Finally! A Drinking Age Debate

This may be more significant than people seem to assume: university and college administrators in the United States are discussing the potential effects of reverting the drinking age back to the age of maturity in their country (18 years-old). This Amethyst Initiative (blog), which was launched last month, may represent a turning point in not only alcohol policy but campus life in the United States.

This “story” has started to go around recently. And it happens to be one I care about. Read about this on Tuesday, while doing some random browsing.

College presidents seek drinking age debate – Life-

And it’s coming back as a source of jokes:

College Presidents Rethinking Drinking Age | The Onion – America’s Finest News Source.

Though I may be a big fan of humour, I really hope that people can also take this issue seriously. For some reason, people in the United States tend to react to alcohol-related discussions with (possibly uneasy) humour. Fair enough, but there’s clearly a need for dispassionate, thoughtful, and serious discussion about the effects of current laws or the potential effects of new laws.

I have a lot of things to say about the issue but I’lll try to RERO it.

Now, obviously, the media coverage is typical “wedge issue” journalism. Which might well be working. In a way, I don’t care so much about the outcome of this journalistic coverage.

What I do care about, though, is that people may start discussing the social implications of alcohol prohibitions. It’s a much larger issue than the legal drinking age in the United States. I sincerely hope that it will be addressed, thanks in part to these administrators at well-known academic institutions.

Possibly the best person to talk about this is Indiana University’s Ruth Engs, professor of Applied Health Science. Engs has written extensively on the health effects of alcohol, with a special emphasis on the negative effects of the raised legal drinking age in the United States. She also has fascinating things to say about cultural dimensions of alcohol consumption, which happens to be a topic that I have been exploring on my own.

According to Engs, discussion of responsible drinking are quite rare in public events related to alcohol research in the United States. I personally get the impression that responsible drinking has become a taboo subject in those contexts. I certainly noticed this while living (as full-time faculty) on a “dry campus.”

It’s no secret that I care about responsible drinking. Part of this might have to do with the Éduc’alcool message which has been engrained in Quebeckers over the years: «la modération a bien meilleur goût» (“responsible drinking is more tasteful”). My strong impression is that at least some of those who wish for the drinking age in the United States to remain high share the opinion that, for adults, responsible drinking is more appropriate than binge drinking. They may think that any type of alcohol consumption has negative effects, but it’d be quite surprising if they actually preferred binge drinking over responsible drinking.

Where we seem to disagree is on the most effective strategies to reach the goal of responsible drinking among adults. IMHO, there is at the very least strong anecdotal evidence to show that increasing legal drinking age does very little to encourage responsible drinking. Unfortunately, with issues such as these, there’s a strong tendency for advocates of any position to dig for data supporting their claims. Stephen Jay Gould called this “advocacy masquerading as objectivity.” I may care strongly about the issue but I’m not really taking sides. After all, we’re talking about a country in which I’ve lived but in which I don’t have citizenship.

Let’s call a spade a “spade.” What’s at stake here is the National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984, which was pushed by the MADD lobby group (Mothers Against Drunk Driving). With all due respect to people involved in MADD and similar anti-alcohol advocacy groups, I have strong reservations as to some of their actions.

As a group, MADD is a “textbook example” of what sociologist Howard Becker has called “moral entrepreneurs.” In the United States, these moral entrepreneurs seem to be linked to what Ruth Engs calls clean living movements. What’s funny is that, though these movements may be linked to puritanism, Puritans themselves did use alcohol in their diet. So much so that the Mayflower landed in Plymouth Rock partly because of beer.

There’s a lot to say about this. From diverse perspectives. For instance, libertarians surely have interesting points about the NMDAA’s effects on state laws. Health researchers may talk about the difficulty of alcoholism prevention when responsible drinking is left undiscussed. Teetotalers and Muslims may see this as an opportunity to encourage complete abstinence from drinking. Road safety specialists may have important points to make about diverse ways to prevent drunk driving. Law researchers may warn us about the dangers to the legal system inherent to laws which are systematically broken by the majority of the population. Border officers may have some interesting data as to the “alcohol tourism” related to college drinking. University and college students clearly have diverse approaches to the subject, contrary to what the media coverage (especially the visuals used) seem to indicate.

My own perspective is quite specific. As a very responsible drinker. As a Quebecker of recent European origin. As a compulsive pedestrian. As an ethnographer interested in craft beer culture in North America. As a homebrewer. And, more importantly, as a university instructor who, like Barrett Seaman, has noticed widely different situations on university campuses in the United States and Canada.

Simply put, it seems quite likely that widespread binge drinking on university campuses has originated on U.S. campuses since 1984 and that the trend is currently spilling over to affect some campuses outside of the United States. College binge drinking is not a global problem. Nor is it a problem entirely specific to the United States. But the influence of U.S. college and university campus culture in other parts of the world often comes with binge drinking.

Apart from the fact that I find binge drinking to be extremely detrimental to physical and mental health, my observation is about campus life in general. AFAICT, on university and college campuses where alcohol consumption by a significant proportion of the student population is illegal, illicit alcohol consumption pushes younger students outside of the broader campus life. This self-segregation makes for a very uncomfortable learning and teaching context. In other words, the fact that students hide in fraternity houses or off-campus locations to binge drink may have the same socialization effects as regular campus life elsewhere on the planet, but the isolation of these people is a net loss in terms of generating an academic environment which is nurturing and tolerant.

To be clear: I’m not saying that the legal drinking age in the United States needs, of necessity,  be brought back to 18 years-old as it was in several States until fairly recently. I’m not even saying that States should necessarily be allowed to set their own drinking age laws. I simply wish for this debate on legal drinking age to happen. Actually, I hope that there will be real, thoughtful dialogue on the issue.

Really, it’s the tasteful thing to do.

3 thoughts on “Finally! A Drinking Age Debate”

  1. Hear! Hear! I think you are right, dear blogger bilingue, this is an important issue, and it’s about debate, about speech, rather than only a public health campaign against binge drinking (though that is important in itself). I think you’re right to focus on the question of bringing the issue of drinking out in to the open. The illegality puts a gag order on educators, advisers, anyone acting in a professional capacity, to EVEN discuss drinking with students who are under 21.

    In a way, though, I see the utilitarian framing (common to most public debates chez USA) makes this debate structurally very like the one over whether to give free clean needles to drug addicts to counter the spread of disease.

    But I like your tactic, of widening the gyre, because it’s really a deeper cultural issue, I think, related in the case of the universities to our liability culture here, which gags a lot of open discussion of failures and how to learn from them.

    Culture does seem to be the wider grounds from which to approach the problem and reading your piece has led me to think that conversation and debate is needed even more than a change in the law. I guess I would want to look for a way to legally start talking–in metaphor, hypotheticals, etc.–right away.

  2. The Amethyst Initiative itself is framed in a way that I think is conducive to open dialogue. I even think it avoids some of the pitfalls of the “clean needle” debate (which is happening in Canada right now). One reason is that this isn’t about whether or not we should allow alcohol consumption, it’s about open dialogue to find ways to prevent issues which come with some forms of alcohol consumption.
    I don’t tend to use the “Freedom of Speech” angle (I come from a place where it’s simply assumed that we can speak freely). And I don’t often relate to the “academic freedom” argument when used to defend the current tenure system. But, I must say, I’ve witnessed (and, to a certain extent, been victim of) the impossibility for university and college instructors to discuss alcohol consumption in a reasonable fashion. In fact, someone I care deeply about has publicly scolded a friend of mine for entertaining the notion of doing a paper on a subject related to alcohol consumption for a graduate course taught by this first person. The whole situation saddened me. I understand people on both “sides.” But I still bemoan the effects.

    You’re bringing the cultural dimension to the fore. I mentioned aspects which are clearly related to cultural phenomena, but I didn’t insist as much as I probably should on the cultural character of this issue. One reason is that the cultural distinctions involved tend to follow national lines, which is hard to reconcile with my approach to cultural diversity. Is this attitude toward alcohol specific enough to justify appeal to the old “national culture” concept? Your comments help me avoid the spectre of “national culture” while discussing some cultural issues.
    One issue for me is that I’d like to eventually do academic research on craft beer culture but I haven’t undertaken such a project, yet. Data I do have would mostly be considered “anecdotal” or “circumstantial.” Because this is such a tricky issue, with media coverage, it’s very hard for me to even discuss broad ideas I have on the issues. In other words, there’s a chilling effect because such issues are often debated through the use of tactics which are almost intimidating.
    Speaking of which… The main Choose Responsibility site (and blog) has some pages which seem to be using different standards from the Amethyst Initiative site. I know the two are connected, but I tend to prefer the Amethyst version, in this case. In daily life, I tend to think that rigour is overrated. But this is a case which calls for increased rigour in analysis and description. I’m not saying that my own writing is nearly as rigorous as it should be. But I can just imagine what problems may occur if people on either side of the debate choose to remain in the more casual mode.

    Going back to attitudes toward alcohol… I do think it’s a wider issue and I do work to make people realize that alcohol should be respected instead of despised. Problem is, it seems very unlikely that attitudes will change unless something big (or several big things) can happen first.
    Back in 2000, Engs predicted that the current “clean living movement” and associated alcohol prohibition would radically decrease by year 2010. Given the temporal structure of the U.S. political structure, it seems reasonable enough a timeframe for some major changes in alcohol policy. During the same period, it seems possible that the attitude toward alcohol displayed by some groups (say, the so-called “foodies” but also many libertarians and some members of the geek crowd) will spread over to other groups. My personal feeling is that the tipping point is fairly near and that a discussion with people of very diverse groups (including religious communities, social workers, nutritionists, food industry corporations, etc.) will help us reach that point.

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