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The Mixed Messages of Modernism: A problem in policy

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Imagine that a man drinks a few too many at a friend’s place, then goes to a bar around the corner. When he passes by the door, he’s fine so far as anyone who hasn’t been with him can tell. The alcohol has yet to make its mark. His BAC would probably be nothing too alarming. Imagine further that a bartender gives him a drink while he seems relatively sober. Then he returns a little later, still seeming within his bounds, and the bartender, who obviously has difficulty perceiving a total stranger’s mental state, a difficulty compounded by the blaring music, darkness of the room and sheer mass of people who need to be tended to, gives him another drink. Then, imagine that this man needs to go to the hospital for alcohol poisoning — is this the fault of the bartender, or of the bouncer? Could they really do more than they did?

Imagine someone comes to your house after “pre-gaming,” helps themselves to a drink from your refrigerator, and then after some time the alcohol catches up with her and she is sick. Are you responsible for having failed to monitor her intake, even though there is no way you could have known how much she had drank before she arrived? Imagine someone doesn’t pregame at all, but has her friends go and get drinks for him from the bar all night. A bartender only directly serves him one drink. If he were hospitalized, would we say the blame rests on the shoulders of the server, or of the guest who did not know her limits and the friends who did not care to impose them?

In every case it seems unfair to hold the hosts of parties culpable for the mistakes of their guests when it comes to alcohol. It is after all, a drug that takes time to have an effect, affects people in different and non-obvious ways, and often is consumed in a setting that makes it difficult to keep track of any given person’s intake. It seems harsh indeed, in light of these realities, that fraternities are generally held responsible for people who act irresponsibly with alcohol. Everyone knows that at an all-campus party, the sheer weight of the crowd makes alcohol a difficult commodity to come by. It is very hard to reach anything close to dangerous level of drunkenness by what is provided there alone. It is generally because of pre-gaming, something which hosts are hard-pressed to estimate, that unfortunate events occur. Pre-gaming is something fraternities can do little about and can know little about, yet it makes all the difference.

It is important to keep in mind that this is not written in an excusatory spirit. It is important for fraternities to make sure that alcohol, when consumed at their events, is consumed responsibly and safely. However, when we remember the above and add to that the difficulty of having nearly 2,000 new students who have had varying levels of exposure to alcohol, we must recognize the difficulty of doing so. Fraternities who take pride in themselves take great care to prevent accidents, protect their guests and foster a positive environment for everyone to enjoy themselves in. Negligence of this variety is fortunately rare, but confusion, chance and complex situations for laxness are unfortunately common.

The policies of the University discourage fraternities from providing a resource of broad and widely acknowledgeable value: they offer an open place for everyone to come and relax. While this may be lost on freshmen, surely sophomores and upperclassmen recognize that after freshman year, campus life becomes much more fractious. People socialize with the same groups and the mixing of circles, an integral part of what makes freshman year so exciting, slows to a grind. Dorm parties must control their attendance and are spread primarily through the same channels to the same people. As we move forward, we limit our social circles. We go deeper into our major, taking classes with smaller range of appeal. We spend less time with new dormmates and more time with old friends. We have fraternities to thank for providing what counterbalance they can to that circumscribing trend. Fraternity parties offer students the opportunity to gather en masse. They are the social equivalent of a football game — all are brought together in a loose environment and are given the freedom to make friends, explore and engage with others who they would otherwise not meet.

Fraternities are punished very harshly for mistakes, but the fact remains that punishing someone for something that is out of their control — and that they are direly trying to assess and correct — does not address, much less ameliorate, the problem at hand. Punishing fraternities like this only dissuades them from opening their doors to our campus. It sponsors an exclusion based not in a desire to be exclusive, but a desire to be safe and maintain their good standing. Stanford’s fraternities make a larger effort than any I know of to keep their parties open to the public, to provide as much as they can to the student body and to sponsor an environment that is both enjoyable and healthful. The fact remains, however, that our fraternities are held accountable for matters out of their hands with very high consequences.

Spencer reminds you to party hard, but party responsibly. Get some more party tips from him at [email protected]