COMMENT: Teetotalism Over Temperance

Drunkenness is unnecessary, morally ambiguous, and often plain repulsive. Not only that, but I think there’s a pretty good case for abstaining from drinking alcohol altogether.

I realise I am hardly taking up a popular stance here but I think this is a sentiment that people of our age are almost too afraid to explore or propagate for fear of being tarnished by the brush of prudishness.

Liberals in the 19th century participated in both the temperance movement and teetotal movement. And yet a movement supporting abstinence from alcohol altogether sounds shocking to most of us today. To say you are teetotaller is often more horrifying than pronouncing yourself as a fructose-intolerant vegan. But is it really so weird?

Imagine a world in which people just didn’t feel the need to consume alcohol at all. Imagine a world in which binge-drinking was unheard of; “drunken mistakes” non-existent and alcoholism a rarity. Imagine a world in which people had fun on a night out without the risk of vomiting, doing something awful, or a looming hangover the next day.

Upon further reflection, it’s not so surprising that liberals strived to free people from (a) the pressures of drinking culture; (b) alcohol companies targeting the poor and (c) the shackles that inevitably strangle the individual’s rationality and morality through alcohol-induced impairment of judgement.

You think you are a free individual when you choose to drink. You are not. In fact, your freedom of choice is significantly distorted by a multiplicity of social pressures. First, we drink because alcohol consumption has been deeply embedded in Western culture. Alcohol is a drug, a dangerous one at that, and yet we are brought up to see its regular usage as a norm.

In fact, it is extremely difficult for us to even envisage a society in which the primary use of alcohol is as an antiseptic. And yet such societies did exist and continue to exist. It has often been argued that if alcohol were discovered today, governments would be loath to allow it to remain legal.

Second, there exists an explicit Drink-To-Have-Fun Myth. This consists of the idea that it is physically impossible to have a good night out without getting tipsy or, as is more often the case, getting completely lashed short of passing out and having your stomach pumped out.

I am walking, talking evidence of the fact that it’s possible to have a fantastic time without touching the substance at all. You may scoff, but I vow that I can chat, joke, laugh and boogie my sober bum off – waking up the next morning without a hangover and with a recollection of the incredible night I’d had – all on apple and mango J20.

Even if my story of alcohol-free raving fails to convince, do you really believe that young people in countries where drinking simply isn’t a cultural norm only rarely have fun? To say that it is impossible to have alcohol-free fun seems to be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

And yet so many of my friends have said to me: “Even if drinking isn’t necessary for having fun it’s still helpful when done in moderation. Chocolate isn’t necessary, but we still eat it because it tastes nice.” But the thing about alcohol is that it necessarily entails a slippery slope.

When you drink, you are not automatically under one of two categories: ‘the person who has drunk in moderation’ and ‘the person who is drunk’. In fact there often exists a slimy, grey area between the two states; an area that is difficult to identify precisely because it is different for different people. Drunkenness is a question of degree – the more you drink the further away you move on this scale from the point of soberness.

The simple fact is that alcohol is risky. Everyone is at risk of becoming an alcoholic. Indeed, some of the most intelligent people have unwittingly fallen into the trap of alcoholism. This is because alcohol is fundamentally addictive. With chocolate, there is no slippery slope; there is no ‘risk’ of eating too much.

Next, the individual. Getting drunk is bad because it morally compromises the individual, making it easier for a person to make choices that they would deem immoral or unreasonable had they been sober.Alcohol is said to switch off the part of the brain which controls judgement. When your judgement is impaired, you do stupid things, sometimes immoral things, for which you can hardly be held fully responsible once in a state of intoxication.

But one thing for which you can be held responsible is getting yourself in that state to begin with. Getting hammered to such an extent that you’re impinging on other people’s freedoms: ruining a friend’s night, who feels obliged to look after you, groping random bystanders, sporadically imposing your vomit on something or someone, intoxicating yourself to such an extent that you can be said to have no control over what it is you are doing.

Surely to allow yourself to get into such a state is wrong. And this isn’t even the worst of what alcohol does to you.

Even so, I often hear, “But Henny, moderate drinking is good for your health, it reduces the risk of coronary heart disease.” Well let’s place this in context.

According to an article medically reviewed by Dr Rob Hicks, alcohol consumption has been linked to increased risk of mouth, pharyngeal and oesophageal cancers, colorectal and breast cancer, high blood pressure, gastrointestinal complications (such as gastritis, ulcers and liver disease), and the depletion of certain vitamins and minerals.

Furthermore, even if the risk of coronary heart disease is truly the bane of your existence, then investment in regular exercise and reducing salt and cholesterol levels in your diet can be an alternative well worthy of consideration.

Let’s look at the social consequences of alcohol. It is said that three-quarters of those who go to A&E on a weekend night are there because of alcohol related injuries. Society has to pay for this through tax, other patients in need of help suffer as a result of increased waiting times and limited resources, and that’s not even taking into account the people who are physically hurt or intimidated by random drunks in the street.

If you don’t like what alcohol does to society, if you don’t like the fact that it serves as a catalyst to things such as domestic violence and rape, then rather than saying, “Well I am never going to beat my spouse or rape someone so for me it is fine,” why not boycott the substance that facilitates such abhorrent acts, even if it does not directly cause them?

Banning the consumption of alcohol would be both illiberal and unlikely to work. But I would say that just because something is legal, doesn’t mean it is right and that we should do it.

On the whole, alcohol is a substance that isn’t great – not for society, not your health or your moral integrity. It isn’t even necessary for having a good time. Perhaps then, as the liberals of the 21st century, we should seriously consider resisting the social pressures that induce us to drink.

A culture in which more and more people abstain from drinking alcohol altogether necessarily leads to a society in which drunkenness and alcoholism are a rarity.

In abstaining from drink, we ourselves can become the change we want to see in society, and in doing so, liberate ourselves from the social pressures which lead us to drink at all. The very, very least we can do is to take a principled stance against getting drunk.