Abstinence is our default solution

Too fat? Stop eating.

Smoking cigarettes? Quit.

Hooked on drugs?

You see where I am going.

Abstinence, this idea that we can and should simply go without, is too often our default response to any problem — personal or otherwise. It is typically more difficult than that. More to the point, there is usually something else at play. Confusing the symptom as the problem only creates confusion or misdiagnosis, leading to a masking of the true issue at hand.

More recently, there has been conversations at both my collegiate fraternal organization and my alma mater, both centered around drugs and alcohol; but mainly alcohol. Seen as the root cause of many problems, the conversation is about eradicating alcohol. This does a disservice to the members of our communities, not because alcohol abuse should be tolerated, but instead because it assumes there is no responsible use. Having a beer, generally speaking, is not going to harm someone. It is when bad behavior is practiced when we see issues arise.

With regards to fraternity issues, there is a growing interest in an overall banning of alcohol use on-premises. If they can’t keep it under control, it is said, then take it away. Perhaps a logical conclusion, but what then happens? Does alcohol consumption go away? Yes, in a manner of speaking. It goes away from a liability perspective, but it does not cease to exist. It is swept under the rug. Our legal counsel may agree that the problem has been solved. This may be acceptable to some, but I find it disingenuous for the same individuals to espouse our values, those same individuals who state that we do so as leaders making the tough decisions — making good men better. Like a bouncer at a club letting an underage person into its establishment, we’ve only turned a blind eye to the reality.

Real leadership in this situation would take a broader look at how we can make cultural changes, to reward good behavior — not punish all behavior. Not to disavow our bad behavior, but to acknowledge it and stand up against it, at times requiring we make proper examples of those who refuse to live by our values, including expulsion. That is okay. It does not speak of failure within our organizations, but rather the success for having taken responsibility. Building culture — and for that matter changing it — is done by defining what success is for our groups and applauding it. Tolerating bad behavior is in essence allowing that behavior a seat at the table when it comes to what success should be. Equating good and bad behavior, through total elimination by abstinence, only makes matters worse.

Organizations, including those like my alma mater and my national collegiate fraternity, should reconsider their policy decisions by taking action in favor of fixing problems (e.g. improve cultural norms) over abstinence.

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