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The Power of Context

by Ron Roizen
    It has long struck me as a fascinating social fact that though (a) the "New Temperance Movement" (NTM), like the old one, tends to see alcohol lurking behind all manner of social ills, nevertheless (b) other credible observers, operating from different institutional vantage points, may hardly notice alcohol's presence at all and/or regard it as causally uninteresting or irrelevant.

    I'm not thinking here about the simple matter of NTM versus alcoholic beverage industry perspectives--which, not surprisingly, give way to sharply opposing institutional views.

    I'm talking about venues where the differences in institution-based perspectives may be a little less obvious.

    Consider crime for instance.

    NTM pronouncements that alcohol is "responsible for" or "associated with" (the connective's exact meaning requires great care and specification, but is rarely spelled out) "50% of all homicides" or "two-thirds of all assaults" are standard items in this group's rhetorical kit.

    Take a look at a standard, off-the-shelf criminology textbook, however, and you'll almost invariably find that the amount of discussion devoted to alcohol will range from somewhere between brief and nonexistent.

    I've been casually glancing at crim textbooks for years--just for the purpose of checking how well this generality holds-up. And I can't honestly remember an example of a crim text in which it didn't.

    In short, if alcohol's causal significance re crime were measured in terms of the attention the topic got in the tables of contents and the indexes in crim texts, then alcohol would appear to have a small-potatoes role in crime at most.

    What does this difference between how (a) NTM advocates and (b) crim textbook authors view alcohol actually tell us?

    First, it tells us that the fact that alcohol is accorded front-row explanatory significance in one institutional context (e.g., the NTM) says little about what significance it will be granted in another (e.g., crim textbooks).

    Second, it suggests the merit of exerting a little explanation-buying caution. After all, if alcohol's blameworthiness for crime is considerably higher in the NTM context than in the crim-textbook context, then we need to consider whether it is especially or even only in the NTM context that such explanations get much real play.

    Finally, it tells us that institutional factors matter in shaping the relationship between two cultural objects like "crime" and "alcohol."

    These are good lessons.

    Textbooks are by no means the only place this sort of cultural disparity about crime and alcohol occurs.

    Consider the courtroom itself.

    Anyone with even a passing familiarity with our Anglo-American tradition of criminal law will be aware that alcohol has almost no exculpatory value.

    The law holds that if the accused was drunk when he did it, then he must take responsibility for both his drunkenness and its contribution, if any, to his criminal action.

    A controversial Canadian case in 1994--in which a 72-year-old man named Daviault successfully invoked alcohol to excuse his rape of a disabled, 65-year-old woman--amply illustrated just how much folly and protest may flow from retreats from this time-honored legal principle.

    After the Canadian Supreme Court's decision, feminists, political cartoonists, and legal scholars had a field day exploring the prospect of a legal system in which drunkenness offered a legitimate defense for rape. The idea promised to open floodgates of all manner of havoc and chaos.

    As Robin Room's1 thoughtful account of the Daviault case noted, the very fact that many jurists are aware that alcohol is not infrequently present in rape situations made the prospect of legitimizing alcohol-based defenses all the more problematic!

    There's a really lovely irony here--namely, the sorts of high alcohol-in-rape prevalence estimates offered in the spirit of the NTM's validation of alcohol's nefarious role become strong arguments against granting causal significance to alcohol in the legal context, where fears of offering a convenient and ready excuse promise chaos.

    After all, if high proportions of crime actually did involve alcohol, then granting new legitimacy to alcohol-based defenses would cripple the criminal justice system's capacity to punish the guilty and protect the innocent citizenry.

    Once again, the disparity in institutionally-based interpretive perspectives is striking.

    Lots of analytical possibilities are suggested.

    For instance, the NTM perspective on alcohol-and-crime seems to be focused on an abstract vision of causality whereas the legal system is focused on real and pressing potential consequences.

    But the causes/consequences divide represents just the beginning of the conceptual complexity proffered in the alcohol-and-crime attribution. For example, the legal system must take into account that drinking has both post facto excuse value as well as putative causal significance re criminal conduct. Alcohol may also be consumed to provide Dutch courage to a wouldbe criminal. Obviously, the exculpatory value of these three different alcohol-crime conceptual connections differs significantly.

    The message of these two humble examples--crim texts and criminal law--is pretty plain however.

    Alcohol's relation to criminal events, whatever it may be, is subject to strong institutional shaping and constraints.

    Moreover, the NTM's singularity of focus on alcohol is probably best regarded as a local explanatory exercise--i.e., a vision of human misconduct that is most at home (perhaps only at home) within the secure institutional confines of anti-alcohol activism.

    For my part at least, as long as crim textbooks pay little heed to it and the criminal justice system won't even consider it, blaming alcohol for crime probably tells us more about the NTM sensibility than it does about either alcohol or crime.

© 1997 Ron Roizen


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