Drinking around the world
This spring, I have had a chance to observe alcohol consumption in three very distinctive cultural settings – First Nation (Canada), Irish, and Iberian (Portugal/Spain). Alcohol use – and consequences – could not have been more different in these three places.
While our evolutionary psychology colleagues emphasize that humans behave the same throughout history and around the globe, my slant could not be more different. The drinking in these three places was worlds apart – almost as though the people were from different species.
In upper British Columbia, I found native people living in shabby circumstances in a transcendentally beautiful valley. Virtually no family is unaffected by alcohol (and drug) abuse – it typifies the challenges faced by First Nation People. Even the most assimilated educator described to me siblings whose lives have been wrecked by addiction.
Worst, and most puzzling, even when – as in the case of this woman – the older generation has succeeded in the white world, her kids were overcome by addiction. Sometimes, the cultural chasm with broader Western society seems unbridgeable – yet total separation is also impossible, even more so in the modern electronic era. In this setting, the only alternative to addiction is presented as being total abstinence. I never had – or was offered – a drink while there.
In Ireland, change was also afoot. Modern pub life continues, but it has been modified – for better and for worse. Although, to an American, pubs are everywhere, long-time natives describe them as being in decline. In urban centers, they are becoming entertainment centers – with video screens all around – in order to appeal to young weekend consumers.
Irish drinking is deeply ambivalent. The Irish see drinking as a time out from ordinary life, when they can let loose and forget daily concerns. At the writers’ conference I attended, the pubs were filled late into the night with noisy conviviality.
But there are consequences. For a feminist writer, one who drank beer herself, those who sit in a pub all night are leaving a wife and family alone. At the same time my driver could report having quit drinking, he recalled with terrific fondness endless evenings together with neighbors and cronies at the local pub. He could recognize the prevalence of alcoholism in Ireland, at the same time that he saw drinking and pub life as the glue holding Ireland together. A remarkable number of Ireland’s leading politicians own pubs.
Finally, in Portugal and Spain, alcohol was a ubiquitous, accepted, pleasurable, well-managed facet in all social life. To decline a drink with a meal – generally wine or a liqueur – was an incomprehensible aberration. This extended even to teenagers. Unlike in either the First Nation locales or Ireland, I never observed or heard of people drinking to excess – gathering specifically and exclusively for the purpose of drinking is alien in this world.
What does this tell us about alcohol, drugs, substance abuse and humans? Attitudes and comportment towards even the most potent substances are virtually infinitely malleable. Ways of thinking and being in the face of substance use that seem ordained by nature and God in one place are unfathomable in another.
Human beings are not good at imagining ways of being other than their own. And, to paraphrase George Bernard Shaw, it is the barbarian who mistakes the customs of his peculiar island for universal laws.