Tuesday, December 29, 2009

A different value: alcohol

I've heard it said that every society in the world has some sort of intoxicant. Alcohol is a big one worldwide. What brought it to mind for me today was a link that a friend passed on to me, about a group of researchers in England who are trying to find a healthier substitute for alcohol. They're working to find a substance that would cause pleasant inebriation, but wouldn't poison people or cause hangovers, wouldn't cause emotional swings or addiction, and which could be counteracted rapidly by an antidote that could be given at any time. The article is here.

I imagine the consequences of substituting that stuff into alcoholic drinks. Now, that's science fiction. There's an entire culture, or two, or three, or more, surrounding alcohol consumption. Substitution would require an enormous revision. Lots of money and lives saved, first of all. Lots. But I could also see plenty of push-back. Where is the hard edge that you're perceived to have, as an alcohol drinker? If you need that perception of risk and danger, where will you buy it?

I suspect there would be instant upheaval followed by a longer-term shift in cultural perception. Who knows whether a shift like that could be successful on the long term, or where it would land the largest segments of the population.

But it's worth considering the value that we place on alcohol and other intoxicants. I'll remind new readers that when I say value, I don't mean "values" in an ideological sense, and I don't mean good or bad. Alcohol plays a role in our culture, different from the role it plays in other world cultures in some subtle ways. I remember being surprised when I visited France by the difference in the way alcohol consumption was treated. I remember thinking at a certain time in my life that people wouldn't go as crazy on their 21st birthday if alcohol weren't treated as such an awful taboo, and thereby given such incredible cachet. Who knows - maybe they would, but I suspect it wouldn't be nearly such a big deal.

Let me remark that there are excellent physiological reasons for age restrictions on alcohol. Alcoholism is a serious problem, surrounded by its own patterns of behavior. But it's interesting to me to watch movies and take a look at how the consumption of alcohol is portrayed in different ways. I believe there has been a shift in our perceptions of alcohol consumption, because for years and years - from Shakespeare's Stefano up to Uncle Waldo in the Aristocats - the drunkard was portrayed as an amusing clown. I don't see that image any more. The scientific recognition of alcoholism as a disease has changed that. There are still plenty of movies where you have party behaviors and binge drinking, etc. but even there it's no longer seen as solely amusing. The sense of risk is there, I think, even if the pathos and the real danger are not.

If you were creating a society, would you include alcoholic drinks or other intoxicants? It seems likely. I wonder if it might be fruitful to consider changing their value. Ask, for example, for whom the alcohol might be most attractive, and to whom it might be most readily available (possibly not the same group). Does the society have alcoholism? How does that express itself at different levels of socioeconomic status? Does it have locations dedicated to the consumption of alcohol? How are they accepted or perceived by others? Does alcohol consumption have a classy side and an ugly side, as it does for us? What form might that take?

There's lots of potential there for interesting stories.