We are entering the last lap to Christmas and sadly in Guyana, rather than focusing on the end result of the Immaculate Conception, we are gearing up for the binge drinking that has come to typify our Christmas commemorations. This means, of course, that the whole gamut of pathologies that accompany alcohol abuse in Guyana will be manifested – domestic and other social violence that often end in death. What to do? It is not appreciated enough that alcohol consumption in and of itself might not be the problem – but the reaction to the alcohol is. And this reaction is socially constructed.
The epidemiological literature on alcohol consumption in various ethnic groups situated in the same locale in New York City, for instance, makes an important point: in measuring drinking problems there were “clear-cut, significant and persistent group differences…the groups with the lowest incidence of alcohol abuse, the Jews and Italians have (a) the lowest abstinence rates among these groups, and (b) (especially the Italians) the highest consumption rates.” This differential reaction to alcohol consumption has been confirmed in other locales: alcohol abuse is a sociological problem.
The groups that drink the most and have the least number of members that abstain from alcohol have the least problems with alcohol abuse! One study of Irish-Americans in Boston over a 40-year period, found that they were “seven times as likely to develop alcohol dependence as Italian-Americans – this despite the Irish-Americans having a substantially higher abstinence rate.” What is going on? If nothing else that alcohol abuse is not an individual idiosyncrasy and that socio-cultural factors are as crucial as physiological and psychological ones.
“Ways of drinking and of thinking about drinking are learned by individuals within the context in which they learn ways of doing other things and of thinking about them – that is, whatever else drinking may be, it is an aspect of culture about which patterns of belief and behaviour are modelled by a combination of example, exhortation, rewards, punishments, and the many other means, both formal and informal, that societies use for communicating norms, attitudes, and values.”
Another counterintuitive finding of anthropological studies is that aggression is not ineluctably linked to “drinking”, as is commonly accepted by us in the Caribbean. “Worldwide, however, such (aggressive) behaviour is typically quite rare, even among people who drink a great deal. Numerous anthropological studies demonstrate that alcohol-related violence is a learned behaviour, not an inevitable result of alcohol consumption.
“The way people comport themselves when they are drunk is determined not by alcohol’s toxic assault upon the seat of moral judgment, conscience, or the like, but by what their society makes of and imparts to them concerning the state of drunkenness.
“Cross-cultural evidence from diverse populations around the world shows that some have habitual drunkenness with little aggression, others show aggression only in specific drinking contexts or against selected categories of drinking companions, and so forth. Such widespread and diverse variation contradicts the view – shared by both `common sense’ and much scientific writing – that characterises alcohol as having a relatively direct pharmaconeurological effect in triggering aggression.”
What has also been shown to be true is that cultures into which alcohol were forcibly introduced as a measure of control within a very compressed time had no time to evolve positive drinking norms and in fact imbibed the foisted notion that the alcohol was a precursor to “letting off steam”. This was the case with Amerindians and Indians in the Caribbean. “The major colonial powers exported to those areas of the globe that fell under their control not only models of drunken behaviour but also a host of beliefs about the effects of alcohol on human beings. It may be that the widespread belief in alcohol as a disinhibitor is nothing but an ethnocentric European folk belief foisted on subject peoples around the world during the heyday of colonialism.”
This Christmas, let us not use “having a good time” by drinking as an excuse for being violent to those around us.