be responsible, and to understand that if I make a mistake, I must accept it as a part of life and try to learn from it.

Children today who are shielded from the "horrors of the real world" will only end up as clueless people who have no concept of how things really are. I am surprised to have met so many people in my 26 years who seem to have never been exposed to other cultures or other ways of thinking.

The narrow-mindedness that is the result of this cocoon of silence that we wrap our children in only hurts us more as we, as a nation and a society, become more and more integrated into the global community.

-- Daniel Gracia

By Salon Staff

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