“Exclusively Normative Activity”

Several years ago I was with a colleague at a party and asked if I could get him 0515ee2ca88543194691633a4c155ac8a8de29-wmanything from the bar.  He declined, stating that he didn’t drink.  I asked him, “Why?”  He paused for a moment then said, “Because I don’t like myself when I do.”

“Because I don’t like myself when I do.”  What an honest answer to a rather direct and inappropriately personal question.  To this day I’m not exactly sure why I asked it.  It could have easily been construed as a dick move.  Fortunately my friend was able to set this aside and still give a forthright answer.

This past summer, while attending the General Convention of the Episcopal Church his words came back to me.  After Thomas Palermo was tragically killed by a car driven by a very drunk Episcopal bishop, we spent a lot of time examining the relationship between alcohol and the Church. The special task force that was assembled put forth several resolutions, some of which went a bit too far in limiting what are often very positive and creative connections between the two.  But out of all the heartfelt and painful stories, all the expressions of grief, guilt and outrage, one phrase leapt out at me, namely that a big part of the problem was that drinking is an “exclusively normative activity.”

Exclusively normative activity?  What in the heck did that mean?  At first all I heard was jargon that I really didn’t understand.  That changed few nights later when most of the clergy attended their seminary alumni dinners.

The next day as I listened to various folks recount their evening what really caught my attention was not the fact that there was a lot of booze.  After all these are alumni gatherings and as such are not just celebratory reunions… they are also fundraisers.  Alcohol was an indispensable part of the asking equation.

Instead what caught my attention was how hard it was to find a non-alcoholic alternative.  One person said they had to get up and ask for a glass of water since there was only wine on each table in addition to the open bar.  At my gathering there were soft drinks at the bar and pitchers of water on the table, but even so, it was pretty clear that you were supposed to drink booze.

Then it hit me. Drinking on such occasions is not only accepted, it is expected.  And therein lies the problem.  If you choose not to drink, well then there must be something wrong with you.  You are marginalized and made to feel like an outsider.  In other words, drinking is exclusively normative.

In that moment I finally understood why I had so brashly asked my friend about tee-totaling.  It was a party but he wasn’t drinking.  And so, rather than just accepting his answer as totally valid, I made the operative assumption that there must be something wrong with him.

The problem is that I am hardly alone in my unconscious attitude.  If the Church is ever going to be the sanctuary it is supposed to be, we have to systematically become aware of, challenge, and dismantle the assumption that drinking is the only normal choice.  We have to get past the point where when we see someone who isn’t drinking we automatically wonder why they aren’t.

Recognizing and redressing this problem doesn’t mean we must therefore demonize booze.  But especially in the Church, we have to do better.  The Episcopal Church is founded on the principle of “Via Media.”  We must continue our commitment.  We must find a way to create some middle ground where everyone can feel comfortable and  regardless of whether you are imbibing or abstaining, no one stops to wonder what is wrong with you.

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3 thoughts on ““Exclusively Normative Activity”

  1. If I had to guess, I’d assume that your friend has gotten used to the question over the years. I can make this guess because like your friend I choose not to drink. I’m not an alcoholic, have never been to any meetings, or anything like that. But I find that I feel significantly more useless when I am under the influence than when I am not. So I generally don’t drink.

    The key is this though — you can assume that there’s something wrong with me all you want. I know that there isn’t. And you assuming that doesn’t bother or offend me. I completely get why you assume that. Which was awkward at first, but something I am used to now. Being a non-drinker in this society, the burden is on me to make it okay for you that I am not drinking. This involves me not judging you for your choice to do so. Which is weird, but not intolerably so.

  2. Great piece, great thinking. Just talking to a friend of mine, a recovering alcoholic, about this, and I’ve tried to have the conversation with people in the industry. More needs to be done. Well-done.

  3. Interesting. What are the drinking-and-driving laws in your state? Up here in BC, while there might be an “exclusive normativity” about drinking at parties, the laws are so strict that the first assumption at hearing someone doesn’t drink should be that they’re a designated driver; and soft drinks would be provided by the host for that eventuality. I think.

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