What Retching Has to Do with Moral Vision

(Warning: this blog contains graphic material not suitable for weak stomachs.)

Since when did watching people vomit become funny?

I admit, I do not watch these TV shows, so maybe it was just a coincidence. Last week, I watched my first episode of “Campus PD” on one of the cable channels. I have known about the show for some time, but since I work with college students, I frankly could not bring myself to watch it. Last week I worked up the courage. A couple of days later, I happened on “Tosh.0” (I think is the name).

Of course, with “Campus PD,” the viewers were regaled by a constant barrage of drunk college kids. In one scene, two young men are sitting, completely stupefied, on the curb (kerb, if you are an Anglophile) outside a hotel. Both of them have vomit between their feet.

A couple of days later, I just happened to be passing by “Tosh.0” as I channel surfaced and witnessed another scene involving someone puking. This time it was a guy in the buddy position of a hang glider. Apparently, he wasn’t taking too well to the ride. The host, Mr. Tosh, played and replayed the emetic episode, clearly enjoying the man’s discomfort and the awkwardness of the moment. Do his viewers really enjoy this fare?

I’ve seen similar things on “Jackass.” Please remember, I do not watch any of these shows. In each case, I happened upon them as I was passing on to somewhere else in Cable World. I thus conclude that, if I see this much vomiting on television in such brief moments, they must be happening quite a bit. And somebody must think it’s funny.

Some of us who work in the university have been reading a book, lately: Getting Wasted, by sociologist and college professor Thomas Vander Venn. In describing the various kinds of motives and means of social support that college students give one another while engaging in binge drinking, he reflected on how students describe even being hung over together as “fun” or “a good time.” He also mentioned one study in which neophyte pot smokers had to learn how to enjoy the sensation of being high, then alluded to the same pedagogical principle at work among college drinkers.

In other words, the “fun” associated with being drunk or high is in some significant ways, a learned behavior. You can learn that vomiting and passing out is actually fun. Hm.

Most importantly, what we’re not noticing is the implicit moral community associated with such fun. In interviews with Vander Venn, students explained repeatedly that having fun and good times is supremely important, worth the risks and consequences of blackouts and alcohol poisoning. They actually experience a kind of community, through the “drunk support” (his term) and consequence management associated with college party scenes.

Here’s the moral dimension: Students who believe this kind of behavior is “fun” and “good times,” are committed to what they perceive as a good – the pleasure, sociability and feeling of community that goes with the party scene. It goes with what Robert Bellah and other scholars have described as “expressivist individualism:” that “being myself,” no matter what anyone thinks and “following my own dreams” and “doing what feels right to me” are paramount. In fact, I have heard this sentiment from students. They actually say that they “do not care” what other people think. Of course, they do care, but they have been taught (subtlely, of course) to think that they shouldn’t care. Notice the ought in “shouldn’t.”

Another way to notice the moral vision of this behavior: how often do we talk with students about peer pressure? What is peer pressure, but moral pressure? “It’s fun. Come on! Don’t be a loser!” We need to notice the moral tone, perverse as it seems.

So, students believe that cutting loose, having fun, getting wasted, is a good. It is one that they fight to keep. They believe in the freedom associated with partying. They are in college. It is “their time.” Again, notice the moral vision.

If you’d like to look at this matter in some detail, see Christian Smith, et. al., Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood (Oxford University Press, 2011), especially the chapter, “Intoxication‘s Fake Feeling of Happiness.” It’s pretty sobering stuff.

About Stephen Rankin

Professionally I am an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church. I currently serve as University Chaplain at Southern Methodist University. Personally I am married to Joni and we have four grown children and four grandchildren. You can find my personal thoughts on this site, as well as on twitter at @stephenwrankin.

Comments

  1. Jon Altman says:

    I have a 20 year old niece (community college student) who seems to revel in getting drunk and throw up. Her FB postings to that effect have diminished in the last year.

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