As we celebrate this Christmas season (or this “holiday,” for Christ-haters), I don’t wish to be a killjoy to the world. But reflecting on the year gone by, it’s hard not to notice that we have lost a few of our favorite things: Tom Petty, political moderation, our dignity.
And yet, as we’ve hunkered down throughout 2017 to weather every storm from Hurricane Harvey (the tropical cyclone that nearly destroyed Houston) to Hurricane Harvey (the film producer/sex-criminal who has all but destroyed famous men), there seems to be another death that has barely registered—that of the open-bar office Christmas party.
It is a time-honored tradition, and in Dilbert-ified America most cubicle monkeys know the drill: Don your smart-yet-festive sweater vest. Show up to your company’s voluntary holiday gathering, where absences are informally noted by supervisors who will passive-aggressively punish the missing come January. Pretend you enjoy socializing with colleagues that you wouldn’t invite over to your house on a dare. All while drinking until your liver cries uncle, or until Jones from purchasing miraculously transforms into a sparkling conversationalist.
But the already-ailing patient might have died on the table last week, when news broke that Vox Media, after an internal sexual-harassment scandal that saw editorial director Lockhart Steele get fired, announced of their holiday party in a staff memo: “At the request of many of you, we will ramp up the food and cut down on the drinks.” According to accuser Eden Rohatensky’s Medium post, after an apparent drinking bout, the man eventually revealed as Steele caressed her hand and kissed the back of her neck in an Uber.
Vox Media, in case you don’t read the Internet, is, as they put it with characteristic modesty, “a prestigious modern media company . . . [that is] shaping the future of journalism and entertainment.”
The parent company’s myriad media outlets—or “brands,” as modern media companies now insist on calling themselves—include everything from tech-news site the Verge to foodie site Eater to the flagship itself, Vox. In just three years, Vox has become destination reading in a crowded mediascape for anyone in need of having the world explained to them by 24-year-olds armed with charts. (Typical and actual Vox headline: “The real reason you should be afraid on Halloween, in one chart.”)
The Vox holiday party would still go off at Freehold, the kind of trendy Williamsburg bar (or “gastropub,” as they now say in Brooklyn) where they serve hopelessly hip vittles like harissa buffalo cauliflower while giving their brunch cocktails cloying names like Puttin’ on the Spritz. But Vox management went on to say that even though they recognize “that alcohol isn’t always the reason for unprofessional behavior, creating an environment that encourages overconsumption certainly contributes to it.” Consequently, “each attendee will receive two drink tickets with which they can get alcoholic drinks if they choose. After that only non-alcoholic drinks will be available.” The memo, which was leaked to HuffPost, was signed, “Sincerely, The Experiential Team.”
Two drink tickets, and then you’re cut off, relegated to juice boxes or Diet Coke? Two drink tickets are a school fundraiser or a church auction or maybe a Mennonite wedding. They are not a “party.” You could feel a cold shudder throughout the journalism world. We are writers, for the love of Ezra, or at least “content producers,” in the parlance of modern media companies. As Tom McGuane put it, drinking is the writer’s black lung disease. It comes with the turf. If professional journalists can’t handle their liquor, who can?
Twitter was aghast at the memo. (Though in fairness to Vox, Twitter is always aghast.) While Vox was roundly ridiculed for turning into Carrie Nation, uptight millennial edition, perhaps nobody captured the sentiments better than the person who tweeted: “Vox Media, whose publications think cartoon girls on a shirt are sexist, boobs on video game characters are evil, and are all around champions of feminism, have a two drink limit at their holiday party because they don’t trust themselves to not rape each other.”
It’s hard to argue with the sentiment, and not just because it was probably composed by a Russian Twitter bot. Some, of course, are troubled by the ripple effects of the Harvey Weinstein-inspired #MeToo campaign, in which one high-profile sexual predator after another is being revealed. The thinking being “If Mark Halperin is consigned to Shame Siberia, how will we ever get to read Game Change 3: The Election You Were Already Sick of, Brought to You Two Years Later?”
But even being deprived of such a timeless work of art, I’m all for it. Why not treat criminals like criminals? The problem, however, is that the rest of us are being criminalized for being male while drinking or female (women, too, are offered a measly two drink tickets). We are now all being infantilized, as though we need chaperones or drink limits to ensure sex crimes are not being committed. Men and women have been drinking in each other’s company, mostly without incident, since the discovery that grape and grain aren’t just for eating. After all, Jim Beam didn’t grope a 14-year-old girl, that’s what Roy Moore (allegedly) did. Nor did Jose Cuervo prance around with an open kimono in front of young assistants. Charlie Rose took that walk all by his lonesome.
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If you think I’m inflating the significance of Vox’s holiday-party policy, what you might not realize is that the #MeToo scandal is revealing us as something worse than a nation of monsters. It is showing us to be a nation of lawyers. When global outplacement consultancy Challenger, Gray & Christmas did a survey of 150 human resources representatives across the country this fall, they found that only 48.7 percent of employers would serve alcohol at their holiday parties this year, down from 62 percent last year. One of Challenger’s vice presidents warned that “employers are currently very wary of creating an environment where inappropriate contact between employees could occur.”
Lawyers themselves are already ahead of the curve, advising employers on how to pull out all the stops to avoid liability. Surveying law-blogs and other legal-eagle counsel, I found lawyers instructing employers to refrain from hanging mistletoe. To step in if they see anyone grinding on the dance floor. To issue tickets, if they must serve alcohol, with employee names, while making staffers show an ID card so that nondrinkers don’t give tickets to heavy drinkers. To tell bartenders to water down the drinks. And to avoid serving salty food, which makes people drink more.
One National Law Review piece, all by itself, advised workplaces to skip decorating with Santa to avoid any overt “Christmas” party associations To make sure that if you have a holiday party at the boss’s house, his home is ADA compliant for workers with known disabilities. To avoid serving peanut brittle in case an employee has a food allergy. To not talk shop in case it triggers an employee to file for overtime. And, of course, to “nix the alcohol altogether” as it is a “veritable Pandora’s box of potential issues.”
Another consultant told the Human Resources Report that after an office Christmas party, “employers should investigate rumors of inappropriate behavior, as well as formal harassment complaints.” Which is fine, if inappropriate behavior was overtly committed. Otherwise, this sounds less like a holiday celebration and more like a night out with the Stasi. It’s enough to put one in mind of the uptight human resources rep, played by Kate McKinnon, in last year’s Office Christmas Party, who during a holiday blowout commandeered the DJ’s mike to warn employees: “And remember that tonight, the decisions you make will have consequences that will haunt you for the rest of your professional lives. And um . . . have fun!”
We, of course, hear a lot about the downsides of alcohol, so no need to repeat them here. It’s impolite to speak ill of old friends. But what is less often considered are the upsides. The medical literature shows that steady moderate drinking can reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease, of ischemic strokes, and of developing diabetes. A UC San Diego study recently found that even heavy drinkers are twice as likely as nondrinkers to live to 85 without dementia. They might not remember what they did last night but have a better chance of remembering anything at all when they’re octogenarians.
A recent University of Pittsburgh study, published in the journal of the Association for Psychological Science, found that moderate alcohol intake consumed in social settings “can enhance positive emotions and social bonding and relieve negative emotions among those drinking.” And “moderate” drinking is more than some might guess. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention consider “binge drinking” five or more drinks for a man consumed in about two hours. Meaning Vox Media might be able to part with four drink tickets, without even needing to consult their attorneys.
Drinking can also be good for employee morale at holiday office parties. And not just for George Jean Nathan’s reason: “I drink to make other people interesting.” The average holiday bonus, for those who get them, according to a survey of employers by Accounting Principals, is $1,797. But if you don’t get a Christmas bonus, consider that a pour of top-shelf liquor at a bar in an affluent zip code can easily run 20 bucks with tip. Knock just 20 of those back at the office holiday party, and you’re already about a quarter of the way there.
Even though I personally enjoy drinking until I can’t feel my legs, let alone anyone else’s, my own holiday office party hijinks would require no lawyering. About the most out-of-control I’ve ever gotten was back when my wife was an elementary-school teacher. After I’d taken a few too many trips to the Jesus-Juice bar (our Lord and Savior being the original open barkeep, having turned water into wine), she found me sprawled on my back on her boss’s living-room floor, two of her first-grade teacher colleagues turning my legs like a helicopter rotor so I could “breakdance.” Having worn my uncomfortable Christmas shoes, dancing while standing upright was out of the question.
That aside, office holiday parties have been pretty tame affairs in my experience—adults acting like adults, without HR supervision. In two decades plus of such parties, I have never seen anyone groped, molested, or impregnated (though admittedly, I’ve left early a few times). I like to think it’s not because my trusted colleagues are nondrinkers. Quite the opposite. Many of them spend the other 11 months of the year “in training,” drinking at home alone, mindful of the maxim, often misattributed to Ben Franklin, that “by failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.”
This post originally appeared on Weekly Standard