Designated Drinkers: Power, Privilege, and the Word of Wisdom

I recently had my first experience with designated drinkers–the opposite of designated drivers–who are assigned to drink heavily on behalf of someone who cannot or will not use alcohol. 

This happened to me on a recent trip to China. I was leading a delegation from my university to meet and negotiate partnerships with several Chinese universities. The Chinese firm that we were working with warned us that one of the university presidents–who insisted on taking us to dinner–was a notorious drinker and expected his guests to drink heavily as a sign of respect. I told them that I don’t drink, and this became a huge issue.

The other delegates agreed to be my designated drinkers–they were told that they would be expected to drink twice as much to make up for my inability to drink. The young Chinese women accompanying us also felt increased pressure to drink more, even though they preferred not to. I later discovered that they did not want to drink at all, but felt that, as employees of a recruiting firm, they had no choice.

The evening unfolded as we expected. The host brought a large amount of liquor, filled everybody’s glass and urged us to drink. I told him that I didn’t drink, and he could not understand why (religiously based behavior codes are just not a thing in China). But he looked at my colleagues and said (through an interpreter), “you will have to do all his drinking.” And they did.

I held to my “values” and did not give into the standards of “the world.” I did what every lesson manual, Youth Conference role playing scenario, and New Era short story suggested I should do. And I felt like an awful, horrible, no good scumbag. I knew that it was only possible because I was the boss, because I was the consumer, and people had to defer to my requests. When one of the young Chinese translators told me that she wished she could just say “no” and not drink, my head almost exploded. What had my vaunted moral purity cost others? How complicit had I been in depriving other people of their right to determine what goes into their bodies?

I don’t have a good answer to these questions, nor do I have any idea how I would handle the same situation if it occurred again. But it has made me seriously reconsider my understanding of the Word of Wisdom and of the way that we often use it as a proxy for moral character. In my reptile brain, I cannot think of a worse thing I could do than take a drink of alcohol. In my actual moral imagination, I realize that there are many, many things worse than having a glass of wine–and that one of them may well be sitting by passively while other people are compelled to drink so that I don’t have to. 

Why the difference? Why does my rational mind understand that lying and gossiping and misusing power are greater sins than drinking wine or coffee, but my visceral reaction tells me that I can get away with those other things with a little light repentance, but drinking alcohol would make me an irredeemably bad person and would condemn me to Outer Darkness for all of eternity.

The gap, I suspect, lies in the fact that the Word of Wisdom has become, with the law of chastity, one of the two primary determiners of “worthiness” in our culture. These are the two things that can prevent someone from being baptized, that can prevent a person from going on a mission or going to the temple. They are virtually the only examples of “sin” contained in our talks and lessons. For a great part of my life, I was virtually incapable of thinking of a serious moral failing that did not involve sex, alcohol, tobacco, coffee, or tea. 

Organizationally, I understand why this happens. I spend a lot of time with student assessment, and I know that you can only assess things that can be measured. “How many times have you mourned with those who mourn?” is a bad interview question, as it involves a lot of definitional messiness.  “Have you ever had alcohol?” (or “tobacco” or “sex”) is a great question. It can be clearly defined, precisely measured, and turned into a bar graph. This makes assessing worthiness fairly easy. In any enterprise that requires objective measures, those things that can be qualified will always become more important than those things that cannot. If it can’t be counted, it doesn’t count.

This logic leads to very good Latter-day Saints who may also be very bad Christians, since almost everything that Christ actually cared about falls into that “can’t really be counted” category. Loving one’s neighbor as oneself is definitionally messy. Doing unto others as you would have them do unto you doesn’t graph very well.

The idea that a handful of easily trackable behavioral choices constitutes “worthiness” is institutionally satisfying but morally absurd. Morality is a lot messier than that. The fact that I have never had a drink of alcohol, or even coffee, cannot, by any stretch of the imagination, measure my moral character. It can, though, measure my loyalty to an institution. Unlike morality, loyalty can (and must) be clearly delineated and easily measured. You are either loyal to an institution or you are not, and if you are not, the institution must expel you or force you to the margins. This is how institutions work. I get that. There always have to be ways to tell who is in and who is out.

But what I learned in China was that there are some hills that I am willing to die on (or, at least, willing to make other people drink on), and these may not be the right hills. I was able to avoid drinking and maintain my purity because I had enormous privilege. Would I have exercised that privilege to show charity when it was unpopular to do so? Or to take food from the restaurant and give it to a hungry person? Probably not. When it comes right down to it, the moral decisions I feel the most strongly about making are the ones that show loyalty to a culture. And I am not convinced that this is a good thing.

Perhaps the most important thing that we have been assigned to do in this life is to learn how to make moral choices–in all of their messiness and unmeasurable glory. This is hard. It is supposed to be hard. And we do a disservice to our moral development when we imagine them to be easy–or when we mistake what is essentially a marker of cultural distinctiveness and display of loyalty for the far more important status of being a good person.

Comments

  1. Why does someone have such strong motivation that others get drunk?

  2. Jader3rd, if you spend time in Asia one learns that bucking team and group behavior comes with a heavy price, Unfortunately, drinking is part of the cost.

  3. Group and team cohesiveness are prized social virtues in Asian. Alcohol is part of the fuel that makes it in that part of the world. I’ve known members who caved got different degrees because it would cost them contracts or even their job if they didn’t comply.

  4. I’m not quite sure how the question of the word of wisdom and loyalty relates to the story. Isn’t the pressure to drink in that story in order to measure loyalty? Doesn’t the decision to abstain from drinking demonstrate how you value the various commitments and loyalties you have to various ideals, people and institutions? It’s worth considering how your actions affect others, but you can’t take responsibility for others’ dictatorial conduct.

  5. it's a series of tubes says:

    How complicit had I been in depriving other people of their right to determine what goes into their bodies?

    Not complicit at all. No one was forced to partake or not partake. Having a job, or attending an event, or closing a deal, or being liked by someone important, or whatever it may be, is not a “right”.

    That being said, why did you make such a stink of it ahead of time? There’s no need to advertise the fact that you’ll personally elect to pass on the alcohol. A polite and demure deferral at the time of actual offering might have been a better choice.

  6. patriciakaramesines says:

    Thank you for this post, Michael. Very well done.

    “It can be clearly defined, precisely measured, and turned into a bar graph. This makes assessing worthiness fairly easy. In any enterprise that requires objective measures, those things that can be qualified will always become more important than those things that cannot. If it can’t be counted, it doesn’t count.”

    This is likely one of many places where instrumenalism and instrumentalist language–dependent on measurable particulars and categorical binaries–did/didn’t, have/haven’t, in this case–has been overlaid onto a realm of human life where it misleads more than points the way, enables compliance (sometimes enabling those reliant on appearances) rather that triggers those changes of heart that give rise to true good acts. Oh, and it also provides us with a superficial means for judging others and reaffirming those lines we draw between Us and all those Thous out there, making sure they stay Its.

    Oddly, your situation in China reminds me of that old conundrum called the “Trolley Problem.”

  7. Michael, you know I’m generally not averse to calling out LDS cultural silliness. But in this case, I think the moral opprobrium ought to rest entirely on the host who insisted people should drink when they didn’t want to. Jesus may not have had a lot of use for religious people preening about their worthiness and purity, but he wasn’t big on the Gentiles forcing Jewish converts to eat unclean meat, either.

  8. Sorry Michael, it’s almost like the comments want to focus on something other than the main thrust of the OP, which is something worth pondering over. Both the main thrust and the fact that the comments do this.

    The “checklist” items are nice at times.

    Do I have charity? It’s a scary thought. But at least I pay my tithing! At least I abstain from certain things!

    I tend to think (as evident by these comments, my own judgemental one included) that members aren’t particularly ready to live those higher laws (or at least examine themselves much on them) and that the lesser ones (like they did for the Pharases) at least give some sense of “rightness.”

    Well done raising this specter.

  9. Dane Laverty says:

    Brian, I really appreciate your phrasing of, “Do I have charity? It’s a scary thought. But at least I pay my tithing! At least I abstain from certain things!” I think it brilliantly presents the human tendency to say, “I’m supposed to do A but A is hard so I’ll do B & C instead. B & C are completely unrelated to A, but I’ll tell myself that somehow B & C make up for not doing A.”

  10. Michael Austin says:

    Kristine, I agree that the host’s behavior was deeply wrong. But it was deeply wrong in a way that is very consistent in that culture. I did not realize the extent of it, but, as I learned from our translators, it is absolutely normal behavior, and it falls down hard on young women who are trying to build careers and cannot afford to contradict very powerful men. My point is not so much that I was at fault, really, but that I was able to stick to my values only because I had tons and tons of privilege. And I know that I would not have exercised that privilege to avoid, say, being unkind or dishonest.

    Basically, I am using this incident as a way to query which hills I, as a Latter-day Saint have been conditioned to die on, and why.

  11. On the one hand, yeah, ok. But on the other, I actually think that we are way less complicated and sophisticated than we think we are, and that taboos about food and minimal baseline behaviors are significant markers of loyalty to moral convictions. I disagree that one can be a good Latter-day Saint and a very bad Christian. I mean, maybe you can be a Latter-day Saint with a temple recommend, because you keep the rules for the weakest of those that may be called Saints, but the question is never “have you ever had alcohol?” or “have you had sex?” It’s “do you keep the Word of Wisdom” and “do you obey the law of chastity,” which most adult Latter-day Saints see as significantly more complex than binary measures of purity.

    Which is to say, I guess, that I don’t think relatively simple religious codes of behavior are necessarily simplistic, and I’m not sure they deserve the kind of dismissal you’re performing here. I get that kindness and honesty are harder, but I’m not sure they’re different in kind from certain kinds of abstinence. All require the same willingness to suffer (to varying degrees) for moral conviction, to regard oneself as a creature with commitments to God, and thus necessarily to other people. And practicing the simple things is a good way to develop the moral muscle required for the hard things.

  12. I’ve known so many people who seem to make drinking (or any other vice) their religion, and they become a zealous missionary to spread their beliefs. It’s like they can’t be happy unless they can get other people to drink along with them. Keep on sticking to your values! And thanks for sharing your wisdom.

  13. Michael Austin says:

    “I get that kindness and honesty are harder, but I’m not sure they’re different in kind from certain kinds of abstinence. All require the same willingness to suffer (to varying degrees) for moral conviction, to regard oneself as a creature with commitments to God, and thus necessarily to other people.”

    I think that this is where we disagree the most. I simply don’t see the prohibition against drinking coffee or wine, or things of that nature, as being on a spectrum with the other-directed moral system that we can, very roughly, call the essence of New Testament Christianity. I see them as fairly arbitrary markers of cultural identity that have been turned into morally significant behaviors (that they were not originally intended to be) because of a great need to measure something called “worthiness.” In my own experience, this is far more of a deterrent to genuine moral reasoning than an encouragement (though, I acknowledge, it can be either one).

    And I am using my own thoughts and experiences as evidence, as they are the only thoughts and experiences that I have access to. I know that, for much of my life, not drinking stuff has been, at a visceral level, far more important than all that hippy, love people stuff. My System Two thinking knows that this is poppycock, but my System One mind still feels exactly that way. I suppose I could be an outlier here, and that most Latter-day Saints are as viscerally afraid of lacking charity as they would be of smoking a cigar. But I am willing to bet that my experiences are not entirely unrepresentative.

  14. How was your (successful) reluctance to drink any different from the young women’s (unsuccessful) reluctance to drink? Was it “wrong” only because it was an item on a Mormon checklist? Would it have been “right” if your reluctance had been based on health, or a promise to your grandmother, or a perceived need to remain clearheaded to better conduct the business you were there to do?

    If the ability to stick to your values came solely from a fear of condemnation of “unworthiness,” then it probably isn’t worth all that much. But I fail to see how the motive behind your restraint can make that restraint something to be ashamed of or embarrassed by, or be made an excuse not to refrain next time.

    If you’ve been conditioned to die on that hill without any deeply felt and reasoned acceptance of that hill, then that is probably the real problem needing attention, not the mere existence of a Mormon checklist.

    And I wish I could say that in a general way without appearing to fault any specific person, but the way the post is framed makes that impossible. It’s far from a singular difficulty, of course.

  15. Yeah, Mike, we just fundamentally disagree about what the Word of Wisdom is about. That’s ok–I still love you even though you’re wrong :)

  16. Michael Austin says:

    Loving people even though they are wrong is the only way we can have religion at all. Or democracy for that matter.

  17. I’m sure in years to come some of those at the dinner will tell stories of the bold American visitor who wouldn’t drink. If you’re not careful, this could end up as a Conference vignette. Let’s hope the speaker quotes this line from your post: “This logic leads to very good Latter-day Saints who may also be very bad Christians ….”

  18. Dane Laverty says:

    Ardis, here’s my thoughts in response to your question, “How was your (successful) reluctance to drink any different from the young women’s (unsuccessful) reluctance to drink?” I think that privilege and social support networks come into play here. Michael was able to abstain because there was no negative consequence to him for doing so. His livelihood was not threatened. However, his choice to abstain resulted in increased pressure on people whose privilege was less than his own. If they had chosen not to drink, their livelihoods would have been threatened. Similarly, their social support networks were less robust than his — they didn’t have any sort of religious prohibition they could lean on in order to justify not drinking. Arbitrarily exercising will contrary to social expectations without any sort of justifying narrative results in negative social consequences. So Michael was able to maintain his ritual purity at no cost to himself while adding burden to the people in his retinue who were dependent on him. I agree with Michael, that his course of action was clearly Mormon (i.e. upheld Mormon purity standards) but not clearly Christian (i.e. it added burden those who were the least among his group). Michael, please call me out if I’m way off base here.

  19. A less introspective soul would’ve congratulated himself for maintaining his standards, labeled the host’s behavior terrible, pitied the others who had to drink but didn’t want to, and given himself a gold star.

    I find myself with increasingly less patience for that reaction.

    Everyone in this story was following a cultural script, behaving in the “right” way, including the host.

    So many of the problems we have with each other have to do with the scripts we follow. Inevitably, following our script will cause collateral damage to somebody else. That doesn’t mean the scripts don’t have value.

    It does mean that I’m very grateful I’ll never have to judge anybody.

  20. Heptaparaparshinokh says:

    I want to throw something out there: the moral reasoning you’ve developed in a Western context may not be all that applicable in the context of China after 40 years of socially destabilizing growth and 30 years of severe political repression. I learned this much last decade when a Chinese fellow student in my public policy PhD program, one who’d read and loved Habermas and Foucault and was thoroughly conversant in poststructuralism (which was largely off-limits in the PRC), suddenly turned into a red-blooded, slogan-shouting nationalist when some minor Tibet issue came up. (Oddly enough, he’s on the faculty of a British university now.)

    Which is to say, I’m not sure just how deeply this woman felt the loss of her agency in this circumstance. One often hears about the paramount importance of group cohesion in East Asian cultures, but there’s a big difference between the way that operationalizes in a democratic market economy like Taiwan or South Korea (as oligarchic as the latter’s economy is), and in a regime like the PRC where economic growth hasn’t necessarily meant economic liberalization and where governmental repression has become noticeably heavier over the past 30 years.

  21. Michael Austin says:

    Dane, I couldn’t have explained it better myself.

  22. Stephen Hardy says:

    I had an experience once that helped me understand how others might feel when I choose not to drink. We were on a trip in France. My daughter had a good friend with her who was something of a curmudgeon. We stopped for lunch at a fun looking cafe. We all ordered. To our surprise he refused to order anything. We later learned that he thinks restaurants are a rip off and he won’t abet them. I wasn’t sure then why he refused. Was the food not good? Did he not want to feel indebted to us? He sat at the end of the table never eating a thing. Let me tell you: I hated that meal. I couldn’t enjoy myself if my guest isn’t enjoying himself. I felt rejected. It took a few weeks for me to connect that with the many many times I have refused drinks st parties or at friend’s homes

  23. Brian Fabbi says:

    This is all a very confusing discussion, especially the parts about privilege. I don’t understand it. I have Aspergers Syndrome, and even though I am high functioning, and lead a relatively normal life with social experiences and relationships, it’s exhausting to me. I have spent decades working on my social skills, and I can present a simulacra of a proper socially adjusted 35 year old white guy.
    I don’t know if I can add that layer of trying to understand the interplay of all the various privileges, and not take advantage of my own privilege.
    I believe we need to be as charitable and loving as we can be, and try to limit the amount of collateral damage our actions cause. I also know that the Brian of 20 or 30 years ago would have flipped out and made a scene over a question of following the commandments, or going along with the crowd. Heck, I almost had a meltdown because I was asked to teach Sunday School in a different room for one Sunday, but I digress.
    Some of this discussion seems to be straining at gnats and swallowing camels, but I probably can’t see past my own handicap.
    This probably seems trite, but I try to follow the guidance of the Spirit, according to my own understanding, make the best choices I can in a situation, and cling to the grace and mercy of Christ.

  24. Brian Fabbi says:

    This is all a very confusing discussion, especially the parts about privilege. I don’t understand it. I have Aspergers Syndrome, and even though I am high functioning, and lead a relatively normal life with social experiences and relationships, it’s exhausting to me. I have spent decades working on my social skills, and I can present a simulacra of a proper socially adjusted 35 year old white guy.
    I don’t know if I can add that layer of trying to understand the interplay of all the various privileges, and not take advantage of my own privilege.
    I believe we need to be as charitable and loving as we can be, and try to limit the amount of collateral damage our actions cause. I also know that the Brian of 20 or 30 years ago would have flipped out and made a scene over a question of following the commandments, or going along with the crowd. Heck, I almost had a meltdown because I was asked to teach Sunday School in a different room for one Sunday, but I digress.
    Some of this discussion seems to be straining at gnats and swallowing camels, but I probably can’t see past my own handicap.
    This probably seems trite, but I try to follow the guidance of the Spirit, according to my own understanding, make the best choices I can in a situation, and cling to the grace and mercy of Christ.

  25. Some of stated the issue well. Cost to the member refusing to drink is low. Cost to the women very high, including being fired and/or blackballed from working elsewhere.

  26. What if Michael needed to abstain from alcohol because he was an alcoholic? Is it still a mark of privilege?

  27. A Chinese professor at Utah Valley University tells his Chinese colleagues that some Utahns are “allergic” to alcohol. I think it tends to help save face.

  28. Michael Austin says:

    Kristine, I don’t think that wanting, or needing, to abstain from drinking is a mark of privilege. Having four people immediately step in to drink more to shield one from the possible social or business consequences–two of whom are one’s own employees and two of whom are employees of a firm with which one is contracting–is a mark of privilege, whatever the reason for not drinking.

  29. So, do you think that drinking would have been the Christian thing to do in this case?

  30. Michael Austin says:

    No. That would be too easy. I don’t have an easy answer to the “what should I have done?” question, and I suspect that there isn’t one. This is one of those exploratory posts where I am writing to try to clarify my own thoughts, which are anything but clear right now.

  31. Well, that’s the best kind of question and post.

  32. Ardis E. Parshall says:

    Dane, thanks for engaging, but that wasn’t particularly helpful. My question, along with all my following comment, had to do with *motive* for abstaining. Michael’s post appears to be (to me, at least) centered on his motive for abstaining: to maintain, as you put it, “ritual purity.” He has control only over his motive, not the practical outcome of acting in accordance with that motive.

    If he had diabetes and his primary motive for abstaining was that alcohol in the quantities his host evidently expected of him threatened to kill him, his abstaining would have resulted in the same practical outcome: an offended host, and an additional burden on the young women. I don’t think we would be having this conversation, though, if that had been his motive — I don’t think anyone here would recommend that he throw away his life because of cultural concerns in a momentary social contact. Why would one private motive be acceptable, and another private motive not be acceptable?

    If abstaining is only a matter of “ritual purity,” and not from an examined consideration of commitment or obedience or sacrifice or personal revelation or something more than “checklist worthiness,” then perhaps the problem isn’t that it’s a “checklist” item, but rather is an as-yet-insufficiently-examined commitment? (an examination that is apparently happening now).

    Again, I’m uncomfortable having this discussion with a specific individual at its heart. It’s a conversation worth having, but I wish it could be had without holding one man up to scrutiny. I’m sorry for that, Michael.

  33. Michael Austin says:

    Ardis, no worries. I put myself on a microscope slide. I can hardly complain if people look.

  34. Dane Laverty says:

    Hi Ardis, thanks for clarifying. My apologies for missing the intent of your question. I want to make sure I’m understanding your position.

    In your first comment you’d said, “If you’ve been conditioned to die on that hill without any deeply felt and reasoned acceptance of that hill, then that is probably the real problem needing attention, not the mere existence of a Mormon checklist.”

    Together with your statement that, “He has control only over his motive, not the practical outcome of acting in accordance with that motive,” am I correct to interpret that as you saying that “checklist items” are themselves morally neutral, and that it’s the intent behind following (or not following) those checklist items that ends up mattering? In other words, are you saying that both drinking and not drinking could have been morally defensible in this situation, and that the relevant factor would be Michael’s intent behind that decision?

    (That’s close to my position on this, but I’m not sure if I’m correct in understanding that as your position.)

  35. Ardis E. Parshall says:

    That’s not really what I’m thinking, Dane — I included some of those phrases trying to make my comment relate more closely to the post.

    My position, as briefly as I can: I agree that “checklist” items don’t have much value beyond, as Michael said, being markers of loyalty, if that’s as deep as they go. But I think that “checklist” items can go much deeper than that: The reasons I don’t drink go far beyond the simplistic “Mormons don’t drink” mantra. I think each of us *should* go beyond blind following of “checklist morality.” So many earlier comments seemed to take as a given that Michael could or should have done his share of the drinking, because the Word of Wisdom is only “checklist morality,” and therefore disposable. But I don’t think that’s justified: Michael’s reason(s) for not drinking — whatever they might have been — should be enough for everybody; his motives were as valid as those of the young women, whatever those motives might have been. If the Word of Wisdom is viewed as not enough while other things — e.g. health — are enough, then I suggest that the problem isn’t with the Word of Wisdom, but with an individual’s reasons for following the Word of Wisdom.

    TL;DR: No, I don’t find drinking to be morally defensible in this situation, because I think a Mormon’s commitment to the Word of Wisdom can and should be far deeper than “checklist morality.”

  36. I am lost in the tangle of comments, so first impressions on the OP and not in response to any comments . . .

    I don’t get very exercised about the experience itself. I make mistakes all the time, I do things and say things I regret, I have second thoughts about almost everything. So even if I were to conclude that it was wrong to avoid drinking in the circumstance, I have disciplined myself to give it a limited amount of attention and regret and give my energies to what about next time? Which I would like to think is the primary function of the OP.

    With respect to what about next time, it seems to me that the question posed is not as simple as Word of Wisdom vs imposing on others or exercising privilege to the detriment of others, but more like posting a particular not-one-drop teetotaler version of the Word of Wisdom against imposing on others or exercising privilege to the detriment of others. The not-one-drop version of the WoW is the eight-year-old version. That doesn’t mean it’s wrong, but it does mean it deserves serious adult contemplation and analysis. If one thinks of not-one-drop as the culturally accepted meaning, maybe that defines the Word of Wisdom for this purpose. (I think it is the cultural meaning, fwiw.) If one thinks of not-one-drop as the doctrinally scripturally based meaning, maybe that defines the Word of Wisdom for this purpose. (I think that proposition deserves serious questioning.) If one thinks of not-one-drop as the personal commitment or covenant, that DOES define WoW for you, but personally, I reserve room to think and rethink this one.

    If you are completely sold on not-one-drop, it may appear the question is over. But I would suggest the OP is framing a reason to reopen the question, to retest, to think about it. For me, I am not sold on not-one-drop as an absolute position, and the situation framed is a hard question. Is this the kind of situation, the kind of exception, the kind of competing values, that warrants the occasional or once-in-a-blue-moon drink WITHIN my version of the Word of Wisdom? How much do other people’s expectations and perceptions of the situation matter? What if the companions who are compelled to drink more or less were to know that I am making an extraordinary exception for their benefit? What if they would be appalled at the perceived sacrifice I am making?

    All to say it’s not simple. At the same time, when I am tempted to retreat into “commitment made, no moral calculus called for” I feel guilty.

  37. There are many “commandments” that can be conditional depending on the circumstances. The obvious one, “thou shalt not kill.” Also, Adam and Eve were given competing commandments in the Garden of Eden–keeping one meant breaking the other. On the other hand, in church we hear stories about how people refused to break a commandment under extreme circumstances–such as the child Joseph Smith refusing alcohol (pre WoW) when he underwent a crude surgery for an infection in his leg. (What about the Abraham and Isaac story in the bible?)

    And so. I don’t know what I would’ve done either, having never faced nor imagined I would be in such a situation. But, I see nothing wrong (and probably more gracious) with having a drink under those circumstances.

    Interesting.

  38. These are wonderful reflections, Michael. Thank you.

    Kristine and Ardis are right about taking the Word of Wisdom very seriously, and what they are articulating here is what makes Michael’s story so provocative. This is an actual situation in which genuine devotion to Christ might make it the right course of action to violate a solemn, deeply held religious commitment. It’s the sort of thing we read about in the story of Nephi and Laban, or, better yet, in Endo’s great, sacred novel Silence. I’ve never heard an experience from a living person that so nearly approaches the dilemma that these stories explore.

    Of course, I don’t know whether it would have been right for Michael to get falling-down drunk at that event. But he has given the reasonable outline of an argument that it could have been the right thing, even in spite of a deep spiritual commitment to keeping the Word of Wisdom. I suspect that all we would need are a few more highly plausible facts about the consequences for his designated drinkers.

  39. Loursat, that is really well put! I thought of Endo too as I read the OP.

    And I think Michael’s 5:24 comment was so, so good and as close to a truly Christian response to these kinds of situations as any of us will ever get.

  40. Understanding the culture, you could say that you had promised your parents that you would never drink. Therefore to drink would be filial impiety. This is frowned upon by most Asian cultures.

  41. Time to ban some @Mike Hunt IP addresses?

  42. Brian Fabbi “This probably seems trite, but I try to follow the guidance of the Spirit, according to my own understanding, make the best choices I can in a situation, and cling to the grace and mercy of Christ.”

    What you said is all we can do, it doesn’t seem trite, I think you win.

  43. I am cautious about “follow the guidance of the Spirit” because sometimes–too often in my opinion–that excellent sounding advice devolves into simply following system one thinking (fast, intuitive, emotional). I believe that actually doing the right thing, or properly or truly following the guidance of the Spirit, requires thoughtful analysis and contemplation in advance (for next time). That’s what Michael is doing with this post, as it reads to me. I applaud.

  44. Brian Fabbi:

    “This is all a very confusing discussion, especially the parts about privilege. I don’t understand it. I have Aspergers Syndrome, and even though I am high functioning, and lead a relatively normal life with social experiences and relationships, it’s exhausting to me. I have spent decades working on my social skills, and I can present a simulacra of a proper socially adjusted 35 year old white guy.
    I don’t know if I can add that layer of trying to understand the interplay of all the various privileges, and not take advantage of my own privilege.”

    Brian, if it makes you feel any better, I don’t understand all of the angst about privilege either, and I don’t have Aspergers Syndrome. To me, it all seems part and parcel of identity politics, intersectionality, and perpetual grievances—some of the most divisive elements of our modern society.

    Twenty years ago a person in Michael’s situation would not have used the word “privilege” in these circumstances. They would have opted for a more accurate descriptor, such as “leverage,” which can be a powerful tool to have at one’s disposal. But leverage attaches to the circumstances surrounding a particular situation and does not connote a permanent status the way “privilege” does. Leverage is transaction specific; privilege, in our modern parlance, is something you carry with you at all times.

    By way of example, in another setting Michael could find himself, on behalf of his employer, seeking to persuade a third party to purchase something from or do something for his employer. Wouldn’t it be more accurate to say that, in this situation, he lacks leverage rather than his privilege has suddenly disappeared?

    Apart from this element of the OP, I really enjoyed Michael’s analysis of institutional loyalty vs. genuine Christian morality. Quite insightful.

  45. The great advantage of the word “privilege” rather than “leverage” in this situation is that “leverage” emphasizes the instrumentality of power, while “privilege” emphasizes the responsibility of power. In speaking of privilege, we choose to acknowledge and accept moral responsibility.

  46. Michael, I’m curious if you would have had the same need to interrogate your discomfort if your host had brought call girls instead of alcohol. How would that situation change the way you look at what was expected of you and the others? What if he had wanted you to meet in a hookah bar or cannabis dispensary or strip club? For what it’s worth, I think the host was entirely in the wrong in expecting or demanding that you drink alcohol and that others “make up for” your lack of drinking. Cultural expectations or no, it seems to me that using one’s leverage to force others to do something they don’t want to do is always unrighteous dominion and should be pushed back on whenever privilege makes it possible.

  47. A Fellow Traveler Along the Path says:

    It seems there might be a “third way” through this situation. Let his companions know he doesn’t drink for whatever reason (religion, health, promise to his father, etc.) prior to the meeting. Once there, he accepts a nominal drink from his host, which he raises to his lips occasionally and for toasts, without tasting, while subtly spilling some of the contents on the floor, table, into his napkin, etc. His companions could also help cover for him by switching their mostly empty glasses for his fuller ones, so his host would see that he was having to get new drinks or refills periodically. He would still be able to refrain from drinking while his companions wouldn’t feel compelled to drink any more than would otherwise.

    I realize this skirts many of the moral issues the OP raises, all of which deserve a great deal of thought. It seems like it could be a practical solution to balancing his need to abstain with his desire to not cause the rest of his party drink more than they would otherwise.

  48. I think you might be missing the point. You chose not to drink, good for you. I would have done the same. But I like to think that I would not have required others to drink on my behalf. You think drinking is bad, right? Then you shouldn’t be making other people do it, either (nor should you compromise your values so your friends can drink less). Instead, you should have tried to negotiate. Use your “privilege” for something good. Explain to the recruiting firm that, while that particular university president thinks that drinking is a sign of respect, in your culture it is not. And so you would like an alternate activity that doesn’t require anyone to drink alcohol (unless on their own time). Lessons for the future would be that you could stand up for everyone there, instead of throwing them all under the bus just so you can get out of it.

    Oh, and uh, pro tip: the coercing other people to drink as a sign of “respect” thing, is often actually just a manipulation. There are many stories available of people who go into Asian cultures from the U.S. and are convinced that this is what they are supposed to do, since they don’t have your upbringing of “just say no” to alcohol. It doesn’t go well. In fact, it goes very very not-well. Your standards protected you, and you don’t even know it. Next time stand up for the little people who are with you, as well, so that they can also be blessed.

    As a side note, you said: “Would I have exercised that privilege to show charity when it was unpopular to do so? Or to take food from the restaurant and give it to a hungry person? Probably not.” Then maybe that’s something you should work on. You’ve already mastered the saying no to alcohol thing, now build on that foundation and work on mastering another charitable trait.

  49. My thoughts are that we are told the consequences of openly living the W of W are that we will be honoured and respected, not the consequences in this situation.
    You raise the question of moral judgement.
    In Australia it is the second week of Spring, the bush fire season doesnt usually start until summer, but we have had unprecedented bush fires already. Burning through rainforests, which don’t usually burn. One of my daughters is a fire officer and has been out fighting these fires. The experts are all saying this is unprecedented, and the result of climate change.
    Now the problem. Most members in Aus believe that part of being a good mormon is to vote conservative. We have just elected a government with climate deniers, who claim to be doing something but are not. Utah members voted for Trump, who also winds back envitonmental measures, aimed at climate change, as well as the other moral issues conservative governments contribute to, such as increasing poverty, inequality, increasing abortion, etc.
    Much of the first world can’t see the gospel, because of the conservative culture of the church and its members. So another cost of doing what you think the church teaches. Apart from destroying the world God created for us.

  50. They DID have a choice but were afraid of the consequences for you. You might have stood up for them and taken the consequences\blessings as they came.

  51. So, Michael, were any MOU’s signed?

    Geoff-Aus, you seem very well-informed about the voting patterns of members in Aus.

  52. Michael Austin says:
  53. Student Reviewer says:

    Would the OP feel as conflicted if the expectation was to inject heroin? Most of the comments here seem to completely ignore how genuinely dangerous alcohol is, despite its social acceptance. The bigwig in this story is a monster whether his society labels him that way or not. The bigger question for me is why the OP was willing to do business with such a person at all. By analogy, the world is full of nations to ally with, so why waste time courting North Korea? The moral play here is not to sacrifice your religious standards and possibly your health for others but to stand up for those others and sacrifice the business deal and possibly your job. Are you taking the road of appeasement to oppose racism or rape culture in the US?

  54. Student Reviewer says:

    Are you *also* taking the road of appeasement to oppose racism or rape culture in the US? Try this story out on the children or parents of alcoholics who have seen their loved ones destroyed by this dangerous drug.

  55. Xensing Jahn says:

    I often wish that temple recommend interviews were messier. These interviews are the only time I really spend formal one-on-one with church leaders. I’d love to talk about whether I love God or serve him or love my neighbours. I’d even love to talk about more of the 10 commandments. We cover chastity and honesty (so theft and lies etc) but no leader has ever asked me if I covet, or take Gods name in vain in a temple recommend interview.

    It’s a trade-off though. Set interview questions with yes/no answers are efficient and whether a person passes or not depends, in large part, on the interviewee. I worry that if my leaders explored my unorthodox beliefs around central tenets of our faith they might disagree with me that I pass.

  56. Michael, congratulations – great outcome. Standing for something is often a more powerful (transformative) message than ‘honourable’ compliance. Have had similar experiences in international higher ed.

  57. Tangential comment – when you say “They are virtually the only examples of “sin” contained in our talks and lessons.”, I wonder what talks & lessons you’ve been listening to? I can’t remember the last time I heard a WoW talk, but I get regular doses of honesty, charity, service, holding up familial and church (even civic) responsibilities. Even working w/ the youth I see the same.

    Additionally, I 100% agree that WoW/LoC obedience does not equal moral/Christian, but they can be good leading indicators in our faith. Kind of like soldiers keeping their bunks tight and shoes polished, they could indicate a fastidiousness or OCD, but the military hopes they indicate deeper values and commitment.

  58. Michael, thank you for writing a thought-provoking post. While the story may not be a perfect case study in resolving moral dilemmas, I take it as one that illustrates our general inability, culturally, to apply moral reasoning effectively to situations, or see the moral dilemmas our obedience structures may unintentionally create. We are a rules oriented culture–not a moral decision making one. I would argue we are stuck at Kohlberg’s pre-conventional stage of moral development as a church culture, a direct outcome of the church’s leadership priorities in the back half of the twentieth century: An obedience and punishment mindset. (In fact, we often punish moral heroes who operate at more advanced levels of moral development for speaking out against the church on matters of social justice.) I think your story points out this problem within our religious culture and belief system. I agree with your assertion that we can be good Latter-day Saints and be poor Christians, that we lay so much emphasis on the word of wisdom because it elicits a binary response, a simple yes or no. I get the point you are making here even if there are problems with the analog you use.

    When I was a graduate student more than 20 years ago the church’s research group conducted a survey among high school seminary students. My professor was a member of the research group. He shared the results with a handful of us in his advanced statistics class. One question asked students to rank order the importance of adherence to various church teachings and commandments. Obedience to the Word of Wisdom landed at number one. The Law of Chasity landed at number three. Loving thy neighbor was down around number nine, and being honest with your fellow man ranked number 12. The results were deeply concerning to church leaders, so I was told. The implications of why are obvious.

    I have taught my children that to be honest, kind and charitable, and to seek a deep and genuine faith in God are supremely more important than to obey the WofW…and think that is a substitute for a pursuit of the former virtues. And if they were to make a mistake, I would hope it would be to drink green tea long before feeling it is okay to cheat or shun the downtrodden. While your OP doesn’t take your example this far, in my mind, really what your OP teases up in our contentment with obedience and mistaking it for learning how to act as a moral agent, how to most effectively deal with the messiness that makes up most of life.

  59. I consistently maintain that once one turns 18, water is an adult beverage.

  60. hawleyberry says:

    I lived in Beijing for years and on one work trip (among many), was treated to a meal. I made the “mistake” of asking for Sprite as it was always available. Sadly for my colleagues, I was viewed as the guest, so they only drank what I was drinking. I spent a great deal of time urging them to go ahead and drink whatever they wanted, but they would not out of deference to me. I felt bad in that situation that my personal choice dictated theirs and learned to wait to make my drink preference known after theirs at formal events.

    In other beverage situations, I had the most amazing times during formal tea ceremonies once I got over myself and consented to drinking (delicious) teas that were prepared especially for me.