Prohibitionists and Their Impoverished Sense of Human Motivation

A few days ago, I wrote a post here on David Brooks’ inane ‘Weed: Been There, Done That‘ Op-Ed. Looking back on it now, what strikes me as most galling about Brooks’ post and other pro-prohibition sentiments that I’ve heard expressed in the past is the shriveled, impoverished, reductive view they have of human character. Their advocacy of prohibition reveals no concern for their fellow humans; it merely highlights their narrowly conceived view of them.

To wit, the (extreme) prohibitionist seems to believe that once someone, any one, is exposed to an intoxicant, a pleasurable one, perhaps offering some palliative relief from daily routine, or diversion, or entertainment, the consumption of that intoxicant will immediately be placed atop their hierarchy of desires. From then on, the user, now an addict, will divert his time, energy, and monetary resources to the pursuit of the intoxicant. Nothing else may compete with its allure.

This–possibly caricatured–description of prohibitionist sentiment highlights its most salient assumption: that pursuit of intoxicatory pleasures will override other goals entertained by the human agent, even if the price to be paid is ill-health or financial ruin.

I hope this sounds ludicrous to you. For humans have many desires that compete for their attention; these are satisfied depending on their standing in our scheme of values, our capacities, and our stations in life. Many are the pleasures we decline because we feel that some competing goal of ours will be compromised. Some of us, admittedly, are unable to adjudicate thus between competing desires and fall prey to a possibly pernicious indulgence repeatedly; but when these compulsions become pathological, we rightly suggest that such folks seek treatment for behavior that appears to self-destructive.

This point is broader, of course. We are all assumed hedonists by the prohibitionist: any experience deemed pleasurable by us will always be pursued by everyone no matter what its cost. Our tastes are alike; our dislikes and likes are alike.

But all too often, we find that experiences found pleasurable by others are not so for us. Many of my friends love scuba diving. I have been assured it’s an otherworldly experience, taking its exponent into a magical realm beneath the waves. I’m sure that’s the case. But I tried it, and I didn’t like it. I felt no desire to pursue that experience; knowing myself and my capacity to panic at inopportune moments, I reckoned I stood a good chance of hurting myself, and hurting others too, if I continued. So, after one dive down to the Great Barrier Reef, I gave it up. There are many other things I’d rather do on my vacations (hiking well above sea level, for instance!) I might have compromised other goals of mine if I had continued to pursue scuba diving. So, to reiterate, I didn’t do it any more. Or there are those, for instance, like mountaineers or F1 drivers, who pursue their pleasures and then give them up because the risks of their pursuits has become too visible and they feel their lives with their families threatened.

These examples can be multiplied endlessly.

The understanding of human beings as being constantly and relentlessly afflicted by a form of what the ancient Greeks termed akrasia, and thus not worth being granted the freedom to live their lives according to their own, autonomously-arrived-at scale of values, is prohibition’s central incoherence.

Whitewater Rafting on the Cheat River: A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again

In May 1990, (more precisely, during the Memorial Day weekend) I went whitewater rafting on the Cheat River in West Virginia. A fellow graduate student talked me into joining a group expedition that went every Memorial Day; it was run by a husband and wife pair and was described in suspiciously glowing terms. I had never whitewater rafted before; indeed, I had never set foot in a raft before. Sporting an attitude that has gotten me into trouble more than once–incorrigible curiosity–I decided to play along. I do not know why I thought this might be a good idea: I am a decent swimmer but not an excellent one; I am terrified of drowning; and did I mention I had never rafted before? More to the point, the Cheat features Grade IV and Grade V rapids. More on that below.

As we drove down to West Virginia from New Jersey, we encountered much rain along the way, and indeed, it was still raining when we pulled into camp early in the morning of our intended river run–after a long, tiring drive through the night. A quick breakfast later, we were river-bound, heading for outfitting and orientation.

My first look at the river was enough to induce a symphonic response from my now chattering knees: it was in flood (six feet over), a brown, roiling mass of water, churning and frothing through its broad channel, idly tossing about the odd tree-trunk and swirling over what appeared to be barely visible rocks. We were going to stick a flimsy raft on that matchstick production factory? Why wasn’t this illegal? I approached our river-running guide with some trepidation and asked him if we would be rafting with the river in such spate. My guide nonchalantly replied, ‘Oh, yeah, its goin’ to be a wild ride out theah.’ (He might have preceded this statement with a Clay Davis-esque ‘sheeeeit’ but my memory fails me now.)

That piece of reassurance provided, I changed and got into the raft.  I was a coward all right, but I was even more scared about backing out in company. Our rafting got off to a decent start; the first two rapids were a bit wild, but not too bad. We then encountered the aptly name ‘Decision’ rapids where the weak-willed are given another chance to back out. I declined withdrawal. I was still too scared to back out.

Soon thereafter, I received my first dunking in the river. Our raft hit a rock, flipping me neatly into the water; on cue, I swam madly for the shore, and somehow made it. Others had received a quick wash too, so at least I wasn’t alone in being subjected to this indignity. Our raft, miraculously, was not lost to the river, so sadly, we couldn’t call an end to the madness.

Things got worse from that point on. The rapids grew into monstrous proportions; the river was in flood and every one of its wild sections, was, er, wilder. I navigated each one with my stomach churning, an acute mix of nausea and trepidation, all the while wondering why grown men and women with flourishing lives potentially ahead of them would ever subject themselves to such batterings.

Then, another rock. Our raft rode up on it, tilted, and slid back. As it did so, I fell into the river, and this time, terrifyingly, I felt myself washed away, and for one gut-churning moment of sheer terror, I felt like I was in a washing machine hitting the business end of a spin cycle. Suddenly, my head popped out of the water, and I found an oar stuck in my face by my river-guide, urging me to pull myself aboard. Somehow, I did so. One of our riders had been left stranded on the rock; amazingly, after we got to shore and threw her a lifeline, she pulled herself through the raging river to the shore.

I thought we were done. Surely, after that disaster, the sane thing to do was to pack up, and head for the nearest West Virginian moonshine distillery? But no. A genuine monster, a grade V rapid, awaited. It required some ten minutes of onshore planning and strategizing before we attempted it. Once again, I considered handing in my oars and hiking to the waiting bus, and yet again, I declined.

I’m glad I have forgotten most of the details of how we made it through that watery beast. I remember walls of white water below me, on top of me, and on the sides; I remember brown water; I remember screams and I remember arms and legs that felt as if they were on fire as I dug deep and hard in order to extricate ourselves from what felt like one endless whirlpool after another. I remember too, somehow, the awestruck faces of onlookers watching from the road nearby.

Then somehow, just like that, we were through. We were still scudding along on a frothing river, but the worst was over. I lay back, my palms and wrists aching from the tight grip I had exerted on my oar. I could have wept when I heard the magic words, ‘Time for lunch!’ A post-lunch short ride on the Cheat still had to be carried out but it felt like a breeze after what we had handled before.

That evening, I swapped stories about my ride and my dunkings with my camp mates, and made light of the flip, the toss, the spin cycle. Unfortunately, someone also recounted a ghastly story of a young rafter who had drowned in the Cheat, stuck to a rock as the river pinned him there, its relentless weight preventing him from breaking free and raising his head out of the water.

The weekend over, I drove back home, glad that I had ‘done the Cheat’, glad that I hadn’t backed out of the ride, but entirely unsure that I would ever want to go whitewater rafting again. Six years later, I rafted again, on the Ganges, just  upstream from Rishikesh, and finalized my decision: I didn’t really enjoy it that much. I wasn’t a natural in the water; my amniotic fluid days were too far gone. (Something I would realize years again later, when I went scuba diving, and had to bail out.)

To all the rafters and river-runners out there: respect. I don’t know how y’all do it.

Failing To Scuba Dive

For many years, a prominent member of a short list I maintained of things-I-must-do-before-I-die was: scuba diving on the Great Barrier Reef. In December 2007, I went scuba diving on the Great Barrier Reef, and a few short minutes later, it was all over. I was back up at the ocean surface, gasping for breath, relieved to be alive, my heart pounding. Back on the boat, my diving instructor suggested I discontinue diving. I nodded my head, disappointed, yet secretly overcome by a wave of heartfelt relief. I had realized the truth of a statement I had always subconsciously subscribed to: I was more comfortable hiking 15,000 feet above sea level than I was swimming 15 meters below.

Three days prior to this disaster I had enrolled in diving classes run by a dive operator based in Cairns, Queensland. The classes were part theory, part practice in a swimming pool. On the very first day, the claustrophobia induced by the scuba apparatus became apparent to me as I struggled to overcome the instincts evoked by the wearing of a device that made it seem like a Darth Vader heavy-breathing soundtrack was on continuous loop. Still, I somehow worked through the various drills with the rest of the class, lagging at times, and often requiring an instructor to check in on my progress.

At the end of the second day though, it wasn’t clear I had mastered an essential emergency drill, that of being able to replace a mask and breathing regulator underwater. I went back under to practice again, and emerged triumphant. Sort of. Even at this early stage, I had mixed feelings; I wasn’t feeling comfortable underwater, and while I had been able to carry out all the emergency drills needed, I wasn’t sure if I could actually carry them out in a good-to-honest crisis without panicking.

I soon found out. The next day, we headed out in a boat to the Reef, and got into the water. I headed down to the bottom, ably escorted by my diving buddy, one of the very patient instructors that had worked with me to make sure I had mastered the emergency procedures. A few minutes later, my mouthpiece came loose. Even as an electric bolt of fear ran through me, I reinserted the mouthpiece and blew through it to clear it (as trained). But the taste of salt water in the mouthpiece persisted, and nothing at that moment could convince me that I wasn’t about to drown. My entire body convulsed with panic again as I grabbed my ‘buddy’s’ arm (and as he desperately tried to calm me); I wanted up and out, and waved frantically upwards. We headed up for the surface.

Diving was a surreal experience; I was stunned and entranced by the beauty of coral reefs and their flora and fauna, but that beauty could not override the tremendous claustrophobia and lack of freedom I felt in the scuba apparatus. I spent some time snorkeling later so that I could continue to check out the Reef’s attractions, but I knew diving was not for me.

There are times when I am struck by the silliness of it all: I must be member of an exceedingly tiny minority that is not able to scuba dive. Kids do it; old farts do it; but I can’t. The fear I experienced that day was real, and all my training was unable to overcome it. Still, I suppose, there is some virtue in having tried it out under the shadow of a known fear, in an effort to master it.