There has always been a thin dividing line between legal and illegal or between therapeutic and recreational drugs. We tend to call bad psychostimulants “drugs” and good officially sanctioned mind-altering pills “medication”. While the former are distributed by underworld dealers, praying on our psychological weaknesses and the cool factor, and the latter are aggressively pushed by pharmaceutical multinationals.
Much has been made of the health benefits of recent anti-smoking measures introduced across Europe and North America. Back in the 1960s many smokers wouldn’t think twice about lighting up on buses, in cinemas or in the office. A visit to Russia may give you glimpses of our recent past. But back then, pubs closed at 10:30 in much of the UK, teenage binge drinking involved just the occasional student escapade, only 5 to 10% of adults were on prescription medication and despite the buzz around the swinging 60s addiction to hard drugs remained a largely marginal phenomenon. Fast forward 40 years and over 30% of adults and 15% of children are on prescription medication in the UK, including 4 million SSRI addicts, binge drinking regularly blights our streets, offices and homes, over 1 million adults consume crack and millions of aspiring slimmers fill their trolleys with jumbo-packs of Diet Coke, a concoction of addictive caffeine and aspartame. And addiction is not just limited to chemicals. Millions of us are addicted to TV, the Internet, video games, shopping and, more disastrously from a financial view, to gambling. Rather than combat any of these prevalent addictions, except occasional lip service paid to the bogus war on drugs or rhetoric about taking the right medication or partaking only in responsible gambling, the government and its friends in big business urge us to indulge more. Mood-altering drugs are now subsidised by our beloved National Health Service and handed out like sweeties. And unless you’ve been secluded in a remote Hebridean crofthouse for the last 12 years, you cannot have failed to notice the burgeoning entertainment business with 24/7 pubs, dance halls and casinos appearing even in minor provincial towns and frequented by the nation’s vibrant youth the length and breadth of the country. All made easier by laws introduced by our wonderfully progressive government. That’s right, the same government that has banished smokers outdoors and spent millions urging us to get nicotine patches from our local GP, is quite happy for our youngsters to drink themselves insane and get high on ecstasy in one of the friendly dancing establishments run by pioneering entrepreneurs in cahoots with the government. The boom spanning from the mid 1990s to 2008 saw the expansion of four related sectors:
- bio-medical and pharmaceutical
- media and entertainment (often indistinguishable)
In the same period domestic manufacturing of essential items continued to migrate elsewhere. Even call centres, once a saviour for unemployment blackspots, were either outsourced or downscaled as technical support migrated to the Web. Where once school leavers would follow in their father’s footsteps or learn a new trade they would pursue for much of their working lives, they now flock to colleges and universities with high aspirations of professional success in the tertiary sector, especially in media, entertainment and finance, only to find themselves changing careers every few years leading to immense insecurity. If you aspire to be a good plumber and work hard without unfair competition, you can succeed and become an essential pillar of your local community. By contrast if you aspire to fame and fortune, you will more likely than not be let down, possibly accepting a few low-paid roles in the advertising industry before discovering you lack certain physical attributes. Despite all the rhetoric to the contrary and all the bogus awareness-raising campaigns, those of not endowed with attractive bodies with a natural gift for smarm and well versed in the art of neurolinguistic programming are at a serious disadvantage. Suddenly being uncool has become a significant handicap warranting a mental health diagnosis. Unable to join in a culture of rampant hedonism? All-night ecstasy-fuelled parties not your scene? Not finely attuned to the latest celebrity gossip? Unable to bear piped techno sound? Then you probably suffer from chronic cultural discordance syndrome and need help. So basically if you’re not a recreational addict, we’ll help you cope with the stress of alienation from a society hell-bent on fun at all costs by getting you hooked on prescription medication. Ever wondered why people start taking tranquilisers to cope with anxiety, develop obsessive phobias or succumb to eating disorders? More often than not, it’s because they feel estranged from an increasingly competitive society. We compete not just in terms of material possessions, physical prowess and performance in culturally valuable skills, but also socially. How many hearts and minds can we win to support our social career. Recently the media have highlighted a number of teenage suicides resulting from cybernetic and real-world bullying, exam stress and a sense of worthlessness. In each case school mates expressed their sorrow through diverse media and emphasised how popular the deceased was. “We don’t understand why X took her life. She was such a popular girl. We didn’t realise she suffered from depression”. Indeed the next line is implied “Why didn’t she seek the (pharmaceutical) help she needed”. Not once have I read “X freaked us out. She just didn’t fit in. Only the cool deserve a place on this planet” or “We picked on this easy target because she such a loser. Don’t blame us for driving her to suicide. We are only reacting to media pressure”.
A preoccupation with soft skills implies anyone with a relatively low popularity ranking somehow deserves all their misfortunes and the only way forward is to modify one’s behaviour to please the popular cool dudes in one’s peer group. Thus if one genuinely can’t stand rap music and all the cool dudes in one’s peer group like this genre, one has to morph one’s tastes or rather desensitise one’s aural discernment. We could call this cultural adaptation. One needs to mimic the behaviours and hone the skills that are valued within a given social group, often to the detriment of valuable skills and perfectly functional behaviours that other group members disfavour. Not surprisingly many of us either require some form of medical or therapeutic intervention to keep up with the cooler trendsetting dudes in our neighbourhood and circle of acquaintances. Uncoolness has now become a disease.