I should start with an introduction. Hi, my name’s Noah. I’m the RC of the second floor in Stearns, which, by the way, is a substance-free community. I consume alcohol. My residents know this – I told them on the first day I met them – and they seem to be okay with it. I made them a promise that I would strive to create the community they wanted, and that I would never bring any sort of negative attitude back to their living space. Some of my residents drink, and I expect them to do the same. I still consider myself part of the Stearns community, part of the substance-free community. That means different things to different people.
Today I walked onto my floor and found a pamphlet posted on a bulletin board. It read, “think!” That gave me a bit of a sour feeling from the start, implying that I don’t already think about whatever was inside the pamphlet. It turns out the pamphlet was about drinking culture on campus, how campus life centered around drinking is seriously deficient and how we need to engage in a prolonged discussion about social stigma toward drinking and non-drinking. It turns out that I think about these things a lot. I thought about them last year, as a student who felt sequestered and judged for my drinking by sub-free friends. I think about it this year, as an RC who doesn’t want to see his resident having the same misconceptions.
Below “think!” the pamphlet reads: “The purpose of this pamphlet is not to patronize the beliefs of activities of our fellow students, but rather, to spark conversation and thought.” Fair enough. More conversation about this social divide is sorely needed, so long as the approach is thoughtful and respectful. But the tone of the first few pages of the pamphlet is certainly judgmental, if not offensive. I agree that the Socials are not an ideal party scene, but claiming, “… urine coats the basement floors” is taking it a bit too far. I personally don’t enjoy partying in the Socials, but others do, and a thoughtful conversation cannot begin with a clearly negative characterization of any one side (though there aren’t really sides — more on that later).
The pamphlet then continues to describe an ideal social interaction in the eyes of the writer: the first meeting of his/her parents. They met in the library, with a conversation about a math problem that culminated with dad asking mom out on a date. Full disclosure: I met my girlfriend on the first day of orientation, at Keefe Campus Center Night. Two weeks later, we got drunk and made out. I never asked her out on a date, but that’s not what I’ll be telling my children in 20 years. I'm not ashamed of my decisions — I'm quite happy with them — but parents will always try to idealize the stories they tell their kids.
The point is that these sorts of interactions do happen at Amherst College. Drunken interactions happen too, and they’re far more visible. A friend once told me to picture the Socials on a given Saturday night. How many kids could possibly be packed on those stairwells and in those suites, presumably slipping on urine-coated floors and “shattered handles of vodka?” Perhaps 400, at a liberal estimate? Our eyes are drawn there because the Socials are readily visible. But where are the other 1400+ Amherst students? They’re busy hanging out with friends in smaller gatherings, perhaps, playing card games or watching TV. Maybe they drink a beer or two while they do it: it makes no difference. The Socials are not ideal, we all know this. There are myriad problems with this particular social scene at Amherst, from drinking at a dangerous level to the presence of sexually predatory environments. We need to work on these problems. But while we do, we can take heart in knowing that the majority of Jeffs are elsewhere, perhaps having meaningful moments with others, perhaps enjoying a drink while they do.
The pamphlet frames the social problem at Amherst as one of sides, as one that pits quiet, reasonable and fun-loving sub-free students against loud and irrational boozers who party hard and drink to excess. And please, don’t tell me that isn’t what it implies. A passage in the pamphlet which tries to frame the social sigma says that “The people in the socials cannot understand why someone would much rather spend their night, say, playing board games with friends or running around with Nerf guns” – safe and universally appealing activities – while “the sub-free students [. . .] don’t understand how it could ever be fun to pack into the sweaty, over-crowded Socials and trip over each other only to end the night by throwing up in a stinky bathroom.” This is clear bias toward the former activities, and no attempt to bridge differences.
The truth is, there’s a middle ground, and I’d wager that’s where the majority of Amherst students fall. I like to drink, but I don’t like to party in the conventional sense. Many of my residents are the opposite: they like to party, but not to drink. A typical Saturday night sees them playing water pong or ginger ale slap cup in the common room. Neither of us has a problem with the other, so long as we don’t make one another uncomfortable. This discomfort could come in the form of my residents giving me a judgmental glare, or it could come in the form of me vomiting in the toilet and being too drunk to clean it up. So long as we respect one another and work to keep this communal space comfortable, there’s no reason for antagonism.
This brings me back to where I started: sub-free means different things to different people. I know this from first-hand experience and interaction. Some find alcohol consumption morally reprehensible; that’s fine, as long as you don’t judge others for their choices. Some drink themselves, but only to moderation, and find a sub-free lifestyle more of a fit for them. Some just want a quiet place to study (they choose based on an implicit assumption that “alcohol = noise,” which it doesn’t. I’d bet my floor on a given night is just as noisy as any other). To claim to represent all sub-free students – which the pamphlet’s author does to some extent – is to disrespect the students on my floor who found this pamphlet just as offensive as I did.
As I’ve said before, I consider myself a member of a sub-free community, even though I drink. Does that make me a sub-free student, or not? It’s never so simple. To be fair, the pamphlet’s author does bring up a good point: this discussion surely does need to happen. But not with the “think!” pamphlet as its starting point. We need to come at this with due patience and due reflection. I encourage any attempt to do so.
One more thing: unlike the author of the pamphlet, I’ve attached my name to this article. Please contact me with any questions, concerns, criticisms or anything that can help us both learn more about how to make the campus more awesome than it already is.