Ruth Marcus, writing in the Washington Post, notes that today bad behavior is thought of in terms of “addiction” and the need for “treatment.” She prefers the concepts of sin and absolution:
The arc of modern scandal is depressingly familiar. Transgression followed by exposure, perhaps accompanied by a fleeting detour into denial. Then tearful confession and, finally, the inevitable journey to rehab.
Didn’t you know, from the moment the story broke, that New York Democratic Rep. Anthony Weiner would end up checking himself in somewhere?
I don’t begrudge Weiner the therapy — he could no doubt use “professional treatment to focus on becoming a better husband and healthier person,” as his spokeswoman said in announcing that he would seek a leave of absence.
But whether or not Weiner manages to hang on, the episode underscores how rehab has become an all-purpose laundromat for irresponsible behavior, an infuriatingly easy substitute for accepting blame and living with consequences.
Increasingly, in our Rehab Nation, the concept of sin has been replaced by the language of addiction. Shame has been supplanted by therapeutic intervention. The disease model of misbehavior dictates that there are no bad people, only damaged individuals compelled to commit harmful acts. In this scenario, personal responsibility evaporates and virtue becomes an anachronism.
“This is not something that can be treated away,” Weiner said at his tearful news conference. One excruciating week later, Weiner was, yes, getting it treated away. The congressman, his spokeswoman said, “has determined that he needs this time to get healthy.” Excuse me, but this isn’t about Weiner’s health; it’s about his shameful behavior. . . .
Writing on Time.com, Maia Szalavitz, herself a former heroin and cocaine addict, described the dangers of defining addiction downward.
“If anyone can go to rehab when his actions lead to public humiliation, is rehab still a medical treatment or does it become some form of absolution?” she asked. “If every time someone behaves like a jerk and the reason behind it is addiction, doesn’t that mean addiction is just an excuse for bad behavior?”
Of course, some bad behavior does need “treatment,” just as, theologically, some sin calls for spiritual counseling and pastoral care. And yet simply medicalizing sin, as in Rep. Weiner’s case, seems like a way to duck responsibility. How can we tell the difference? What bad behavior calls for medical help and what calls for spiritual help?