No matter how far back we go in Quebec’s history, alcohol has played an essential role in the social landscape and continues to be a public issue upon which different forms of control are imposed. Each period sees its version of what Henri Bergeron deems as the “classification of alcohol as a public problem” (2008, p.343). Even if the State control of alcohol is old news – we will soon be already celebrating the 100th anniversary of the creation of the Commission des Liqueurs -, modern-day Quebec still has to deal with the same issues, with certain aspects of alcohol continuing to be controversial. The objective of this article is to shed light on the transformations that are in progress concerning the classifications of alcohol consumption, especially regarding the dimensions considered to be problematic.
To do so, we would like to highlight the Fondation Jean Lapointe, an influential player in Quebec for spreading awareness of the dangers of alcohol consumption. Created in 1982 to support the Maison Jean Lapointe in both their fundraising and promotional activities, the organization defines its social mission as follows: “collecting funds that allow us to actively and significantly support the fight against drug addiction and other addictions that affect the population.” Even if the Foundation still provides significant funding for the Maison Jean Lapointe, since 2008 they have also been developing a drug addiction prevention program for teenagers. Also, thanks to a $1.5 million grant from the government – given the upcoming legalization of cannabis – the Foundation will soon be expanding their prevention program in order to reach 85% of Quebec’s high school students. This foundation’s actions receive considerable media attention, and their programs are well-received by the public, as this recent grant proves. This legitimacy gives them a privileged position to start the public debate concerning the issues related to alcohol and drug consumption.
However, it is not the impact of these programs that interest us here. In order to raise funds necessary for their youth addiction prevention program, the Foundation organizes their 28 days sober challenge. It is on this challenge that we will focus. In short, the point of the challenge is to stay sober for the whole month of February. The participants must make a minimum donation of 28$ to participate and have access to an interactive platform, where they can solicit their friends and family to encourage them by donating to the cause. This event is gaining in popularity among the Quebec population: the last edition had 7050 participants (including friends and family supporters) and collected over 450 000$ in donations. Since this event pushes individuals to become aware of their consumption habits, the challenge has an impact that surpasses its initial mission, defined around addiction problems. Far from merely being directly supporting preventive measure towards youth, the participants end up exposing issues related to alcohol that aren’t about the addiction component, but about the established social norms and practices that regulate the daily consumption habits of many Quebecois. We propose the theory that, in addition to being a fundraising campaign that doubles as a way of bringing awareness to the cause, the 28 days sober challenge gives place to a collective movement against consumption habits that have been culturally interiorized by a portion of the population. It would explain why the challenge affects and transforms the participants’ relationship with alcohol. In order to verify the hypothesis of it being a combination philanthropic appeal and social behaviour identifier, we propose the analysis of participants’ reactions on social media. The Foundation is very active on their 28 jours sans alcool / 28 Days Sober page in order to properly manage the challenge, update their contacts with participants and, especially, encourage a dialogue among them. It is from this database that we will launch what we believe to be the beginning of an alternative discourse, or even of a new vision of alcohol consumption, whose result will be to create new uses for alcoholic beverages.
Being temporarily sober: a challenge? Really?
From the get-go, it might be surprising that the act of not drinking be even considered a challenge. Even more surprising, this challenge is addressed to the entire population, without taking into account their relationship with alcohol. The Jean Lapointe Foundation presents their mobilization movement as a challenge that is open to all. By doing so, they are implying that restraining oneself from drinking is not a challenge reserved to those who suffer from alcoholism, but indeed a challenge worthy of its title that isn’t limited to a minority who deals with addiction. This statement is precisely what is showing up in the collected Facebook testimonies. Several people confirmed that they were doing the challenge even if they did not consider themselves as heavy drinkers. For example, one candidate admits the following: “I would usually drink maybe three to four alcoholic drinks per month, not a lot, but believe it or not, I still miss it, but I’m sticking with it.” Another makes a similar statement: “I’m not a big drinker to start with, but I do enjoy it and wanted to try the challenge to see if I would really want to [drink]… and it did happen a few times”. Thus, we can say that this challenge is not addressed exclusively to those most sympathetic to the cause, nor those doing the challenge in solidarity to those close to them who have suffered from addiction. In a much larger sense, the challenge seems to be designed for people who have what is considered to be a “normal” level of alcohol consumption.
Nevertheless, despite the challenge being addressed to the average Joe, many comments, varying in intensity, remind us that the challenge is not all fun and games. One candidate goes as far as speaking of it as torture: “I did it twice [the challenge] … On one occasion, I even prolonged the torture to reach 100 days”. Others express their weariness after completing part of the challenge. On the 21st of February, one participant lets it slip that she is “starting to find my 28 days sober a tad annoying… Bring me wine!” While another participant, as of the first week, admits that he will most likely fall off the bandwagon before the end of the month, like many other participants by the way: “7th day without alcohol. Not sure I will get to 28. There are definitely many who have already cheated, probably more than we think”. Others try to be reassuring by stating that the challenge becomes easier with time: “The first year is the hardest, but after five years, it’s like any other challenge!” or even “This is my second year. Last year I was nervous on the night of January 31st. This year, I was excited! […]” Thus, after reading these comments, we can not ignore the seriousness of the challenge, and this, even for those not suffering from a dependency, be it psychological or physical. How do participants rationalize this challenge that, after reading the comments, seems to require some level of masochism? What are the main reasons put forth to justify the self-punishment that this “Lent of the bottle” represents?
The challenge, a pause against the habit of drinking
If something bad happens, we drink to try and forget; if something great happens, we drink to celebrate it, and if nothing is happening, we drink so that something is happening. Charles Bukowski
Without the pretense of answering this complicated question, the comments that appear on social media throughout February reveal fascinating elements of the answer. Martin Malette, a comedian, made a poignant joke on Twitter, that is poignant both for its humour as for inaccuracy: “You know that a society is alcoholic when they chose the shortest month to stop drinking.” Although meant as a joke, without any attempt to explain the movement it ridicules, the joke still points out a severe interpretative shortcoming in grasping the deeper reasons behind people’s participation in the challenge. Once we carefully scrutinize what participants are actually saying, what we find is not some form of subconsciously repressed psychological dependence on alcohol that is suddenly uncovered through deprivation. Nor are we witness to an alcoholic epidemic slowly brought to light by the challenge by getting participants to discover a psychopathological state that they could not bring themselves to admit before.
In truth, the statements collected from Facebook expose a critique of the space currently occupied by alcohol in many participants’ social lives. Alcohol is seen as a social activity, omnipresent, and part of everyday life. Faced with this realization, participants have the feeling of being somewhat stripped of their autonomy regarding their consumption habits. This relationship with alcohol is at the opposite of an uncontrollable and chaotic consumption of alcoholics. While there are indeed numerous opportunities to drink  – where the temptation to make a connection to alcoholism comes from – drinking remains an occasional and social activity for many. In order to illustrate our point, we have selected a set of comments where participants reveal their consumption habits, that are part routine, part ritual.
First of all, the routine consumption of alcohol stems from the fact that it has become the answer to a wide range of emotional situations, as much positive as negative ones. One candidate explains their consumption habits in order to justify their participation in the challenge: “I started on January 26th, and I’m feeling so great that I will continue! I was drinking every day: grief, stress, relaxation, satisfaction, etc.” It is thus not necessarily an abusive consumption of alcohol that is seen as a problem, but more the fact that its consumption, even in moderation, has become automatic. It is because it targets our reflexes around alcohol that the challenge attracts a large number of participants: “I liked this self-reflexion exercise! Drinking a little, but too often… without falling into the extreme of “I don’t drink at all,” it is important to regulate your consumption. The “it was a bad day” drink, the “I reached my objectives” drink, etc. It makes you think about your own habits!” One person, having succeeded the challenge, tells us how she realized she was regularly drinking without asking herself too many questions, simply because she identified certain moments of the day or the week as drinking times: “I reached my 28 days on Monday, so I’m continuing until Saturday! I’m happy that I did it and to have realized that sometimes we drink out of habit, just because it’s happy hour or the weekend”. One of the most typical cases of routine drinking that many participants admitted wanting to distance themselves from was, without a doubt, the after-work drink: “An emotional day at work today. It is in these moments that the desire to have a beer at the end of the day gets to me. I resisted, and I didn’t open the bottle. I took a few deep breaths instead”.
In addition to alcohol consumption becoming part of our routine, we add another form of consumption, connected to the ritual that is collective living. Within the context of the challenge, several individuals brought up consumption habits that turned out to be, based on their statements, very well embedded and synchronized with a social calendar that follows the rhythm of their lives. One participant explains how it would be easy for him to go through the challenge as there are few social activities during that period: “Honestly, I only drink when there’s an event (dinner with friends, holidays, etc.) Usually, as of mid-January, it’s a quiet time for events. So it isn’t rare that I’ll go two to three months without alcohol…” This being said, many other participants did not have the same opinion, mentioning Valentine’s Day and the Super Bowl as events that were closely associated with alcohol consumption. One participant admits to doing the challenge for the entire month, except for Valentine’s Day: “ What happens if we cheated on February 14th? In fact, I signed up with the intention of making an exception!”. Another mentions how, for him, the Super Bowl was the ultimate challenge for him: “[…] I found the challenge easier than last year. Once you get through the “Sober Bowl,” the rest is fine!”. It is also interesting to note that some participants resorted to drinking non-alcoholic beverages. This tactic allows individuals to better confront certain situations of collective peer pressure, which shake up their resistance. “First time here for our couple. We like having a glass of wine on a regular basis, and we thought that this challenge would be good for us on both the health and awareness fronts. So far everything is going well, non-alcoholic beer and wine for the Super Bowl and “bring your own wine” restaurants without alcohol for Valentine’s Day”. Thus, when participants say “I will become used to drinking without alcohol […]” or “To my surprise, I’m succeeding the challenge! During my evenings out with friends, I opt for a non-alcoholic drink, and the problem is solved!” what they’re actually saying is that they will stop drinking alcohol without changing their habits, with these substitutes acting as a placebo to lull the routine and ritualistic consumption habits that don’t suddenly cease to exist.
One thing that is certain is that by pausing a substantial number of people’s consumption of alcohol, the challenge temporarily breaks what we could deem as the phenomenon of alcohol “habituation”, which manifests itself through a set of routines and rituals that are part of our daily lives. It is in this way that the challenge offers a possibility for both individual and collective awareness concerning the trivialization of alcohol consumption, that is deeply rooted in the customs of many Quebecois. In sum, the Foundation creates a space for reflexion by creating a community of those who have shared the sobriety experience and who are openly questioning the socially acceptable (and desired) place of alcohol in our daily lives.
What could be the normative redefinition of alcohol consumption?
Finally, it is essential to specify that the objective of the Foundation, through their challenge, is not only about the deconstruction of the cultural hold alcohol has on individuals, but also about the reconstruction of a norm that values a specific form of consumption. However, we must mention that the Foundation is not aiming to be prescriptive – they are mostly trying to spread awareness without promoting a specific model of responsible or reasonable consumption. This could explain why the normative shift that occurs during the challenge is not necessarily clear for many of the participants. “I’m learning to continue with the challenge. I don’t know where I’m going exactly, but I feel good” one of them good-heartedly admits. We might be witness to the co-construction of a discourse that is progressively emerging from the exchanges and the experiences being shared on social media. In fact, in the many comments that justify their participation in the challenge or make a plea for sobriety, we see a discourse that is suspicious of alcohol regarding healthy life habits and well being. Sobriety and to a lesser extent, moderation, are put forth for the gains in both physical and mental health that they procure. In the aftermath of the challenge, the number of people who say they “feel good” or “feel better” is innumerable. For those who are not on their first go, the term “cleansing of the body and spirit” is often brought up to express what the challenge represents to them for their year. One participant explains in more detail what this period of abstinence represents to her: “I started on January 7th (with the aim of participating for 28 days this year). I feel better, physically yes, but mostly psychologically. Happier. More positive. More awake. I will continue in order to reach six months and… maybe pursue my abstinence.” Thus, there is a clear consensus taking form around the question of sobriety or moderation as being part of a healthy lifestyle.
To summarize, the study of the collective movement that puts the Fondation Jean Lapointe fundraising campaign in motion can serve as a starting point to shed light on a new stage in the social history of alcohol in Quebec. The participants who post on social media provide a data source from which we can tackle the beginning of a redefinition of their relationship to alcohol. If the challenge organized by the foundation destabilizes a set of collective representations and consumption practices that are rooted in the daily lives of many. Our article also demonstrates that the challenge interferes in the public sphere as an introductory force for new norms that define consumption concerning “healthy” life habits. It is important to mention that the Foundation plays a vital role in the creation and dissemination of these new relationships with alcohol. First, because they are the host of the 28 days sober challenge, but also because they seek out ways to create a dialogue among participants throughout the month. For example, the organization constantly elicits their participants to speak up, be it through different kinds of posts or by directly asking them questions such as: “How do you feel one month after the challenge? Has your reflection on your alcohol consumption continued? Are your good habits now rooted into your routine?” This being said, the influence of the organization regarding the transformation of morals seems to be limited to awareness building. On the other hand, the emergence of the appropriation of a discourse on “good habits” is in large part emerging from the participants, who have great interpretive freedom in the rationalization of their experience of sobriety or of moderation.
We can confirm our initial hypothesis, that the mobilization generated by the challenge acts on a particular form of alcohol consumption, which is not on the spectrum of addictions but on that of socio-cultural practices. These latter are interiorized and reproduced by a large number of Quebecois, who are questioning them by voluntarily imposing a stop to their consumption for the challenge. This period of reflexion and awareness also allows for the formulation and emergence of a counter-discourse, that promotes moderation and sobriety for their positive impacts on health. Thus, the philanthropic activities of the Foundation have an impact that greatly transgresses the strict limits of its social mission.