Google alerted me this morning to a blog article entitled “Addiction: The Most Overused Word in our Language” by a Fox News commentator named Greg Gutfeld. Since word usage is one of my interests I looked it up to discover, well, not much. Gutfeld concludes that addictions are simply diseases easily cured by disposing of the focus of he addiction: throwing the offending computer out the window, throwing all the booze out the window, throwing all the drugs out the window, and so on.
The point should have been that the media has long used addiction as a pejorative metaphor for obsession. This leads to the more interesting question of why the US news media has developed its current passion emphasize the negative in all it reports, most of which are about as well thought through as Gutman’s blog.
An addiction is a physical dependency on some chemical: narcotics, alcohol, nicotine—all sinful within the Puritan code of ethic. The pejorativity of this term comes from this ethic, which has inevitably worked its way into the laws of the land. Alcohol and smoking is controlled, narcotics are mostly illegal. This is because addictions do measurable physical and psychological damage to the addict.
An obsession, on the other hand, is an emotional dependency at worst, a passionate focus on one particular thing at best. We may become obsessed with the Web, a person, a job, items in a collection. You must be obsessed with your work to become a star: actors who devote themselves body and soul to acting, baseball players who can do nothing but play baseball, singers who obsessively sing night after night. Their obsessions clear their focus and make them better at their obsession than others who divide their time over a variety of interests.
Now, I’m obsessed with the Internet myself. I spend most of each day working on my website, arranging translations via the Internet, and creating glossaries and word lists from materials gathered on the Web. Like professional baseball players, singers, actors, I do it because I love it, because I am totally in awe of it—not because I am physically dependent on it. It does no physical or psychological harm to me that I am aware of and I have learned immensely from the community of logophiles around the world it connects me with.
Of course, I am also the last person on Earth who would disparage the use of metaphors (figurative usage). However, the reason we have a separate scientific vocabulary for lawyers, doctors, and researchers, a vocabulary of superprecise terms that are never used metaphorically, is that metaphor undermines objectivity like nothing else. Calling pig a pig is as objective as we can get but calling a friend a pig metaphorically is about as subjective as we can get. Metaphor is everywhere in general speech, where it often leads to misunderstanding.
Using addiction as a pejorative metaphor for obsession, then, is simply one of the more subtler methods the US Press (among others) uses to skew public opinion toward fear and hatred. It is easily overlooked among the sledge-hammer methods we are more familiar with.