Put substances on even ground
Published: Friday, October 5, 2012
Updated: Friday, October 5, 2012 05:10
“Civil disobedience is the true foundation of liberty. The obedient must be made slaves.” – Henry David Thoreau
It is wisdom students all share to some extent, many of them more than they think. It is unyielding defense of individual freedom against the unjust, spanning centuries of history plagued by struggles between the oppressor and the oppressed. And it is a belief that subconsciously drives our actions in everyday life.
Humans have an inherent drive to disobey rules or laws they do not agree with. Whether it is drinking, smoking or even jaywalking, people regularly act on personal beliefs in spite of what higher authorities tell us. It is why top-down law enforcement so often struggles to curtail any social problem, while grassroots movements are often quite successful in reform. Ultimately, legitimacy trumps legality in our daily life. Take for instance the disconnect between paper and practice regarding the Rice University Alcohol Policy.
Rice has a drinking culture conducive to underage drinking. Students do not think twice when underclassmen grab a beer. We all know it is illegal, but the majority culturally accept this behavior and quickly cease to distinguish between the arbitrary classification of over or under 21. Underage drinking becomes just drinking, more or less, in the eyes of the student body. Once society accepts a certain behavior, it becomes difficult to change. Imagine the struggle the administration would face if it aggresively attempted to end underage drinking after years of student noncompliance have made it the social norm.
Despite differing views, the principle remains true. Few struggle to identify at least one rule unworthy of compliance, and once one rule is broken, it becomes easier and easier to justify breaking another. One act becomes many, and the relative severity of one act of disobedience compared to another blurs. Acting on your personal beliefs of what the law ought to be becomes second nature. Therein lies the rub.
We each hold unique views of which laws are just and which are unjust, which results in a gap between community expectations and personal action. Our entire body of law originates from compromise between opposing factions in Congress representing competing views of which laws are just. Civil disobedience undermines this process and, if tolerated, erodes the credibility of institutions advocating or enforcing such laws. Enforcement appears arbitrary, and we question such inconsistency, motivating further disobedience on similar issues which might not be as universally accepted.
The new tobacco policy bans smoking near the colleges, but experience already shows not all smokers will comply. Should this be treated any differently? It is difficult to differentiate one student drinking underage from another smoking on a balcony. The fundamental motivation of each action is identical, but social responses may vary. The Rice community discourages smoking while creating traditions involving drinking, but it is illogical to use this difference to justify separate treatment of the two.
The same question applies to use of marijuana or hard drugs, as each represents a minority engaging in civil disobedience against what they view to be an unfair law. The Rice community is unlikely to tolerate, let alone encourage, drug use, but the libertarian rationale for the tolerance of underage drinking remains equally valid in principle for hard drugs (technical arguments aside). A group of participants in an illegal activity refuse to obey a law that appears to be unjust in their eyes.
Where shall we draw the line? Limiting disobedience to those activities supported by the majority of students implies that underage drinking must end once 51 percent of students oppose it, a fate few drinkers will accept. How can any line drawn be seen as legitimate? Non-enforcement of one law discredits enforcement of another. Should we tolerate any illegal consumption that does not harm others? The Rice community is hardly ready to welcome this reasoning. Yet, accepting underage drinking inevitably supports accepting all drug use.
The principle of this trend remains even with technical arguments included. Questionable distinctions between various substances relate only to whether a drug should or should not be legal in itself. But accepting these proposed distinctions, the principle remains that if we define acceptable behavior as what the Rice community believes what the law should be, underage drinking will not survive the day 51 percent of students support the current drinking age. Are you ready to accept that fate?
James Dargan is a Wiess College sophomore.