There is an amusing and potentially dangerous concept at American colleges: beer pressure. It is simply peer pressure to drink. The term can be used playfully as in the sentence: “I should study, but I’ll give in to beer pressure and join my friends at happy hour.” It can also be more serious: “I knew that I shouldn’t drink any more, but when they loaded the funnel and started cheering I caved to beer pressure. Now if you will excuse me, I have to spew.”
Everybody is aware, and is told more times than can be counted, that peer pressure can be bad. It can lead to hangovers or worse. It also, over time, can habituate people to behavior that they would otherwise eschew. In this way, it actually limits one’s own personal freedom. Not only does one now act against his own better judgement in the moment, through repeatedly engaging in actions and attitudes that are detrimental, those habits becomes part of him (cf. Nicomachean Ethics, Book II.)
This pressure also comes from people other than peers. Superiors, subordinates, even strangers on the street have expectations to which people respond. In Shooting an Elephant, George Orwell wrote about the societal pressure felt by every member of the occupying British forces in East Asia: “He becomes a sort of hollow, posing dummy [who]… shall spend his life in trying to impress the “natives,” and so in every crisis he has got to do what the “natives” expect of him. He wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it.”
What often gets overlooked, however, is the fact that societal pressures are not always detrimental. Awareness of the expectations of others force people to act certain ways that are good. Mature adults do not carry on and cause mischief in part because they are aware that they would be judged for it. People constantly modify their behavior to conform to the expectations of those around them and that helps keep a society civil. If the society is generally a virtuous one, there exists a certain self-generating effect. Societal pressures first constrain people to act in virtuous ways and over time the habit of virtue is established and the individuals actually become virtuous.
In short, do not pressure your friends to drink large quantities of cheap beer, but pressure your friends to drink good beer responsibly. Over time, the habit of being responsible will become true virtue.
Beer of the Week: Tiger Lager – The setting of Orwell’s Shooting an Elephant is the Malay Peninsula and this beer comes from the very tip of the peninsula, Singapore. Aside from the exotic origin, this beer does not have much going on. The head fades quickly, the aroma (such as it is) is dominated by grain. The flavor is not as watery as one might expect from this style, but the aftertaste is a bit sour with a hint of metal. It could certainly be good for washing down spicy food, but water is also good for that.
Reading of the week: Shooting an Elephant by George Orwell – Before he was a full-time writer, George Orwell was an officer in the Spanish Civil War and spent several years as an imperial policeman in Burma. Shooting an Elephant is written in the first person, although it is doubtful that the story is actually biographical, since there appears to be no record of Orwell shooting an elephant (which the narrator claims is “a serious matter… comparable to destroying a huge and costly piece of machinery.”) What is biographical, however, is the personal opinions expressed about the British Empire and the nature of tyranny.
Question of the week: What sort of balance must be struck between conforming to societal norms and pursuing one’s own desires and conscience? In the perfect society, would there be any conflict between the two?