Don’t be like them!

Peer pressure is an interesting and familiar phenomenon. It can also be very dangerous, particularly when alcohol is involved. The classic form of peer pressure is “to be one of us, you must do x“. If “x” is drinking, smoking, stealing, etc., this can be very problematic indeed. But peer pressure can also be used to encourage more positive behaviors or to enforce less dubious social mores. (“If you want to be one of us, you have to be respectful.”) So peer pressure is not bad per se.

One particular form of peer pressure that deserves a closer look is when there is a very specific non-peer group used as a counter example. In this sort of peer pressure, the form is “do NOT do x, lest you become one of them.” There remains the implicit pressure to conform to one’s own peer group, but the pressure is compounded by vilifying another group.

The Laws of the Old Testament are full of this sort of admonition. A several acts are proscribed specifically because they are perceived as gentile behaviors. And even when certain things are prohibited for reasons other than to keep the Jews separate from the rest of the world, there is still a hint that being different from the gentiles is the real goal. Moses Maimonides explained that the prohibition on eating pork was for sanitary reasons. Even so, he made a point of bad mouthing the (Christian) French while he was at it. “[W]ere it allowed to eat swine’s flesh, the streets and houses would be more dirty than any cesspool, as may be seen at present in the country of the Franks.” Don’t eat pork, or you will be like the French.

Likewise, in A Counterblaste to Tobacco, King James I of England railed against the use of tobacco, arguing in part that it is unbecoming of Englishmen to take on the habits of “beastly Indians.” For good measure, he even points out that the English disdain the habits of the French and Spanish. If they refuse to adopt the customs of their near neighbors, how much worse is it to imitate New World savages?

Of course, the French were not only on the receiving end of this type of negative peer pressure; they practiced it as well. After invading Egypt, the use of hashish among the French became popular. Napoleon supposedly banned the consumption of hashish, not because of it’s deleterious effects, but because he did not want to see Frenchmen adopting the habits of lower-class Egyptians.

On this side of the Atlantic, the same thing can be observed. In addition to banning tobacco and alcohol, the Mormon prophet Joseph Smith forbade his followers from drinking tea and coffee. One of his supposed revelations from God was that “hot drinks are not for the body or belly.” Frankly, I do not know if the prohibition on tea and coffee was specifically for the purpose of further separating Mormons from the rest of American society. But it is worth noting that something like 90 percent of American adults consume caffeine daily, making it the single most popular drug in the country. If the goal is to separate themselves from the rest of society, a rule against coffee seems like a good starting place.

About a century ago, the Department of Agriculture relied partly on the vilification of the others in advocating the prohibition of cannabis. In a report by R. F. Smith, the Department concluded that, “[t]he sale of the drug [marijuana] is not confined to Mexicans. American soldiers, negroes, prostitutes, pimps, and a criminal class of whites in general are numbered among the users of this weed.”

There you have it, don’t eat pork, lest your cities stink like France. Don’t smoke tobacco, lest you take on the habits of savages. Don’t take hashish, lest you be like lowly Egyptians. Don’t drink beer, wine, coffee, or tea, lest you fall in with non-Mormon Americans. And don’t smoke hemp, lest you be like Mexicans, negros, pimps, and the criminal class in general. You don’t want to be like any of them, do you?

Beer of the week: Dundee English-Style Ale – There may well be legitimate reasons to avoid pork, coffee, tobacco, alcohol, hashish, and cannabis. (Legality and health concerns spring to mind in particular cases.) But the fact that some group of “other” people consume them is not a legitimate reason. So I am going to smoke the occasional shisha (tobacco) and cigar. And drink this beer. Dundee English-Style Ale is a dark brass-colored ale has a foamy white head that leaves good lacing down the glass. The aroma is slightly sour and malty, like sourdough. The body is malty with hints of sour and spice. Overall, very nice beer. Dundee proves to be a good value yet again.

Reading of the week: A Counterblaste to Tobacco by King James I of England – Jeremy Bentham wrote of this pamphlet, “as the circumstances of the times did not afford the same facility of burning tobacco-smokers as for burning Anabaptists, [King James] was forced to content himself with writing a flaming book against it.”

Question of the week: Have you seen peer pressure used for good?

On Esoterism

Descartes chose Latin as the language for his Meditations on First Philosophy, in which he famously strips philosophy bare and restarts with the single principle “I think, therefore I am.” He made that decision because he “thought it would not be expedient to illustrate [his philosophy] at greater length in French, and in a discourse that might be read by all, lest even the more feeble minds should believe that this path might be entered upon by them.” His fear, apparently, was that he may lead weaker men into error by giving them access to ideas they could not quite grasp and methods that they could not follow.

This is somewhat reminiscent of Romans 14Paul makes it clear that there is no food that is “spiritually unclean”. But he also exhorts believers not to flaunt that knowledge in front of people who are weaker spiritually, lest they should misunderstand and stumble in their faith. Like Descartes, Paul seems to think that some people are more likely to be led into error than to a higher truth, so it is best to hide certain ideas from them. In a way, this seems terribly patronizing. If it is correct, however, it is extremely prescient and even charitable.

A more skeptical interpretation of Descartes’ decision not to make his work widely available might be to suggest that he was interested in protecting himself rather than protecting “feeble minds”. If his work were read in a certain way, he may have greatly offended the powers that be (either by upsetting individuals of status or by earning the disdain of the masses.) There are certainly times when it is dangerous to speak the truth, and the truth is often more dangerous to the speaker than to the people at large.

Luckily, I am not in the same position since I am sure that my readers are far from feeble-minded.

Beer of the Week: Staropramen – This Czech pilsner begins with spicy aromatic hops that are so typical of the style. There is a bit of bready malt in the flavor, but in general it is the hops that dominate. That is not to say that it is very bitter, it is actually very well rounded. Overall, this beer is very nice.

Reading of the week: Meditations on First Philosophy by René Descartes, Preface to the Reader – For as well known as the principle “I think, therefore I am” is, it is often forgotten that the next step of Descartes’ philosophy is to demonstrate that God also exists. Not, perhaps, the God that we are used to, but a “Deity… incomprehensible and infinite.”

Question of the week: Do you often refrain from saying what you really think? If so, do you do it for your own sake or for the sake of others?