Everyone knows that alcohol makes a person do things he wouldn’t otherwise do. It dulls the senses and motor skills; renders otherwise rational people boorish and incoherent; and encourages promiscuity, dangerous risk-taking, and over-sharing.
But alcohol’s effects on a drinker—and the drinker’s relationship with his alcohol—has more to do with what the drinker thinks alcohol should do him than with the direct effects of alcohol. Malcolm Gladwell explored this in a recent New Yorker article, where he described an anthropologist’s findings about the drinking habits of the Camba people of Montero, Bolivia. The anthropologist observed and participated in weekly social gatherings that centered on heavy alcohol consumption. These drinking parties resembled fraternities’ in the quantity of alcohol consumed, but the strength of the Camba’s alcohol wasn’t the measly 8– to 12-proof beer that coeds favor. It was 180 proof—90% alcohol—the equivalent of laboratory grade alcohol. (By comparison, Budweiser beer is 10 proof, and wine is most often 25 to 29 proof.)
But as the researcher explained, “There was no social pathology [at the Camba’s parties]—none. No arguments, no disputes, no sexual aggression, no verbal aggression. There was pleasant conversation or silence.” Contrast that with a college campus, where “beer—which is to Camba rum approximately what a peashooter is to a bazooka—[is] known to reduce the student population to a raging hormonal frenzy on Friday nights.”
If alcohol is less a cause of than an excuse for bad behavior, then the logical thing would be to expect better behavior out of our drunkards. (Society fails at that task today. As Gladwell wrote, “When confronted with the rowdy youth in the bar, we are happy to raise his drinking age, to tax his beer, to punish him if he drives under the influence, and to push him into treatment if his habit becomes an addiction. But we are reluctant to provide him with a positive and constructive example of how to drink.”)
Extending the logic one step further, we should also expect more of the positive effects of alcohol out of the sober. After all, alcohol’s effects aren’t all bad. Indeed, many of the effects that are so deleterious on a large scale and positively desirable at lower levels. It’s “liquid courage” many shy, would-be ladies’ men. It’s the conversational lubricant that makes forced social gatherings—like workplace happy hours where you realize why you don’t normally hang out with your colleagues after hours—enjoyable (or at least bearable). And it’s the relaxing influence that helps audiences let down their guard (there’s more to a comedy club’s 2-drink minimum than just inflating the tab).
So, if alcohol’s negative effects are mostly in imbibers’ heads, then its positive effects are too. My own acquaintances bear that out. One friend dislikes the reliance that lots of folks have on mind-altering chemicals to enable them to do what they want (her caffeine habit notwithstanding). She says that she can get as wild and crazy as the next would-be pole-dancer, but without alcohol and without claiming or actually losing control.
Similarly, most of my friends with alcohol allergies or intolerances seem to manage social situations just fine, whether they’re chatting up strangers or getting their groove on. And, many Mormons seem to do just fine organizing alcohol-free gatherings; the gatherings themselves can often get plenty wild—or at least a bit loosey-goosey—without crossing the line into pandemonium.
Even if teetotaling isn’t necessary, alcohol is still too often and too easily used as a crutch. It’s an excuse for bad behavior, and its absence is likewise an excuse for not being able to loosen up or muster up the courage to get over one’s hang-ups. But it’s not a particularly good excuse, and it needn’t be such a crutch.