Cultural blind spot

People who pride themselves on skepticism and critical thinking sometimes get accused of being as guilty as anyone else of bias, and of favoring their existing viewpoint when examining the facts, with arguments such as, “atheism requires just as much faith as religion.” Such accusations are occasionally true (not as often as they’re used, mind you.) Being totally open-minded is hard, partially because it’s much easier to expend the time and effort just once to reach a conclusion, and thereafter we can rely on that conclusion – or so we’d like to think. It occasionally requires some effort to re-examine what we do just to be sure we’re being fair and open-minded.

Sometimes, however, we can fall into the same thoughtless traps, letting ourselves adopt cultural ideas without wondering why, without ever applying any skepticism to them in the first place. One in particular I have seen numerous times, and while the prevalence of it might be a little bit lower in the skeptical ‘community’ than elsewhere, it is by no means viewed with the same jaundiced eye as countless other topics that we consider every day. And that blind spot is alcohol.

I’ll be blunt: alcohol is really fucking stupid. We not only consider a substance that damages the body and alters the brain to be acceptable, we actually glorify it and consider it a necessity. Our culture, not just in the US but throughout most of the world, considers it a standard part of entertaining, the accepted way of winding down after work, the key thing to imbibe when viewing sporting events, or when hanging out with friends, or to toss back at picnics… the list goes on forever. It’s not like it even adds anything – it doesn’t have any real taste, and only contributes a burning sensation to anything it is within. Because of this, we try to disguise it with lots of other flavors, or occasionally engage in testosterone-fueled rituals like tossing back shots just to demonstrate that we won’t cough out caustic substances. We’d consider this stupid if it were something like paint thinner or drain cleaner (well, most of us) but it’s cool when it’s alcohol.

Why?

It helps me to relax. No, it’s not needed “to relax” – the most functional way of doing this is to sit back and, you know, fucking relax. The amount of alcohol in the average beer contributes nothing to this, aside from the fact that it’s also a stimulant – people don’t drink caffeine to “relax,” so how does alcohol count? Yes, eventually it gets down to the depressant part, which is where all the really nasty issues come in. Relaxing is such an easy thing to do, with so many variations available, that alcohol is perhaps the stupidest method of achieving it, short of maybe copious bloodletting. Not to mention that it is occasionally useful to overcome relaxation when we need to be alert or responsive, which the human body can handle just fine when it doesn’t have to cope with depressants.

It lowers my inhibitions. This is said like it’s a good thing. For every part that it makes someone less nervous to speak to the opposite sex or get up on stage, it’s twice as likely to make them less capable of knowing what is inappropriate, much less exhibiting any intelligence at all. The rational part of our brains is there for a reason, and quite frankly, far too many people don’t give it enough exercise in the first place. Taking steps to reduce its effect only results in even stupider actions. It’s hard to understand why we might think we have too much control over our actions.

It helps me have fun. Okay, sit back and think about what “fun” is supposed to mean. First off, if someone can’t have fun without altering their brain function, they need therapy. Second, laughing at something that one wouldn’t find amusing when sober hasn’t got anything to do with having fun – it’s simply triggering disconnected reactions. And it’s really, really hard to accept such an argument when a significant percentage of people who become intoxicated turn into total douchebags, and the only way to believe that they’re not is to be intoxicated yourself when viewing them. Maybe, just maybe, it might be a useful idea to raise the bar on what’s entertaining, rather than lowering one’s expectations to meet it. Just a crazy thought. In fact, it leads one to suspect that network programming in the US exists in its current state only because beer exists.

I need it to forget. I’ve known a few people who considered alcohol some kind of cheap therapy for something that they didn’t like about themselves. Unfortunately, I’ve never actually seen it work this way; they don’t forget, and in fact usually get affected even worse by that whole ‘reduced inhibition’ thing. Forgetting only takes place the next day, but here’s a clue: now everyone else knows, too. It’s one thing to wake up the next morning and not have any recollection of those regrettable things bothering you last night; it’s another entirely to not only inflict them on yourself with even more impact, but to inflict them on others as well, especially when you won’t be in any state where their input might have some positive affect.

And then, there’s the arguments that I really don’t have to expand on:

I like throwing up, violently.

I like falling down without adequate reflexes to protect myself.

I like damaging my car for no good reason.

I like going to bed with someone without exercising any judgment.

I like waking up someplace I don’t recognize.

I like getting ridiculously belligerent, maudlin, or obnoxious.

I like not remembering what I did last night (especially when everyone else does.)

I like drug addiction.

I like jail.

I like vehicular manslaughter.

I like asphyxiating on my own vomit.

The really disturbing thing is, none of these are the slightest bit unknown to anyone – we are intimately familiar with just how many damaging affects alcohol has. We are also intimately familiar with the fact that alcohol lowers our ability to judge what constitutes too much alcohol. The inevitable rejoinder of, “There’s a difference between alcoholism and drinking socially,” completely ignores the fact that there is no actual purpose in drinking socially. The idea that someone can ‘drink responsibly’ is simply an advertising gimmick to hide the fact that alcohol itself is irresponsible. So, again, why?

Everyone else does it. That’s the whole thing right there – the only factor that anyone actually uses in the slightest, despite the rationales that they claim. That’s a really stupid argument for the average person, but amazingly lame for anyone who claims to engage in critical thinking. Yet, I still see it all the time. Skeptical meetups take place more often than not in a bar or pub. Post-convention and post-lecture practices always involve drinks afterwards. Forum posts are still peppered with references to alcohol, even as rewards (“I’ll buy you a beer when we meet.”)

Skeptics would never, ever accept “everyone else does it” for an explanation, for anything. One of the salient features of such thinking is the willingness to buck the trends, and to demonstrate by example how much more useful this is so someone else can do it for themselves. But somehow, we let this one slide by unnoticed, even when it’s so prevalent.

We often talk about religious violence, and how often throughout history relying on faith encourages conflict. We rail against alternative medicine, and the stupidity of folk remedies when we have such an advanced medical system. We denigrate psychics and the emotional turmoils that they put people through. Yet how do these compare against the numbers of alcohol-related injuries and deaths? Well over 30% of fatal motor vehicle accidents in the US are alcohol-related, and the stats for alcohol abuse on campuses are staggering. The medical and liability costs alone present a significant economic impact across the world, and we all pay for those. Even just engaging in pointless rituals every weekend should be enough to embarrass us immeasurably.

We make it a point to try and move society towards better, more rational, more functional practices – we don’t have any issues whatsoever with speaking up. So how does this one get past us?

Also, hang up your cute little Star Trek communicator toy when driving. Seriously, no one wants to die because you can’t shut your fucking mouth for a few minutes.

2 comments to Cultural blind spot

  • The Manatee

    So, if as you suggest, none of the reasons stand up to scrutiny, why do critical thinkers drink alcohol? Your title and text suggests that it’s because they/we don’t think about it. The beacon of rational logic that we shine outward into other dark corners can’t quite bend enough to illuminate this. But that can’t be the only reason, if it were, simply pointing out the lack of self-applied critical thinking would cause many to stop drinking. I don’t see this happening. So what’s the next point in the argument? How does a critical thinker defend drinking alcohol?