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.