NZ Herald Column Kyle MacDonald

Can Roseanne really blame drugs for bad behaviour?

This is my column this week in the New Zealand Herald, which is published in the digital edition every Thursday…

Last week actor and comedian Roseanne Barr had her ABC show cancelled because of a tirade of racist and offensive tweets. She later apologised and blamed her sleeping medication, Ambien, which she claims to have taken prior to posting online.

Well, I hope the drug company Sanofi, the makers of Ambien, gives their social media producer a raise, because this was their response:

But is it an excuse? Is it reasonable to blame medication, or any drug, for bad behaviour? Are we still ourselves when we’re intoxicated?

There are some side effects of the class of medication that includes Ambien (not available in NZ, the most similar medication available here is the widely used Zopiclone) which include memory difficulties and drowsiness the next morning, sleepwalking for some, and sleep eating for a small number – waking up to discover you ate a whole bar of chocolate and have no memory of doing so.

But when it comes to more complex behaviours, these medications – as well as alcohol and other drugs – don’t make us engage in bad behaviour.

But they do allow it.

In simple terms, these chemicals affect the part of our brain that moderates our behaviour – the pre-frontal cortex. That’s the part of us that goes: “Whoooooah, think about this. I’m not sure it’s a good idea…”

But good idea, or not, it’s still our idea.

Of course, capacity to censor ourselves varies. Some people don’t need alcohol at all to say inappropriate things. And some people never blurt anything out, no matter how much they drink.

When it comes to alcohol, the research suggests we might think we are a “different person” when drunk but actually we are experienced by others as much the same, apart from being slightly more extroverted, on average.

But of course, we all think and feel all sorts of unpleasant, unacceptable, even offensive things that we would never dream of saying out loud. That’s the nature of the human mind. Even those unacceptable thoughts reflect who we are, and to some extent what we really believe.

Given how accepted it is that being overtly racist is a bad thing these days, it’s got to be quite a challenge to discover the things you believe about people, even the things you find funny, are in fact deeply racist.

One of the perplexing things about racism is how people can completely deny the accusation, or label, while holding onto beliefs that are clearly racist to most everyone else.

This denial gives us a blind spot, a part of ourselves we aren’t as familiar or aware of. And in my experience that’s the bit of us that can be very dangerous, and prone to giving itself away. The more deeply we know ourselves, the less prone we are to use denial.

And the less power these unattractive parts of ourselves hold, the more able we are to choose to change them.

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