What is “too much” when it comes to holiday drinking? Hard to say. History shows us that attitudes towards “problem drinking” tell us as much about the ideologies of a given society than it does about alcohol itself.
Travel and vacation has a way of relaxing inhibitions when it comes to alcohol consumption. Wouldn’t you agree? And it usually begins with the first refreshment service on the plane. During our time in Argentina and Chile, we told ourselves that we were taking part in an important cultural practice by exposing our palates to each and every wine varietal available and getting a proper handle on the unique characteristics of the region’s impressive list of wineries. How does the cool Patagonian climate affect things like tannins and sugar levels? Can one describe Malbec as fruit forward, like a Merlot? Is Carminere or Cab Sav the real flagship of Chilean wine? We drank the wine and we drank a lot of it and in time we stopped getting hangovers as our bodies found ways to tolerate the daily influx of fermented grapes. Though we began to retain what in hindsight seems like unsightly levels of fluid, we regarded this as we would the inevitable blisters attained during an arduous trek through the Andes. All part of the experience.
In some way, we were not so far off piste. The Chilean government sanctions 5 glasses of wine per day before labelling an individual’s drinking habits as problematic. Only when you pass the bottle-per-day mark are you considered a “high risk” drinker. Some countries like Portugal and Sweden hardly let a single glass go unnoticed. And while it certainly was our impression that Chileans drink a fair share more than their Argentinian neighbours, you’d have to go out looking to spot drunken behaviour in Chile.
That said, there is a lot to be experienced beyond wine when it comes to alcohol in Chile. Pisco, for example, is a distilled brandy that is often served with lime juice and egg white as a Pisco Sour cocktail. These are pretty good and considered a digestif so they can be drunk “medicinally”. Another source of national pride is a drink called a “Terremoto”, which translates into “earthquake”. Its made from pipeño, (sweet fermented wine) and pineapple ice-cream served in a one-liter glass/jug.
Country to country, there are glaring discrepancies in alcohol guidelines. The World Health Organization defines a single drink as containing only 10g of alcohol, but this is not a standard adopted world-wide. Great Britain, for example, declares a unit of alcohol to be only 8g while the US defines a standard drink as being 14 grams and Japan, 20g. South Africa and Australia follow the WHO guidelines at 10g per unit. What these striking discrepancies imply is that somebody has got to be wrong; that there are “problem drinkers” who are probably low-risk drinkers and proper alcoholics who go unrecognized. Where does this leave the bewildered traveller traversing international borders.
The guidelines of the World Health Organization, like other bodies that govern alcohol use, are based on reports of steady increases in alcohol consumption together with what they call the “burden of alcohol-attributable disease”, including the social and economic ramifications of disorderly alcohol use. Like car crashes, for example, or domestic violence. And although we might think that figuring out what, exactly, constitutes “problematic drinking behavior” – or whether its alcohol that’s the problem at all, and not poverty, for instance – is actually considered a highly socially constructed process. When something is thought to be “socially constructed” it tends to refer to an idea or set of values that appears to be natural and obvious but that does not necessarily represent reality. Something that is socially constructed is instead an invention that serves the dogma at the time. A bit like a very subtle form of mind control and usually it serves the ruling class.
History shows us that attitudes towards psychoactive substances in general tell us as much about the ideologies of a given society as it does about the nature of its members. What we see is that the notion of alcohol addiction emerged in 19th century America as a reasonable way of understanding problematic drinking practices. Before this time, drinking to excess was seen as a legitimate way of enjoying oneself but this began to clash with the prevailing values of individuality, rationality and self-control as America became industrialised. The alcoholic of this period came to be seen as morally corrupt. Two hundred years later, the social climate has shifted towards a medical model of “deviance”, and as such, our modern definitions of problem drinking are based on varying ideas about the nature and cause of this ‘disease’. Whether its genetic, the cause of bad parenting, poverty or an illness of the mind – each nation-state has its own take on the root of the problem. Consequently, diagnostic criteria and healthy drinking guidelines are cross-culturally redundant. What goes in one country is pathologized in another.
If you’re interested in this history of alcohol and “problem” drinking, read on…
Popular conceptions of alcohol ‘addiction’ and ‘dependence’, as a way of understanding pathological human behaviour, have not always existed. In fact, if we look to colonial thought in the 17th century, drinking and drunkenness was a matter of desire and people drank because they wanted to, not because of a disease of the will. Instead, alcohol occupied a revered position in society, commonly hailed as the ‘good creature of God’ in American societies, and people drank it in vast quantities at all kinds of social, political and religious occasions. Farm workers, much like the Cape Coloured workers in the colonial Cape in South Africa, were often remunerated in drink by their employers, and few were perturbed by the drunken rowdiness that ensued after-hours and on holidays. In essence, social and political life revolved around drinking and the tavern – a key institution in these societies.
Attitudes did not diverge in the case of women. Women both produced alcoholic beverages and took part in their consumption; although their indulgent drinking, was often seen as ‘unladylike’ and was contested to some extent in traditionally public, male spaces such as the tavern. Those who regularly engaged in heavy, excessive bouts of drinking were not known as alcoholics and nothing was said about the role of their inner experiences with regard to getting drunk. Rather, they were considered to be ‘habituated’ to drunkenness out of their fondness for liquor and getting intoxicated was therefore a matter of choice. These kinds of attributions were deeply influenced by Puritan thought, that ‘there can be no compulsion upon man other than God’s will” (Miller, 1969). The individual was seen to be free to choose his or her own life path as desired.
Frequent drunkenness was thus wholly acceptable; it was seldom seen as troublesome or immoral, and was viewed as a natural consequence of social drinking. Explanations for habituation were therefore unsought after as drinking did not constitute a cause for concern or worry in the colonial way of life. Caution derived only from staunch religious leaders who were most troubled by drunken behaviour, and these concerns were framed with reference to voluntary sinful acts.
During this period in European, American and even South African history, colonial life was slow, based on agricultural subsistence and supported to a large extent by slavery. This way of life began to change at the turn of the 19th century with dramatic advances in the scientific disciplines and the advent of industrialisation. These changes revolutionised social thought and enabled social mobility which ultimately weakened support networks, leaving the nuclear family more dependent on the piety of the father.
Within this new work environment, capitalism as a condition for living flourished, and bore with it the necessary ethic of organized productivity and self- discipline. Western societies were thus transforming in a way that fostered a certain type of ‘inward’ subjectivity, or individualism, through this emphasis on the personal regulation of behaviour. It was therefore a change in the structure of society that led to reconceptualisations of social conduct and drinking.
Amidst this sociocultural milieu, the temperance movement in 19th century America took hold of the idea that alcohol was at the heart of societal ills. This ideology made sense in a culture in which time had evolved into a commodity and therefore its management became important. Drinking, it was commonly observed, squandered time to the detriment of other activities. This kind of behaviour was seen in light of the prevailing values of capitalist cultures as ‘irrational’ and it was the physician, Dr. Benjamin Rush, who first conceptualised the modern medical model of alcohol addiction as a ‘disease of the will,’ resulting in loss of control of one’s drinking. Alcohol, he argued, was the causal agent of compulsive drinking, and was to be totally abstained from in the hopes of treating this new disease. These “insights” spread quickly as a reasonable way of understanding problems related to alcohol and drinking, and deviance and abnormality in general.
Unlike today’s ‘drunks’, inebriates of the 1800’s were treated compassionately as victims, since the source of the addiction disease was considered to reside in the drink itself, and alcohol continued to occupy a central place in social life. But these conceptualisations of alcohol related problems were inadequate in accounting for and dealing with the disturbing social problems such as crime, rail road accidents and labourer inefficiency with which habitual drunkenness was associated. Who was to take responsibility? If alcohol could not answer to its destructiveness, the blame must fall to the individual. This was a natural progression, since traditional, external forces of authority, such as the church, the monarchy and the feudal state had lost their grasp on societies. People began to invest notions of power in themselves. Essentially, the locus of the problem of overindulgence shifted from the external source of drink to the internal psychological makeup of the individual.
In early decades of the 20th century, as it is today, alcohol addicts came to be seen as mentally ill and their treatment was brought into the sphere of psychiatry. This is what we currently feel to be “normal”, and therefore alcohol use is justifiably regulated by trained, medical authorities such the World Health Organization.
But the idea of an addiction to alcohol as an abnormal, debilitating disease has a specific historical and sociocultural locus that can be traced back to 19th century America. Before this time, the notion of ‘addiction’ was inconceivable. It emerged out of a transformation in the social and political climate of the post-colonial period, in which fundamental changes in the society and wealth took place. Amidst a new imperative for industrial progress and individuality, ‘uncontrollable’ drinking was framed in terms of the addiction-as-disease model, and provided a ‘reasonable’ way of explaining the failure of the drinker to drink and act ‘rationally’. This model assumes that sobriety is good and necessary. But this perspective was not always the case. And even today the extent to which sobriety is valued differs between nations. Problem drinking is therefore a transient and culturally contingent phenomenon. Much like travelling…
So, what is “too much” when it comes to holiday drinking? In the weeks to come I will follow up with an article on the effects of alcohol on the brain and body and that should help us get some perspective.