Thinking about drinking

This year, Campus Safety and Security has ramped up its efforts to crack down on parties at Williams. To defend this step, the administration has argued that the drinking culture on campus has gotten out of hand. Administrators claim that underage drinking exposes students to the danger of alcohol poisoning and increases the likelihood of sexual assault. However, the administration’s hard stance against alcohol drives these outcomes by making drinking an illicit activity.

The problems with alcohol use at Williams are not the result of our drinking culture. In fact, these problems occur precisely because we do not have a drinking culture.

The English jurist John Fletcher Moulton emphasized the social value of what he called “voluntary self-adjustment” (“Law and Manners,” Atlantic Monthly, July 1924). In his view, there are three domains of action. Under positive law, actions are “prescribed by laws binding upon us which must be obeyed.” The domain of free choice includes all actions for which men have complete freedom. But between these two is a domain in which men are subject to neither positive law nor enjoy absolute freedom in their actions. Moulton said, “It is the domain of Obedience to the Unenforceable. The obedience is the obedience of a man to that which he cannot be forced to obey. He is the enforcer of the law upon himself.” In this central area – which encompasses discipline, etiquette and manners – men and women act neither out of fear for reprisal nor according to their individual impulse, but out of a sense of duty to prevailing cultural norms. In Moulton’s view, the robustness of this central domain denotes the health of a society.

I think we can all agree that college students will drink. It is a fact that young people in a social atmosphere, living away from their parents for the first time, will drink alcohol. Given this fact, the administration has several possible strategies to discourage binge drinking. One is their current policy of prohibition. However, if history serves as any indication, prohibition inevitably fails. Why? Because it attempts to deny reality. As the bootlegging and speak-easies of the 1920s demonstrated, no amount of policing, investigation and punishment can erase the fact that people want to drink.

Similarly, America’s war on drugs has proven an abject failure. Sociologists have called the policy of massive incarceration for drug offenses “a new Jim Crow” because the system disproportionately prosecutes African American males. Billions of dollars spent on arresting and imprisoning millions of Americans over the past 40 years has failed to reduce the demand for drugs and left a legacy of racial discrimination and broken lives.

In the context of Williams, no matter how aggressively Security shuts down our parties, breaks up our games of beer pong and writes students up, they will never change the fact that kids want to drink. No matter how hard Security tries to crack down on drinking, students will ineluctably adjust and adapt. They will take shots of hard alcohol in their rooms before going out. They will use social media to advertise flash parties in obscure basements. They will meet in the woods to chug beers in the dark while they furtively scan for the Security’s flashlights. It will be neither pretty nor elegant, but students will find a way to drink.

Beyond its ineffectiveness, prohibition has a particularly destructive influence because it eliminates what Moulton called the domain of obedience to the unenforceable. In other words, it destroys the cultural norms that would otherwise regulate students’ relationship to alcohol, leaving no margin between the domains of enforced behavior and self-indulgence.

A cursory glance at the many cultures of the world, both today and in the past, will show that the existence of a drinking culture regulates excessive alcohol consumption. Alcohol rests at the center of most every culinary tradition, and the drinking ritual has stood at the heart of celebrations, worship, courtship, and weddings throughout time. Consider the wine-dark sea of Homer’s epics, or Pulque and the other inventive alcohols fermented from juice, honey, and maize in the New World. Rabbinic law commands believers to drink four cups of wine at Passover. Alcohol has played an important role in culture over the millennia.

Certainly, no one contests that excessive drunkenness has caused its share of harm over the years. But cultural traditions have generally kept the tendency toward dangerously excessive drinking in check. An Englishman rarely goes to the hospital after spending an evening with his mates at the tavern. The French rarely vomit from their afternoons spent sipping wine at the sidewalk café. Similarly, with access to parties where people sip beer and play drinking games like beer pong, students will not feel the same inclination to devour ten shots of hard alcohol in their room before heading to dry parties.

If Security eased up and let students drink at parties, a drinking culture would rapidly develop to discourage dangerous excess. The fact that this same culture prevailed in an earlier era furnishes evidence for my claim. I hope the administration will make the right decision and give students the freedom to behave responsibly. Otherwise, the expansion of enforced obedience will eliminate what remains of self-regulation, and our campus will become an unhappy and dangerous place.

Kevin O’Connell ’13 is a history major from Larchmont, N.Y. He lives in Prospect.

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