Editor's Column: Drinking Advice From The Non-Drinker

26 April 2002

By Stentor Danielson

Our society has an unhealthy attitude toward alcohol. Though Prohibition is long gone, the attitudes that informed that era are still with us, and they manifest themselves on both sides of Colgateís unfortunate struggle over the issue of campus culture.

Iíll declare my own biases up front: I am a firm nondrinker. However, I do not have a problem with drinking as such, any more than I have a problem with people watching anime or listening to rap (neither of which do I care for in the least). But I do have a problem with the way we -- both students and administrators -- act toward alcohol.

We need look no further than the drinking age law to see how absurd Americansí views of alcohol are. There are only three things a 20 year-old canít do -- run for President, get a senior citizen discount and drink alcohol. But anyone who thinks that any significant fraction of Americans wait until they are 21 to imbibe is living in a fantasy world. It is common for peopleís age at their first exposure to alcohol to be as young as 14 years old.

But of course, a 14 year-old canít just go have a beer. The illegality of drinking means it must be done secretly. Drinking must be hidden, veiled from disapproving parental authority. Beverages must be acquired clandestinely, too.

The result of this is that people arenít socialized into drinking properly. We need to learn how to drink as we get used to drinking. We need to learn alcoholís place in society, how to relate to others in the context of alcohol. But this canít happen if drinking starts in secret. Young people learn by trial and error, by asking peers who have not much more experience than themselves -- and -- in our country -- certainly not by experience drinking openly.

Of course, the blame canít be laid solely at the feet of the high drinking age. The drinking age is bolstered by attitudes toward alcohol painting it as something illicit. I was a great success story of anti-alcohol education. I actually feared drinking up until the point when I had my first drink (before I was 21, but legally because I was in Australia). Having that drink only confirmed that alcohol wasnít something I was interested in. But Iím an abnormal case. Too often, students revel in the illicitness of drinking. Entering college bestows a sudden gift of freedom, freedom to test limits and find oneís place away from the restraint of direct parental oversight. Drinking is part of this exploration -- an ideally suited part, given that it relaxes the drinker and lowers inhibitions. It becomes symbolic of college social life.

Well-meaning people are always asking me to drink. The assumption underlying their request is that I must be too uptight, that Iím not relaxing and that I canít be having fun, because Iím not drinking. What this reveals is that, for too many students, socializing means drinking. People havenít learned to have a life without intoxicating beverages. The quality of a party becomes a function of the number of kegs available.

What does this mean for Colgate? First, the administration needs to resist pressure from those factions that think alcohol can be eliminated from campus. What is needed is not elimination of alcohol, but healthier attitudes toward its use. Doing that requires trust. Be aware that students will resist anything that seems to be an intrusion into their social life (because, ultimately, it is their social life), and efforts to improve attitudes toward alcohol can be easily branded anti-alcohol. Take the fate of BACCHUS as a warning -- though the organization professes to promote responsible drinking, its questioning of student drinking practices has led it to be labeled anti-drinking. Campus culture cannot be changed overnight (and it can only be changed so far without corresponding changes in the larger society students come from and plan to return to). Move too fast or too forcefully, and students will close their hearts and minds to any effort.

It should also be recognized that the fraternity system is not the cause of the problem. Greeks are not the only people on campus who drink. Donít give in to pressure to crack down on whichever fraternity has been caught for the unpunished sins of the campus. Fraternities provide an important structure to campus social life, one that can be an ally if it isnít given reason to be an enemy.

Students share a responsibility for correcting the problems brought to campus by our attitudes toward alcohol. Students say that they drink because there is nothing else to do, and demand that the administration provide alternatives if they expect students to not drink. And to an extent this is true. But students can also take the initiative in creating a nonalcoholic social scene. Iím finishing up my seventh semester on campus, and I can say with certainty that Iíve never once felt the need to drink to fill up my social calendar. It can be done.

Students also need to recognize that the stereotype of the Colgate student who gets trashed and throws up every night did not come out of nowhere. While such caricatures are obviously false, they exist, and they affect how others view Colgateís students. But they can be changed. Students can take it upon themselves to show those around us -- both administrators and the residents of Hamilton -- that we can drink in moderation and responsibly, and that there is more to student life than alcohol.

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