Since Silliman College Master Judith Krauss’ decision to cancel all future Safety Dances, student response has ranged from outrage at the decision — “Why is the whole college being punished because of eight kids?” and “What happened to treating alcohol as a health issue?” — to the sense that we got what we deserved. Eight kids in the hospital — and any associated liability for Silliman — was clearly the last straw.
But what unites both critics and supporters of Krauss’ decision is a belief that the decision to cancel Safety Dance — an effort to reduce binge drinking at Yale — will not in fact reduce binge drinking. Even Krauss agrees with her critics on this point, writing in an email to the News that, “Canceling the dance in and of itself is clearly not the solution to the problems with the alcohol culture at Yale.”
Terms like “alcohol culture” have been tossed around quite a lot lately to describe the broader context surrounding alcohol-related hospitalizations. We all received that email from Dean Marichal Gentry emphasizing the seriousness with which he views Yale’s alcohol problem. Though endearingly earnest, the email had a touch of tragedy to it — instead of advancing or justifying any policy, Gentry wrote as though desperately trying to persuade us oh-so-gifted, but oh-so-troubled, Yale students that it’s not too late to save ourselves from ourselves.
Students and administrators have earnestly implored, guilt-tripped, reproved and tried to shame the rest of us out of our insidious drinking culture. Despite their efforts, few seem to think any actual policy might help. I disagree; policies matter.
I haven’t been to Safety Dance since freshman year, and I don’t honestly care that much whether it stays or goes for my senior year. Krauss’ rationale for canceling the dance seems reasonable, but so do students’ complaints that they should not be punished for the actions of eight overly drunk kids. What I do reject, however, is the notion that the dance’s cancellation will have no measurable impact on alcohol consumption at Yale.
Imagine if Safety Dance hadn’t occurred. Two of those eight hospitalized kids might decide to stay home that night. Of the remaining six, two more might decide not to drink quite as much that weekend, simply because there would be less general excitement, fewer pre-games and not quite as many bottles of Dubra. That’s 50 percent fewer hospitalizations directly due to the cancellation of the dance. Meanwhile, the great debate of this election season amounts to a difference over whether federal spending should be 20, 22 or 24 percent of GDP.
Safety Dance is only on one weekend, but it is a weekend during which the negative effects of our “drinking culture” take a much higher toll than usual. While it’s true that limiting tailgates to before halftime in football games doesn’t eliminate drinking all together, it’s not unreasonable to imagine that the new restrictions also will have some impact on student drinking. And when I went to The Game at Harvard my freshman year, fewer parties meant that I consumed less alcohol. I could doubtlessly have been more resourceful and found plentiful quantities of cheap, hard alcohol even in the middle of the night in Cambridge, but I was far too lazy for that.
Rarely do policies fully solve a problem or eliminate an issue, but making something marginally easier or harder changes how much of it happens. When we talk about Yale’s drinking culture, what we really want to eliminate is not all excessive drinking, but rather a specific set of circumstances in which such drinking becomes truly unsafe or, in the worst cases, fatal. If more of those instances occur on certain specific occasions, a policy that restricts those occasions themselves might have some impact, not by ensuring that accidents won’t happen but by reducing their likelihood. If Yale wants to solve the problems with our so-called drinking culture, it shouldn’t preoccupy itself with the social norms or national laws that are beyond its control. It should instead focus on specific problems — like hospitalizations — and target its policies towards mitigating them.
Harry Larson is a junior in Jonathan Edwards College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.