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The tippling point: Malcolm Gladwell wants to teach us how to booze it up

The tippling point: Malcolm Gladwell wants to teach us how to booze it up
Malcolm Gladwell knows his booze (Photo by Pop!Tech)

In 1956, Yale grad student Dwight Heath spent his weekends drinking 180 proof rum (think rubbing alcohol spiked with paint thinner). He was studying the Camba people of Bolivia, who threw ritual drinking parties all weekend every weekend. Despite the vast amounts of booze consumed, there were “no arguments, no disputes, no sexual aggression, no verbal aggression.  There was pleasant conversation or silence.” When someone got too drunk, they simply passed out until they were ready for another round. Compare this to a Friday night at the Madison or Brunswick House, where frat boys typically drink beer, but the obnoxious quotient soars.

Malcolm Gladwell, who writes about Heath’s study (among others) in the current issue of the New Yorker, notes that the difference is cultural, as culture is “a more powerful tool in dealing with drinking than medicine, economics or the law.” For the Camba, drinking played a vital role in bringing together an otherwise disparate community and was regulated by an elaborate ritual of consumption (you basically had to be invited to take a sip). For many North Americans, however, alcohol is seen as a moral vice that must be tightly controlled. We expect that alcohol turns us into idiotic, sex-crazed hooligans (see: beer ads), and that’s exactly what happens. Well, at least on Richmond Street on a Saturday.

Gladwell’s fix? Be like the Camba—or even Italians, who can seemingly drink with most meals and still gesticulate coherently—and develop a “drinking regimen that both encourages and constrains alcohol’s use…with a positive and constructive example of how to drink.” With ideas like that, Gladwell should be getting a lot of angry letters from Joe Pantalone.

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