The Danger in Gatekeeping Addiction
Why recovering addicts should be wary of the “no true Scotsman” fallacy.
In the study of logic, there’s a well-known fallacy called “no true Scotsman” or an “appeal to purity.”
The speaker starts by making a generalization: “Scotsmen never wear ties.”
Then, they’re faced with evidence refuting their statement: Mike is a Scotsman, and he’s wearing a tie right now.
At this point, instead of admitting they were wrong, the speaker doubles down. “Mike doesn’t count. No true Scotsman would wear a tie.”
The speaker is playing rhetorical games instead of actually addressing the counterexample.
No True Alcoholic
At this point, you might be wondering: Why am I giving a lesson on informal logic in a blog devoted to addiction?
It’s because I’ve seen this fallacy at play far too often in recovery spaces, and I think it can have dangerous consequences.
The vast majority of recovering addicts that I’ve known believe that different recovery strategies will work better or worse for different people. Some alcoholics find great success with Alcoholics Anonymous. Some prefer S.M.A.R.T. meetings. Others do best with online communities. There are even a few who manage to quit with no outside support at all.
However, there are a some people in recovery who dogmatically believe that their way of getting sober is the only real way to get sober. These dogmatists are a minority, but a very vocal one.
When faced with examples of addicts who got sober through other methods, they argue that the person was never an addict in the first place.
If someone says “I was able to quit drinking on my own,” the dogmatist will reply “then you were never really an alcoholic.”
This type of dismissive response isn’t just limited to someone’s choice of recovery method. I’ve heard people say “if quitting was easy, then you didn’t really have an addiction,” and “if you were able to start drinking in moderation, then you never had a problem.”
The trouble with these responses aren’t just that they’re rude; they can also be harmful. Recklessly telling someone that they never had a problem with alcohol only encourages them to go back to their excessive drinking. Why would anyone think that this is a wise thing to do?
Being sober doesn’t grant us the ability to diagnose other people’s relationship with alcohol. Quitting drinking didn’t turn me into a psychologist or a doctor. As peers in recovery, we should limit ourselves to helping one another, not providing untrained diagnoses.
As a recovering alcoholic, I know that my experiences can help other people who are trying to quit drinking. However, I also know that not every addict’s experiences are going to match up perfectly with mine. That doesn’t mean that their struggle with alcohol is somehow any less real than my own.
Applying the Lesson
I should admit that I’m writing this post as much as a reminder to myself as to anyone else. I think I sometimes get dangerously close to gatekeeping what counts as addiction and what doesn’t.
One of the topics I’ve frequently written about is my struggle with moderation. Before getting sober, I tried again and again to just “cut back” on my drinking. It took me a long time to learn my lesson, but eventually I accepted that moderation just wasn’t possible for me. To stop drinking excessively, I had to stop drinking entirely.
Most of the other addicts I’ve talked to went through the same thing. We kid ourselves with thoughts of becoming “normal drinkers,” but eventually we come to realize that sobriety is the best path forward for us.
I think it’s important and helpful to share these experiences, however I don’t mean to suggest that it’s impossible for all problem drinkers to moderate. Some people who drink excessively do learn to scale back — I just wasn’t one of them.
Whether those people who learned to moderate were addicts or not is simply not a debate I’m interested in having. It might be an important question within the medical world, but in my life, it feels like a rhetorical distraction rather than anything useful.
When I write, I try my best to remember that it’s not my place to judge anyone else. My goal is to share my story, and to hope that it connects with and helps some of the readers.