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The Scarlet & Black

Critical drinking: a meditation on inebriation

In a recent opinion piece published by BBC news entitled, “Is the alcohol message all wrong?” the author argues that the behavioral effects of alcohol are mediated through sociocultural attitudes towards drinking. In particular, she suggests that the two types of drinking mentalities are produced within ambivalent or integrated drinking cultures. Given the recent changes in drinking-related policies at Grinnell, her non-normative understanding of the behavioral effects of drinking offers us new insight into how we address the drinking culture at Grinnell.

It is no secret that Grinnell students love to drink—a lot. By and large, the drinking culture at Grinnell is respectful; Grinnellians take care of themselves, their friends, and uphold the basic tenets of self-governance through their actions. Of course, there are slip-ups: this semester alone, 10 students have been transported to the hospital for alcohol-related medical emergencies. These figures aren’t trivial. In a school with roughly 1400 students living on-campus, having such a high number of hospitalizations is alarming. These figures don’t just reflect poor drinking choices, but also reflect the breakdown of self-governance at multiple levels.

There appears to be a huge disconnect between the drinking environment and the number of people who require medical attention. Despite an agreeable and safe drinking environment, the high number of hospitalizations begs the question of why it is that we are unable to prevent students from going to the hospital despite all the preventative structures in place. For instance, event hosts and servers are required to be TIPS trained, SAs and RLCs take a harm-reduction approach to drinking behaviors and Grinnell fosters a safe space to discuss personal issues related to drinking. Students Affairs has helped support programs such as Not Your Average Weekend to offer students alternatives to drinking on the weekends, and there are a bevy of committees—the Wellness Committee, Harm Reduction Committee, and Residence Life Committee—that spend lots of time and resources in addressing the very questions that I am raising. However, I think that it is time to consider a change in perspective, which may help us decide how it is that we want the drinking culture at Grinnell too look like.
In the BBC piece, Kate Fox, a social anthropologist, argues that in ambivalent drinking cultures (examples include the United States, UK, Australia, and Scandinavia), drinking is associated with disinhibition, violence, and anti-social behavior. In contrast, in integrated drinking cultures (examples include Latin America and most European countries), drinking is a “morally neutral, integral part of ordinary, everyday life.” After drawing these two distinctions, she claims that, “The effects of alcohol on behavior are determined by cultural rules and norms, not by the chemical actions of ethanol. “ To support this claim, she lists the physiological effects of drinking—reduced reaction time, muscle coordination, short-term memory, and articulate speaking. The other effects, she argues, such as violent behavior and increased sexual behavior, are products of the way in which individuals have been socialized to engage with alcohol.

I find her argument compelling. She emphasizes that alcohol does not inherently produce disinhibition, but that the expectation that one will become disinhibited is what sets the tone for these behaviors. In her piece, she cites studies that have suggested that when offered an incentive to stay ‘in control,’ intoxicated individuals will meet the expectations that society has for sober individuals.

While I feel that Fox fails to recognize some other physiological effects of alcohol that may facilitate some of these socially disruptive behaviors, I find her overall argument to be interesting given the way that Grinnell administrators deal with drinking on campus. One of the things that I have always appreciated about Grinnell is that it is generally realistic about our lifestyles and also the cognitive development that we undergo throughout our time here. In this way, the harm-reduction approach to drinking is commendable and necessary to foster a healthy drinking environment at Grinnell. In many ways, Grinnell is following many of Fox’s recommendations, particularly in the way that we attempt that we attach accountability and responsibility to students who choose to drink. However, we can take our approach one step further. Fox argues that drinking prevention programs have failed because they continuously reinforce the association between personally and socially negative behaviors and the consumption of alcohol. I think that by attempting to disengage these two as much as possible and attempt to recast drinking in a positive light, we may find that attitudes towards drinking will positively change over time.

The challenge is that every single student who comes to Grinnell has vastly different drinking experiences, so attempting to generate a monolithic drinking culture at Grinnell will be difficult and perhaps unrealistic. Yet despite this challenge, it is a worthy goal for us to attempt to uphold the positivity that accompanies drinking, while being mindful of the profound negative consequences that overindulgence may bring. Restructuring TIPS training and the NSO alcohol talk to reflect the varying attitudes to drinking and the ideas that drinking behaviors are not produced solely by the consumption of alcohol will allow us a greater chance to reflect on our personal behaviors and attitudes.

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  • J

    John KirriemuirNov 7, 2011 at 3:01 pm

    Neil. Dude.

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  • N

    Neil FlowersNov 5, 2011 at 1:20 pm

    One thing I do is write book reviews. A couple of years ago, I reviewed a book called “Marijuana Is Safer, So Why Are We Driving People to Drink?”. One point the book makes is that millions of people have had their lives ruined by alcohol, out rightly from traffic fatalities and alcohol poisoning, to the slow disintegration of addiction (alcoholism), and the effects that these tragedies have on families and communities. An overdose of alcohol, like an overdose of heroin, can kill you, that’s how dangerous a drug booze is. Those ten students at Grinnell bear witness to the severe down side of alcohol–perhaps they are lucky to be alive. Conversely, there is no record of any death ever being caused simply by smoking too much pot, that’s how benign a drug it is in terms of consumption–in this particular sense safer than ibuprofen or aspirin, which in overdoses can cause severe health problems. Nor does marijuana in and of itself lead to the kind of belligerent behaviour often associated with alcohol that can result in violence or rape or other crime. Speaking generally, the worse effects of marijuana are a bad case of the munchies and nodding off to sleep. And, contrary to alcohol, marijuana use often makes the user more passive and more benign. Furthermore, it is relatively easy for most marijuana users to quit, which cannot be said for those who drink excessively. This phenomenon highlights how addictive alcohol can be. Of course there are some negative effects of the weed, to be sure (apart from the possible legal repercussions of it being mostly illegal to grow and consume), for example, smoking anything routinely is highly problematic in terms of one’s health because smoking anything is. Compared to alcohol, though, marijuana is by far safer in terms of its effects on health, and on human behaviour, in large part because these two drugs affect entirely different parts of the brain. Despite these differences that make marijuana safer, excessive drinking on campuses is virtually encouraged or at least mostly ignored by university administrations in some circumstances (football games, for example), unless it is entirely out of hand, whereas it is not uncommon for a student found smoking a single joint to be suspended or kicked out of a dormitory or ostracized in some other way. (Is this what would happen at Grinnell?) This contrast, I would point out, is not even close to a rational policy and it is carried out in an environment where reason is valued–supposedly, at least. Part of this reaction and difference is, naturally enough, that alcohol is legal and pot is not. A large part of this difference is that alcohol companies have an enormous investment in keeping it that way. They do not want a competitor for mind-altering substances, especially one that they know is much less damaging to body and mind than their own product(s). And they have a huge lobby (in every state and in Washington) to pressure politicians to keep it that way. (Surveys demonstrate that many more people would choose to use pot rather than alcohol except they are concerned about legal ramifications.) Does this mean that alcohol, considering the toll it takes on society, and the enormous amount of taxpayer money it costs to clean up after booze’s many deleterious effects, ought to be banned? Of course not. A dry French red or a fine California white with food is a pleasure, so is a cold beer or a mint julep on a hot day. But it does mean, or should mean, that alcohol and marijuana ought be playing on a level field, and that means legalizing pot and treating it in the same way as alcohol, i.e., taxing it and monitoring its sale. The current state of affairs can criminalize people who are otherwise model citizens, including college and university students, and this creates disrespect for the law in general because so many people think the marijuana laws are crazy, and they are that way because of politics and money. These people are right, in my opinion. A fact: There were no laws against marijuana use in the U.S. until the very year that Prohibition was repealed. This was not an accident. And in the 1930s, during the hearings that would ultimately result in pot being criminalized, the American Medical Association spoke against making pot use a crime. Finally, I think I should state emphatically that I do not smoke anything, and I advise other people to do the same. But all people need to speak out against unfair laws such as the current pot laws, which, by the way, have a racist component in their origin–but that’s another story. If you like, you can read my review of this important book, “Marijuana is Safer”, at this URL: Scroll down until you come to the book, then click on the title in red bold and the entire review will appear.