October 25, 2013
Here's a college campus! (Lisa Poole/Associated Press)
Here’s a college campus! (Lisa Poole/Associated Press)

Everyone, stop drinking.

First Emily Yoffe suggested that college women needed to stop getting drunk. It was a little more subtle than the headline implied (then again, it would be hard not to be subtler than the headline implied). Then Ann Friedman responded by suggesting that college men needed to stop getting drunk. The conversation continues, both here and elsewhere.

Perhaps we should expand our horizons. Everyone should stop drinking. Male, female, young, old, flesh, fowl.

Nothing good comes of it. Drinking, as Cassio says in “Othello,” takes away your reputation, and all that remains of you is bestial. Lechery it provokes and unprovokes — it provokes the desire, and it takes away the performance, says that drunk porter guy in “Macbeth.” Noah had one drink too many, and now everyone who reads the Bible hears about it. Sometimes elephants eat fermented fruit and go on rampages, then fall down.

And don’t get me started on the real-life examples.

Drinking killed Dylan Thomas. “Nineteen straight whiskeys,” he said. “I think that’s the record.” Then he keeled over.

Drinking didn’t do much for F. Scott Fitzgerald, either, who said, “First you take a drink, then the drink takes a drink, then the drink takes you.”

The best advice for everyone on college campuses everywhere, and off them, and out in general in the world, would be to stop drinking. Drink makes you do stupid things. Drink makes you do dangerous things, such as drink more. Later, after college, you run the risk of becoming one of those guys who, well into your thirties, keeps regaling dates with stories of That One Time I Was So Drunk I Climbed Into a Stranger’s Window and the Cops Were Almost Impressed, I Think, I Don’t Actually Remember This, But Someone Told Me at Second Hand.

Pour out the red Solo cups. Fill them with Kool-Aid. Pour out the handles and dismiss the rituals. Pour the wine into the wine-dark sea.

Drink in moderation? Forget it. The trouble with drinking in moderation is that once you have drunk in moderation you do not want to stop.

One of the worst choices that drinking can lead to is that you write a piece entitled something like Women Must Stop Drinking, because then the Internet will descend, perhaps justly, perhaps less justly, to eat you alive.

So, obviously, the only thing to do is for everyone to stop. Now. That will fix it.

My point is that there is a difference between practical and ideal advice. You can tell when something is ideal advice because if people put it into practice, all problems would stop. “People should stop murdering people,” is ideal advice, for instance. But who on Earth is going to read this and say, “Ah, yes, how right you are! I will pour out this flask right now! And put down this ax in my other hand!” I wish they would. But if they don’t, what do I say next? We still have to live here, after all.

This next part is the tricky part, as Emily Yoffe has been discovering.

“Don’t drink until you become incapacitated” is good advice for everyone, not just women, as the tidal response to Yoffe’s piece points out. Restricting it to women makes it sound like you are climbing onto the iceberg of Horrible Blame-y Advice from the part of the world where it is somehow more practical to give all girls on college campuses plastic whistles than to teach men not to commit assault.

There is always something strangely disingenuous or unsatisfying about advice from older people not to drink, or not to drink to excess. “Well,” you think, “you can quite easily say that. You had your fun, and now when you have more than two drinks your 49-year-old body goes into open revolt and you shuffle around the house moaning in a robe, so of course abstinence sounds like the easiest policy.” When you are 19 you demand the right to be invincible, just like everyone else who has ever been 19. And the remarkable thing is how many of us survive.

In an ideal world, you would be able to write pieces in which one or two sentences started with “in an ideal world” and somehow not bring the Wrath of the Internet down on your head.

But we don’t live in an ideal world. There is a section of the Internet where this discussion echoes most loudly, where everyone is already where the rest of the world should be: where we understand that the only person to blame for rape is the rapist. Obviously. Clearly. As Erin Gloria Ryan at Jezebel notes, merely drinking to the point of incapacitation won’t magically summon someone to assault you. It takes two.  Yet people tend to write about this using phrases like “put yourself in that position” as though you had climbed onto a high ledge somewhere. In an ideal world, there is a line between saying “if you do X, Y is less likely” and saying “if you don’t do X, Y is your fault.” But the more pieces there are suggesting the Most Practical Way of Preventing Y is for you to do X, the more pieces about Keeping Your Daughters Safe and the fewer about Obvious Things to Say to Sons, the more the line blurs. That’s where the backlash comes.

All those public-service announcements about drinking and drugs always made me assume that it would be different — you would be walking down the street, and some dubious stranger in a button-down would offer you some “reefer,” and of course you would say no, because who even was that guy? But that’s never how it goes. It’s never Mysterious Strangers around a punch bowl. It’s people you know. It’s people you think you know. And no one’s talked to them. This is what feels so unfair. Why is the practical advice to give girls whistles? To keep them from drinking? To make them wander around carrying pepper spray? Why isn’t it to talk to your sons? Why isn’t it to make stiffer policies, as Amanda Hess suggests? This is not the simplest way!

The trouble with practical advice is that it reveals all your ugliest assumptions. It treats something that is a hideous act of a human being as though it’s some kind of faceless force, some natural condition, something like the weather. Don’t go out to parties today! 20 percent chance of rape! There’s something strange and awful about that, however practical it might be. We teach people about preventing Rape, as though it were this impersonal thing with a capital R, not the act of a person. How is that right? How is that not screwed up? Even if it’s practical advice, there’s something gut-wrong about it.

But are you better off not hearing it?

Alexandra Petri writes the ComPost blog, offering a lighter take on the news and opinions of the day.