Laughing about drinking and driving

By Mary Chan

Thank you, Gordon Campbell, for driving this country to drink.

Well, maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration. But ever since the British Columbian premier soundly failed a breathalyzer test after being pulled over in Hawaii almost two weeks ago, Canadians have had booze on the brain. Among other questions, they’ve pondered just how much alcohol could push a 200 pound man’s blood alcohol level to 0.149, almost twice the legal limit of 0.08. Campbell maintains that he had three martinis before eating, and then two to three glasses of wine during a steak dinner. Would that be enough, or did Campbell drink more than he claimed?

Various Canadian media outlets have taken it upon themselves to answer that question, bringing new meaning to the term investigative journalism. Television newscasts have poured martinis and wine down the hatchets of (I assume) willing volunteers and administered their own tests. The Globe and Mail ran a hilarious story on the front page of last Saturday’s issue, putting four men in the back room of a police station with wine, martinis, a steak dinner and a breathalyzer. Lucky guys, I suppose, except that their drunken comments and behaviour were reported in a national newspaper for the edification of an entire nation.

Does it matter that Campbell might have underplayed how much he drank that night in Hawaii? For Campbell, absolutely. He never contested the charges, opting to confess all, apologize and try to move on. If it turns out that he lied, his credibility would plummet.

And yet, behind the claims of testing Campbell’s assertions lies the suspicion that getting drunk people to touch their fingers to their noses also makes great television and newspaper copy. Drunk people, it seems, are funny. Even Shakespeare knew it, and used it for comic relief. After Macbeth dramatically murders Duncan, for example, the next scene opens with a drunken porter discoursing about the effects of alcohol (in case you were wondering: a red nose, sleepiness, increased sex drive ironically coupled with impotence, and really needing to pee).

Why do we find inebriated people funny? Alcohol is often equated with fun (ask my editor-in-chief), and even this terror-driven twenty-first century society needs its clowns. Drunks make attractive buffoons because the drunken state is a temporary, self-induced one. The alcohol will eventually wear off, and anyone who drinks too much expects at least a little ridicule. Laughing at drunks is also socially acceptable, unlike mocking the disabled, the aged or visible minorities. Mocking drunk, middle-aged white men (see: Homer Simpson) even more so.

However, laughing at something also diminishes its power and importance, an unwanted effect in this case. Drunk people are not always harmless and funny. Sometimes they’re alcoholic. Sometimes they get physically or emotionally abusive. Sometimes they even stumble to their cars, put the key in the ignition, and run over a pedestrian on the way home.

So while it’s fun to watch other people get sloshed in the national media, it’s also a little disconcerting. Campbell made a monumental error in judgment when he insisted on driving that night, and it feels strange to be laughing at anything connected to the story. What if he had killed someone? Would we be laughing then?

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