Alcohol and us

 

From:  ‘Oh go on – HAVE ONE MORE’

(Published by Nest: http://www.nestsrilanka.org/)

Excerpts:

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Any effort to optimise our relationship with alcohol must deal with the fact that it is consumed mostly in company. A hypothesis to explore is whether a few real-life ‘alcohol authorities’ in our circle determine for us what we think and say about alcohol. Do a few individuals have inordinate influence over how we consume alcohol, our subjective experience with it and how we behave when drunk?

To examine our personal opinions about various aspects of alcohol use may therefore be misleading, for our opinion may be no more than what a particular group has imperceptibly moulded for us. Should we recognize this to be the case, we can quietly start our own attempt to set things right. But it had better be very quiet initially, if we wish to get anywhere. Alcohol is one of those subjects, like sex or music, on which apparently better qualified individuals feel free to dictate to us the best way to get maximum pleasure from it and to overrule our personal experience on the basis of theirs.

How should we deal with local ‘alcohol authorities’ if there are any amongst us? Even to humour them is to risk letting them control our collective outlook, and indeed to define for us our personal alcohol experience. We need to recognize their opinion explicitly as merely the view of a probably unrepresentative minority. Self-appointed alcohol authorities are not only too small in number to determine where we stand, but are also often wholly unqualified to do so. Individuals who have consumed large amounts of alcohol for long years are limited in their ability to experience a nuanced response to alcohol. Having entirely lost flexibility in their dealings with alcohol, they unashamedly set themselves up to teach the rest of us how to drink – so that we too may get to where they are.

These alcohol authorities, who are generally persuasive in making everybody drink up to levels they consider ideal, have to be recognized and sympathetically disqualified. Among the most pernicious expressions of their authority is seen among groups that are led to believe that bingeing regularly until blindly drunk is the way to have a blinking good time. Bowing unquestioningly to greater authority is most commonly seen among youthful drinking groups or gangs. Individuals who are firmly set on the bingeing route subtly intimidate the less experienced to follow them. Younger and apparently less experienced members of the group must go along, anxiously mimicking the jargon and unwittingly falling in line with the world view of the specialists.

Disqualifying alleged alcohol authorities in adult settings is no great challenge, should we choose to do so. Brute force is usually disallowed in adult discourse and creative ways of curtailing the insistence of any problematic individuals can generally be devised. But it may on occasion require showing up the highly restricted alcohol repertoire, and indeed the life, of some of the most insistent heavy-drinking standard setters. Among youth groups, the dethroning of louts is not so easy to accomplish. There is the risk of acquiring broken teeth.

Hidden fauna

People working for agencies that make money from the production, promotion and sale of alcohol feel obliged to do things to increase your alcohol consumption and mine. There is no real reason why they must. Most of them, right up to chief executive, can get away with astutely pretending that their life’s goal is to make people drink more. Not being imaginative enough, nearly all those who work for these agencies strive earnestly to increase our drinking.

The actions of the global alcohol trade now reach remote corners of the world. We cannot in our small groups and communities stop the promotions of alcohol that swamp the world. But we can try to use these as a source of education. Can we for instance spot the ways in which any thought of celebration, fun or relaxation is automatically linked in our own minds to alcohol use? We may think that we make the alcohol connection with no external inducement or guidance. But increased understanding of how global forces create or reinforce these public perceptions will serve to educate us on how commercial forces have moulded our views on such matters.

A week of vigilance as to the impressions of alcohol transmitted in references to it in any form of entertainment, leisure and hospitality related communications, academic or ‘serious’ analyses, the news or any other media programme will reveal to even the untutored individual the range of ways in which a particular image and a point of view are reinforced. These may be entirely accidental or deliberately placed. Keep your eyes open for an extended time and deeper insights may dawn.

A serious problem we face nowadays is that advertisers work in devious ways. Gone are the days when an advertisement was an advertisement. Present strategies include such things as images too fleeting for us to be consciously aware of, placements that are incorporated within artistic productions such as films and music and various other unimagined tactics. These forms of advertising and promotion are pernicious. Our most precious values and beliefs are fair game to any advertiser who finds them an impediment or an inconvenience.

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(Effects of alcohol are examined too)

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DIVERSE CONSEQUENCES

 The results that nearly all of us expect from alcohol use are good moods, relaxation and the freedom to behave freely. Solidarity and camaraderie, time out from oppressive pressures or responsibilities and easy connection with strangers are all provided by alcohol. There are some subjects, such as football, climate change and US politics, that allow us a connection with a citizen from anywhere in the global village, but none of these beats sharing a drink.

Just as alcohol allows us to become one with others, irrespective of social status and cultural distance, it as well permits us to set ourselves apart. There is an amazing variety of brews, ‘classy’ accessories and rituals to demonstrate wealth, refinement, sophistication in taste and belonging to the elite. Alcohol allows us to demonstrate solidarity and become one with the crowd as well as to smoothly show that we are a cut above the rest. Which other molecule can match this?

Against these and numerous other gains are conventionally paraded the deaths, disease, and misery said to be caused by alcohol. And we are asked to drink sensibly, moderately or as near as possible to the maximum, whilst carefully remaining below the level that puts us at too much risk of suffering the alleged problems. We as the public are incessantly educated on how to balance things by gaining as much as possible the pleasures of alcohol consumption, and the right levels of intoxication, but not lose out by suffering too much harm. But is this way of weighing presumed gains and losses misleading?

It would be hard to find anybody who considered a safe and boring life better than one of fun and good times with a higher risk of some adverse consequences. So how did the ideal alcohol consumption choice become framed in this way? Who set up various guidelines for us on how to drink sensibly based on this particular view of alleged optimal gains and losses?

In at least one country, the commercial alcohol trade officially plays a significant collaborative role in shaping the public alcohol education strategy, while in many it has rather little or no official say. Much of the ‘global public’ is unaware of even the level of influence that the alcohol business has been openly and formally allowed, in determining official alcohol consumption guidelines in their own country. Unofficial or covert influence that it may in addition have varies considerably from country to country.

It is time to look discerningly at superficially plausible constructions that we have been led to accept. There are at least two major issues to consider. The first is the unquestioned assumption that alcohol drinking events are nearly universally found enjoyable. Second is that the fun in alcohol settings results from the chemical effect of alcohol, which we must therefore consume as much as possible but just short of a recommended safe maximum, for optimal gain. If a given number of units of alcohol do not lead to higher risk of stroke and cirrhosis of the liver we are led to believe that we should drink at least up to this level to maximize enjoyment.

How many of us find intoxication good fun?

How we evaluate the subjective experience of alcohol differs according to setting. The cost and status of the beverage and the company in which it is consumed have strong bearing on the pleasure that results from drinking ethyl alcohol. Far less pleasure is ascribed to it when drunk in the shape of cheap or illicit brews as compared to the most expensive ones. Some people may not find the effect of alcohol at all pleasant but still be inclined to report that they like it. We are generally expected to say that we like alcohol. To express a different view is hard even if there were several different alcohol experiences.

It is a given that drinking times are fun times and the aberrant individuals who do not subscribe to this view had better keep their opinion to themselves. People who cannot tune into the enjoyment that is apparently the norm would feel obliged to conform by aping the rest. Similar pressure to fall in line applies to nearly all social behaviour but it is difficult to think of anything else that is enforced with comparable vigour.

How many of us feel that we put up with uncivil behaviour and smile or laugh indulgently at unfunny drunken banter and antics, simply because it is expected or indeed because there is no alternative? Having to endure deadly boredom week in week out, all the while portraying glee, is a heavy price to pay to demonstrate solidarity or conformity. Whether the majority finds the humour that prevails in many allegedly enjoyable alcohol settings forced and tedious is worth checking out. The test of whether a joke passes muster is whether it amuses even when we don’t have drink in hand.

If humorous but shy people used the license of the drinking setting to say and do things that they otherwise would not, we’d all gain. It is rather a pity that many shy people do not speak out even when they drink, while insistent and boorish people do – with redoubled ineptness. We should see how alcohol license can be used more effectively to encourage really witty but reticent people to be more forthcoming, instead of letting loose the dull.

How much of our fun depends on alcohol chemistry?

The best part of drinking evenings is in the early phase. A fair length of time has to elapse from the time we start drinking, for alcohol to be absorbed and reach the brain in sufficient concentrations to have a perceptible effect – even if we gulp. Sip a small quantity slowly enough and there may be no real effect on the brain at all. But this is no way impairs the good times. Are we being sold a dummy, when we are taught to link good times to heavy intoxication instead of to just the fact of drinking and the ambience?

What starts off as good times drinking can quickly progress to good times getting drunk, if we move in the wrong circles. Link fun habitually to drunkenness and other times eventually become bland. Avoid the link and other times remain good too. Intoxication can be quite unpleasant until we train ourselves to like it. But there is no great need to forcibly train ourselves to like intoxication if initially we do not, unless we happen to associate with a crowd that now experiences drunkenness as the only route to fun and so makes us uncomfortable if we do not imitate them. A good example is how the promising experience of ‘raving’ all night is linked to binge drinking or the use of other substances, which soon takes centre stage.

The exhortation to drink sensibly, echoed readily by the alcohol trade, seems to suggest that we drink as much as possible without risking attendant harm. Even more sensible a way of drinking may be to drink to get the privileges, enjoy the ambient mood and not to get drunk at all. Nothing extra is gained by linking fun to heavy drinking and intoxication instead of to just the drinking – or even to having a glass of appropriate beverage in hand.  To gain benefits to heart health, holding the glass is alone not enough. One must consume at least one drop.

Health benefits

We have all been educated on benefits of ‘moderate drinking’ on the health of our hearts. Undoubted and significant association between lower mortality and the consumption of small amounts of alcohol, compared to no alcohol consumption, is indeed found in several studies. This finding applies not to the human population in general but to older men in affluent countries. And why this is called ‘moderate drinking’ instead of ‘light drinking’ is unclear, unless it is intended to tempt us to drink way above the amount that may provide any potential cardiac benefit.

The idea that alcohol is good for the heart is now widespread. If it indeed is, and we want to consume alcohol as a medicine, we should seek to take the minimal dose at the cheapest price. A generic medicinal alcohol should be allowed on the market if the medical profession is convinced that alcohol is good for us or at least for the blood circulation to the heart of elderly westerners. And the profession should tell us whether a teaspoon a day is enough or not for the presumed benefits. Doctors should not collude with the alcohol trade to make us swig unnecessarily large quantities of expensive branded commercial beverages in the belief that we are taking medicine.

Harm to others

Harm to the individual user is nearly always the focus in discussions on the negative effects of alcohol. When alcohol ‘addiction’ is portrayed as being the result of an individual’s genetic or some other personal predisposition, we tend to forget the harm to people from other people’s use. This is kept off the agenda.

Victims of alcohol related accidents are, for instance, not only the intoxicated. They rarely figure in alcohol accounting. People abused by those who are intoxicated rarely get counted. What we often set down on the plus side of alcohol, alleged ‘loss of inhibitions’, allows victimisation of the weak by those who are drunk. Most victims of alcohol’s damaging side are probably children and, in many cultures, women. Their discomfort or suffering is camouflaged by the overall mood of fun, or freedom from oppressive norms, created around intoxication. The victimisation too is thus accommodated on the credit side.

An allied issue is the injustice that is associated with this phenomenon. Those who break the rules to victimize others ‘under the influence of alcohol’ are nearly always the more powerful. So alcohol provides ‘cover’ for the strong to victimize the weak. A husband is more often allowed to get away with abusing his wife if he is known to have consumed alcohol. A wife is hardly ever allowed this ‘drunken privilege’. A person who is abused too tends to feel less upset if the abuser did so after taking alcohol, rather than without such a ‘valid reason’.

When social norms and rules of decent conduct are allowed to be broken in drinking settings, misconduct can spill over to the rest of social life too. ‘Unacceptable’ behaviour that is allowed in drinking settings becomes more acceptable with time, even in non-drinking settings. This spread is more likely to occur in cultures where alcohol has not historically had a significant place.

Losing out on fun

When people learn in whatever way to rely on alcohol to relax, enjoy, or to perform socially, they lose out. This comes about from the gradual association of alcohol use with the mood that they want to achieve. After a time alcohol becomes a necessary condition for achieving a particular mood. A person who learns to associate alcohol with being carefree or vivacious at a party soon begins to associate that mood with alcohol use.

Learning to rely on alcohol for desired moods or certain ways of behaving gradually restricts the person’s range of enjoyments. In time, alcohol occasions become the only occasions experienced or interpreted as enjoyable or relaxing. When people reach this stage of reliance on alcohol, the pleasure they get from life is overall reduced – through being restricted to drinking times.

There is yet another proviso to attach to accounts of alleged pleasure from alcohol.  Wellbeing during drinking sessions is derived in good part from the permission to be free. ‘It does not matter now, you’re drunk’. But wellbeing that is achieved simply by exploiting opportunities to transgress ordinary social norms has hidden costs. Social rules and norms serve to protect the weak from victimisation by the strong. In situations where alcohol provides ‘time out’ from usual social rules, the weak are more at risk. Improved wellbeing through alcohol use for some individuals is then bought at the cost of impaired well-being for the non-user or the weaker alcohol user.

On two counts then the alleged pleasure from alcohol use doesn’t appear too attractive. Firstly, we find that even the users who experience genuinely improved subjective well-being when intoxicated earn it at the cost of restricting their own repertoire of fun and relaxation. Secondly, we note the negative consequences on others of the alcohol users’ fun.

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(Further exploration leads to some ideas suggesting themselves)

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IDEAS

Among the lessons to share widely is that a fair number of users can get all of the positive feelings derived from drinking by consuming a tiny amount, well below levels that produce a discernible effect. Fun from drinking is for many of us unrelated to the concentration of alcohol in the blood. It is quite likely that for the majority of drinkers enjoyment is inversely related to blood alcohol level. This majority does not make a song and dance about their real experience. As a result their experience or reality is ignored or suppressed.

It is time to allow the many and varied experiences of alcohol use to express themselves. In other words, it is time to challenge the mythology. Let us for instance see how we can create the conditions whereby nobody feels that her experience with alcohol is somehow wrong if it isn’t exhilarating and nobody feels the need to pretend to enjoy intoxication if she does not.

There are a few changes that are worth calling for globally and not just within our small group. Some are likely to be widely acceptable already. Examples of ‘rules’ likely to be considered desirable by a majority are as follows:

 

  1. Allow people the freedom to decide what they want to drink and when.
  2. Do not persuade people to drink more than they wish to or make heavy drinking appear desirable or an unwritten rule.
  3. Do not allow norms of decency to be broken when people drink alcohol (unless we want to get rid of these norms altogether).
  4. Permit individuals the freedom to judge whether they like alcohol and intoxication on the basis of their own experience rather than on that of others.

The following social transformations too will help but they may take some time to gain endorsement by a majority. A little effort to make them more widely acceptable is desirable.

  1. Ensure that the privilege of breaking social norms when we drink is equally allowed to all and not limited to a powerful or privileged minority of drinkers.
  2. Recognize the increasing limitation of the enjoyment of life that occurs as we become increasingly fond of alcohol.
  3. Reduce unnecessary embellishment of alcohol and gratuitous additions to its attraction.
  4. Stimulate everybody to recognize that saying we like our drink makes us like it, irrespective of what we truly experience.
  5. Recognize the need to change our regular groups’ opinions and practices if we want to make our lives more interesting or fulfilling.

There are some other considerations, such as the two that follow, that will add much to the gains we can make.  But consideration of these was not taken up in this essay.

  1. Understand the overt and covert ways in which the global alcohol trade and advertisers influence nearly all aspects of our image, beliefs, expectations and norms about alcohol and how we may guard against any damage from this.
  2. Apply lessons from alcohol to the rest of our lives.

 

TAKING ALCOHOL BENEFITS FURTHER

 

There is no strong reason to limit the joy associated with the alcohol ambience to drinking situations alone. Doing so restricts its potential mostly to unimaginative and dull individuals trapped in rather narrow confines. Also, it links the joy to an extraneous chemical that tends to centre on itself the potential for good moods and positive interaction that reside in the associated ritual and setting.

We can think of ways other than intoxication, to signal what it now does. If we had a cap that we ritually wore at agreed times to indicate, ‘What I say and how I behave here is not to be taken seriously, or remembered with rancour,’ we could spread this drink-related privilege equitably. Women, men, children, the tough and the weak, the humble and the domineering could all be allowed equal privilege when it was their turn to wear the cap. Certain rules about decency could still be retained. Far greater fun can accrue than from present drinking ritual if we use this kind of symbol imaginatively. We could, for example, simply use the symbolic cap in all-night festivities – instead of the current obligatory linkage of such entertainment with alcohol bingeing. We wouldn’t then have to opt without protest for glamorised tedium, attractive only to those of seriously limited outlook and repertoire, for want of anything better.

A kind of hat that says, ‘I am ignoring my responsibilities now’ is possible too. An individual trapped in tedious work could be allowed respite from tiresome routine for an agreed time, say a week, merely by keeping it on. Many alcohol users find their drink a good enough excuse to ignore responsibilities for a whole lifetime. Given that the restrictions attendant on their attachment to alcohol is a pretty steep price to pay for the privilege, just the hat should be a preferred symbol of freedom. Once again, the need is to ensure that everybody has equal access to their quota of permitted irresponsibility. The rule can be that, just as with this privilege currently attached to alcohol, others are obliged to step in and cover the responsibilities of the individual who chooses periodically to wear her hat.

There are many children who would do well to have a day off rules – who can readily be allowed such time out without recourse to alcohol. The individual obliged to make sure that the next meal is always ready on time can similarly have permitted time off. All we need are some rules and limits on each individual’s quota of permitted irresponsibility. People may even be asked to ‘earn’ their quota but it should never be transferable. If we allow people to buy privileges from those who have earned credits we will end up with a system no different from the existing situation – where only the relatively powerful are permitted to be irresponsible. The potential benefit from our corrective manoeuvre will then be lost in a travesty, akin to the current trade in ‘carbon credits’.

A phenomenon labelled ‘self handicapping’ has been described with alcohol. This is the ability to impose on oneself a presumed disadvantage, by drinking an unspecified amount of alcohol. It can be imposed upon oneself when called upon to perform a challenging task. So called ‘Dutch courage’ arises from use of alcohol in this way – the imposition of a visible and accepted handicap on oneself, thus providing cover for possible poor performance. Someone who fears he cannot sing to tune, dance well or deliver a proposition successfully is likely to escape feared jest or ridicule if he has carefully handicapped himself by letting it be known he had consumed alcohol. Freedom from strict judgement of our performance by others, that can be invoked at will by consuming any quantity of alcohol and letting the fact be known, is a boon for the shy. This benefit too could if necessary be disconnected from alcohol, with a little imagination, and made more widely available. Shy or timid people would particularly benefit from not having to wait for drinking situations to be unconcerned about others’ evaluation.

More is possible. We can try even to redress long standing injustices by deliberately turning tables now. Consuming any amount of alcohol is accepted in several societies as good enough excuse for men to abuse their wives. We may want to create new social arrangements, which allow women too to abuse their spouses after consuming alcohol on the ground that they have lost the ability to control themselves. Creating spaces or events where only weaker individuals are allowed to drink, and act without restraint, may therefore be attempted. People may at such events or times be allowed to abuse those who have at other times targeted them after drinking and be guaranteed equivalent freedom from retaliation and recrimination. If this particular experiment is considered inappropriate or impossible in real life, we may have to be content running it in imagination.

Influences that insidiously govern our thinking about alcohol are not too hard to spot, once we start looking at things discerningly. Alcohol is therefore a useful subject to begin with, to discover how we are manipulated with regard to many other things. The forced conformity and training into straitjackets is easier to spot regarding alcohol than, for example, with regard to religious belief or political opinion. We can only gain by applying critical awareness to everything that we believe and experience – especially those about which we are most passionate.

Once we learn to examine established truths critically, matters on which new and useful insights occur are many. But if we dare act on any that conflict with popular belief we become misfits, unless we learn also to carry enough others with us.

 

 

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