Booze is a crutch.

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 proof90% 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.