Booze doesn’t necessarily make people violent or promiscuous. That concept of drunkness is actually a cultural one, it’s not inherent in ethanol. As social anthropologist Kate Fox says, “the experiments show that when people think they are drinking alcohol, they behave according to their cultural beliefs about the behavioural effects of alcohol.”
The effects of alcohol on behaviour are determined by cultural rules and norms, not by the chemical actions of ethanol.
There is enormous cross-cultural variation in the way people behave when they drink alcohol. There are some societies (such as the UK, the US, Australia and parts of Scandinavia) that anthropologists call “ambivalent” drinking-cultures, where drinking is associated with disinhibition, aggression, promiscuity, violence and anti-social behaviour.
There are other societies (such as Latin and Mediterranean cultures in particular, but in fact the vast majority of cultures), where drinking is not associated with these undesirable behaviours – cultures where alcohol is just a morally neutral, normal, integral part of ordinary, everyday life – about on a par with, say, coffee or tea. These are known as “integrated” drinking cultures.
This variation cannot be attributed to different levels of consumption – most integrated drinking cultures have significantly higher per-capita alcohol consumption than the ambivalent drinking cultures.
I think this is true. Culture is more powerful than ethanol, at least when it comes to constructing meaning. Growing up in Ohio, there was no concept of wine with dinner or even a beer after work. At 17, I worked full-time as a busboy in a restaurant but when the guys went out for a drink after work, I couldn’t come. In a year, however, I could have joined the Army. Madness. When I was younger, our youth drinking culture revolved around laboriously getting quantities of alcohol and bingeing until someone puked. It was retarded.
After high school I moved to Montreal, where the drinking age was 18 and no one gave a shit. I didn’t really drink in University much at all. It wasn’t a big deal. I think Ms. Fox is really onto something, as counterintuitive as it seems. Indeed, our intuition is obviously not that helpful.
If I were given total power, I could very easily engineer a nation in which coffee would become a huge social problem – a nation in which young people would binge-drink coffee every Friday and Saturday night and then rampage around town centres being anti-social, getting into fights and having unprotected sex in random one-night stands.
There are cultures where drinking is not associated with violence
I would restrict access to coffee, thus immediately giving it highly desirable forbidden-fruit status. Then I would issue lots of dire warnings about the dangerously disinhibiting effects of coffee.
I would make sure everyone knew that even a mere three cups (six “units”) of coffee “can lead to anti-social, aggressive and violent behaviour”, and sexual promiscuity, thus instantly giving young people a powerful motive to binge-drink double espressos, and a perfect excuse to behave very badly after doing so.
I could legitimately base many of my scary coffee-awareness warnings on the known effects of caffeine, and I could easily make these sound like a recipe for disaster, or at least for disinhibition and public disorder.
It would not take long for my dire warnings to create the beliefs and expectations that would make them self-fulfilling prophecies. This may sound like a science fiction story, but it is precisely what our misguided alcohol-education programmes have done. (Is the alcohol message all wrong?)
It’s worth a read.