Opinion

opinion | Benjamin Winterhalter

Dartmouth’s alcohol crackdown doesn’t answer hard moral questions

Dartmouth College President Philip Hanlon spoke to faculty and students about changes for the New Hampshire school, including a ban on hard liquor.
AP
Dartmouth College President Philip Hanlon spoke to faculty and students about changes for the New Hampshire school, including a ban on hard liquor.

When Dartmouth College announced earlier this month that it planned to ban hard liquor on campus, commentators across the Internet declared it a victory for women. In one sense, perhaps they were right to do so: It’s as true as it is upsetting that sexual assaults on college campuses often occur in circumstances where some combination of victim and perpetrator are very drunk.

That does not change the fact, however, that Dartmouth’s crackdown is a mostly symbolic half-measure, one that should not placate advocates for stricter alcohol policies. As The Atlantic’s David Graham noted last week, the ban is likely to be ineffectual, since students will just do shots (shots, shots!) when they’re away from official eyes. This was confirmed for me when I asked a group of sophomores at Colby College, which “banned” liquor in 2010, about it. “Everybody just does it anyway, only on the down low,” one of them said. The others nodded their heads.

Graham asks: If students are going to pound liquor anyway, why not simply lower the drinking age — so that students will do their partying out in the open, where they can be easily overseen?

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I recommend that you sit down, since the answer may leave you wanting a drink. We have apparently agreed to have a conversation about alcohol on college campuses in which the key moral question — are the pleasures of alcohol worth its social costs? — will be left unasked.

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In the early 1900s, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, under the leadership of stalwart suffragette Frances Willard, fiercely argued that the flow of alcohol ran contrary to women’s interests. The Union carried this conviction to the point of a (now repealed) constitutional amendment. And there’s still ample evidence that women are worse off when the men in their lives drink to excess — they suffer domestic violence at higher rates, for instance.

So if we support banning liquor in the name of preventing sexual assaults, why not go further and ban beer and wine too? Does the crime become less heinous if the fraternity brother gets hammered on Keystone Light instead of Fireball?

Yet the feminist argument for prohibition — surely the most logically consistent case against booze — is nowhere to be found in the pages of our newspapers and magazines. Nor is the opposite view, the idea that alcohol should be kept around and enjoyed despite its potential to uncage our demons.

Think about it: What leaves you feeling — at the end of a long day, perhaps — like you want a glass of pinot grigio (or a Sam Adams, or a Tom Collins, or whatever your pleasure is, I don’t want to presume)? It seems to me that college-age people have especially good reasons for wanting to drink. They’re aware that the pressure and responsibility and restraint of the adult world are coming fast. They’re aware that they’ll graduate owing astronomical sums to megabanks or, if they’re lucky, the federal government. And so they seek rebellion and escape, one last Dionysian guffaw before they give their hearts to The Man. Can anybody blame them?

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But if we believe that we’re capable of using alcohol for release — or for social lubrication — why not students? If the answer is that they’re too young to understand what lurks at the bottom of the bottle, how then are we to answer the feminist argument for prohibition? (Other than “by pretending it doesn’t exist,” I mean.) In other words, if students are too immature to handle their booze, why aren’t we lobbying for dry campuses?

Instead, we remain stuck in the hypocritical middle, telling young women we’re protecting them while tacitly condoning the drinking culture that threatens their well-being. We should either accept the lesson that prohibition doesn’t work — and try other means of fighting sexual assault — or embrace temperance wholeheartedly.

Reading the narratives in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, however, you’d be forgiven for coming away with the impression that neither position is a real option. One’s support of Dartmouth’s ban on liquor (and liquor alone) has become the cultural equivalent of one’s support for women’s causes. And that, I suspect, is what the administrators at Dartmouth and other colleges really wanted: to be praised for fighting back against sexual assault without having to make real cultural changes.

Universities could, for instance, support women who’ve been victimized and counsel men about sexual aggression and foster open conversations about sex. They could cut tuition and forgive debt and offer career guidance to their frightened, stressed-out students (ha!). They could (unofficially, of course) allow drinking and supervise parties and have a system for kids who get too wasted. Or, along different lines, they could bust up the fraternities and strengthen law enforcement and require workshops about the dangers of binge drinking.

Don’t expect any of these responses, though. It seems that our colleges, like the rest of us, want to scuttle the hard moral questions about our relationship with alcohol — the questions our Constitution reflects a history of struggle with.

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As for me, I see only one reasonable response to the situation: I’m going to get a bourbon.

Benjamin Winterhalter is an attorney and writer based in Cambridge.