Essay Wednesday

The case for media literacy in college alcohol treatment and harm reduction programs

Media literacy has increasingly become a highly regarded tool for college programs which seek to comprehensively treat alcohol problems. The approaches are many and varied, but hinge on fostering a critical awareness of how pervasively the media influences contemporary college life, and the ways in which that influence is enacted in individual lives. The psycho-education of media literacy is designed to create bottom up social change that will, short and long term, alter harmful social norms.

The first assumption behind this approach is that the media is a consequential and oftentimes problematic influence on how college students drink. Imputing causality onto this apparent correlation would be a complex and perhaps futile endeavor. However, the influence of media on drinking habits is axiomatic enough, and the chance of any harm coming about from media literacy training remote enough, that the validity of this approach is assumed. Media literacy gains momentum, the body of literature around it increases, and the theory remains content to stay on the humanistic side of the social sciences.

Another assumption underlying media literacy, of equal if not greater importance. Media literacy assumes in its effectiveness that drinking and drunkenness is culturally determined, and that psycho-educational work could influence not only behavior, but subtly and over time alter the way in which society at large not only looks at but constructs and creates drunken behavior.

The literature of both anthropology and neuroscience gives us ample reasons to believe that there is very little about drunken behavior (and drunken behavior is the largest constituent which shapes how a society constructs drinking and views alcohol use) which is biologically essential. Certain things, such as the biphasic stimulant/depressant response, the retardation of muscle coordination and control, and the eventual deleterious influence on autonomic body functions, do seem to be cross-culturally inevitable. Yet, the ways in which these bio-pharmacological phenomena are enacted in different cultures and at different points in history differ widely. The neuroscience of alcohol consumption may be fairly exact, just as the cultural anthropology of drinking can create compelling portraits of behavior, but the ways in which the former can be illuminated by the later is much less direct and straightforward than is often assumed.

Just how complex and culturally conditioned this transference from neuro-chemistry to behavior is might be best displayed in Dwight Heath’s Drinking Occasions, a culturally wide ranging overview of the cultural functions alcohol serves. Heath notes that alcohol provides special grist for the anthropological mill, as almost every human culture know to history developed, independent of substantive colonial influence, alcoholic beverages and the rituals surrounding their consumption.

The consumption of alcohol by pregnant women is one example. Western counties have seen substantial public health campaigns against this behavior, while many “traditional” African cultures encourage it. The difference is both in the type of alcohol, as the African cultures in question historically consumed only a home brewed beer with a low alcohol content and high nutritional value, and in the behavioral tropes governing alcohol consumption, as prior to European contact drunkenness was essentially unknown and remains rare (insofar as the historical record shows). In this case pathology cannot be judged without looking at both the alcohol itself and the way in which it is used.

Another example from Heath’s work is vividly discussed by Malcolm Gladwell in his essay “Drinking Games.” Heath began his work on alcohol incidentally, doing field work in a remote part of Bolivia during the 1950’s. Inhabitants of the village in which Heath worked drank only on weekends, drank only potent home brewed rum, and did so only in a specific social setting. While Heath observed the somnolence which is commonly associated with heavy alcohol consumption, but few if any of the other behaviors which western culture assumes to be necessary side-effects of drinking. When Heath had a bottle of the rum analyzed upon his return to the US, he learned that the rum was 180 proof, and by extension that normal “partying” behavior in Bolivia (which revolved around drinking large amounts of the rum straight and in a single gulp) made normal a level of alcohol consumption that would almost surely be considered clinically abusive in the west.

Such drinking would be considered clinically significant (in the language of the DSM) for two reasons. First, it would be assumed to have inevitably produced tolerance and dependence, and thus addiction. Second, regular consumption of alcohol on such a level is to the contemporary western mind inconceivable without accompanying problematic behaviors. Western drinkers do not drink large quantities of uncut 90% alcohol on a regular basis without also seeing negative effects on personal and professional lives, and without likely committing at least misdemeanor crimes such as disorderly conduct and driving under the influence. It might be hypothetically possible for an isolated drinker to consume at the level routine in 1950’s Bolivia without developing clinically significant symptoms, but it is most unlikely, and when the behavior is normalized and undertaken by a significant percentage of the population western norms would assume nothing short of mass social pathology. According to Heath, this is not what happened. He observed no harmful behavior arising, either primarily or secondarily, from the weekend rum drinking.

It is possible that Heath overlooked or was not privy to the social dimensions of the drinking he observed in Bolivia, just as it is likely that such heavy alcohol consumption had problematic influences on the Bolivians health. In either case, Heath’s observations provide a striking example of the extent to which behavior does not necessarily follow drunkenness with organic certitude. Falling asleep and being unsteady on ones feet seem to be culturally universal. When it comes to alcohol consumption, there are few if any additional behaviors of which something similar can be said.

So what then does Heath’s work tell us about drinking in a college setting? It first confirms that the vast majority of behaviors which in a contemporary college environment are associated with drinking are culturally determined. While an impaired driving ability, vomiting, and an increased likelihood of falling over might be necessary outcomes of significant alcohol consumption, other problematic behaviors associated with college drinking such as interpersonal violence, property destruction, and general hooliganism are not. This is at once discouraging, because the inexorable influence of social norms is as difficult to change as it is unavoidable, and encouraging, because it opens up the possibility that alcohol consumption in college could in the future look radically different to the community observer. This understanding of alcohol’s influence on behavior is a prerequisite for media literacy and the possibility of its effectiveness.

The point that the overwhelming majority of the behavior commonly associated with alcohol is culturally and not chemically determined does not necessarily make the job of media literacy any less general. Media literacy must still be customized to the audience in question in order for it to be relevant and thus have any hope of efficacy. Drinking norms will vary widely within the United States, both with respect to region and to the type of school. Yet the idea that alcohol norms are culturally constructed does provide a point of entry into how media literacy might be focused.

Discussion can hinge around what participants’ assumptions about alcohol consumption are, and where they see them in the media and society, and can eventually move to why those assumptions exist, how they came into being, and what cultural purpose they serve. This move, from description to investigation, is the crux of media literacy, because making it requires participants to embrace the idea that there is nothing necessary about much of the behavior that comes out of drinking. This brings up the question of how “fake” a drinker might have been during a given instance of drunken revelry, and irrespective of how useful such a discussion might be, questions of authenticity almost inevitably play into the authoritarian issues which surround drinking in college. Most college students, perhaps especially those who have run afoul of drinking laws, see a contradiction in social values between being a college student with the right to (among other things) vote, and not yet having the right to purchase alcohol. It is only correct that admitting ones’ powerlessness in the face of social norming would not be something that a contemporary American college student would find especially appealing. The hope of media literacy, that an empowered student will be more likely to make choices about their drinking and their behavior while drinking, might well be seen as contradicting one of the messages sent by the current drinking age in the US; that those under the age of 21 cannot be fully trusted to think for themselves.

Additionally, one of the central drinking norms of college (and of drunkenness in the US generally) is that being under the influence of alcohol serves as a universal excuse for behaviors which would otherwise be strictly inhibited. This policing should not be seen as externally enforced. The reason that streaking is a stereotypically popular drunk-at-college activity is not because the buzzed student is better able to ignore the threat of police persecution while under the influence, it is because the drunk student is better able to cast of fears of social stigmatization, and in retrospect have an infallible excuse. The graver the social transgression, the more drunk the participant must have in retrospect been, which provides for both a more consequential shirking of personal accountability and a testament to the fervor with which the person in question is obviously embracing the college experience. That many college drinkers might prefer to exist in a climate sufficiently free of judgment and open to experimentation that streaking (or any such behavior) might be excused absent any chemical influence is often overlooked, both as a concept and as an indicator of the extent to which pervasive drinking might give evidence to the number of college student who live their colleges lives in quiet desperation.

Media literacy then should be properly seen as existing in a rather difficult position. Not only is it’s central assumption, that drunken behavior is culturally not biologically determined, counterindicated by many of the very myths it seeks to interrogate, but in a college setting the very critical independence towards drinking it seeks to foster is contradicted by US law. It may well be that college drinking serves, for many, as a screen over and coping skill for a difficult and ambiguous cultural ritual, one which unites personal growth and the establishment of an adult identity with academic rigor and personal freedom which for many students is unprecedented. It begs the question: if alcohol consumption is removed from college life, will whatever takes its cultural place be any less problematic?

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