Today is Thursday, which means it’s likely that you’re going to Scorekeepers later on to drink alcohol. Within the past week, the Daily reported twice about alcohol – the first story about illicit beer pong at Touchdown’s Bar, the second about efforts to curb binge drinking at universities nationwide. I hope the news reports started some conversations about alcohol in dorms, peer groups and among the administration. However, to really make any mutually beneficial progress toward greater understanding between the University and students about alcohol, we must change the way we think about the issue on college campuses. Instead of thinking about alcohol in terms of health, legality or morality, we should address alcohol for what it is: a social choice.
There are several stakeholders in the mix when it comes to alcohol: students (who may or may not drink), the University and law enforcement officials. Each group has different conceptual framework for discussing alcohol. The University and law enforcement frame the issue in terms of public safety. The University argues that “staying in the blue” is good for student health, and law enforcement authorities avoid intervention until laws are broken.
Conversely, students seem to talk about alcohol in moral terms. On the one hand, students who advocate against drinking discuss the immorality of behavior that stems from alcohol consumption or the immorality of breaking the law. On the other hand, many students who drink regularly argue – in accordance with John Stuart Mill’s harm principle – that most alcohol consumption does not really harm others and that the legal drinking age of 21 is arbitrary and unjust.
Focusing on legality or morality prevents opposing sides from even starting a productive dialogue about alcohol because those frameworks are riddled with complexity and personal passion. Furthermore, students know it’s unhealthy to binge drink yet choose to do so anyway, which makes appeals to health a difficult task because the approach is usually not persuasive without the backdrop of a heart-wrenching tragedy.
Instead of couching the issue in legal or moral terms, we should think of alcohol consumption as a social choice. Our approach should be to advocate for creating a positive social environment and to intervene only to prevent the adverse social effects coupled with alcohol use – not to discourage the consumption of alcohol by appealing to the law, morality or health.
To do this, students and administrators could place primary emphasis on raising awareness and conducting training to prevent the ugly social externalities that sometimes come with alcohol abuse, such as sexual abuse, physical confrontation or hazing. Furthermore, a social approach would be more accessible and effective because it’s likely that a broader coalition could be built around preventing egregious social misconduct than around advocating for temperance.
Reframing our mindset on alcohol should also include a revision on alcohol as a form of social capital. If we downplay the consumption of alcohol to a social choice that happens in a social context, then we ought not obligate others to drink alcohol for social acceptance. In other words, if drinking alcohol is simply a social choice, not drinking alcohol should be a choice that is equally legitimate and accepted. Whether someone chooses to drink or not shouldn’t affect his or her ability to socialize on campus. Alcohol shouldn’t be that big of a deal.
As a person who never drinks illegally – I’m 20 and have been to Canada just once – I’ve come to terms with the fact that alcohol consumption isn’t all good or all bad. Alcohol is celebratory just as it’s sometimes a vice. So whether or not you like your orange juice with vodka, let’s be merry. It is in our mutual best interest to create a stable, safe and invigorating social environment.
Neil Tambe can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.