My friends, we need to talk.
Here's the backstory. On the morning of June 20th, Ryan Dunn of Jackass fame, after reportedly drinking enough to achieve a blood alcohol level of .196, decided to get into his Porsche and drive, which decision resulted in his crashing and killing both himself and his passenger, Zach Hartwell. This is undoubtedly horrific for their family and friends, and as one who has lost a friend to drunk driving, my heart goes out to them.
Not long afterward, Roger Ebert of At the Movies fame tweeted a tweet that was both insensitive and entirely true:
Bam Margera, also of Jackass fame, was just in the early stages of grief for his friend when he read Roger Ebert's tweet, and so his angry tweet back was completely understandable:
It is what followed after their exchange that has astounded me. People, while not entirely sanctioning the act of drinking and driving, expressed that we should not judge Ryan Dunn for getting behind the wheel after a few drinks. We should be understanding, after all, because this is something we have all done or do or have allowed to happen, right?
I know that I am going to rub more than a few people I know the wrong way when I say that this is the stupidest thing I've ever heard come out of their mouths. I can't understand a line of reasoning that excuses selfish, short-sighted, stupid, and violent behaviour because so many of us also happen to be selfish, short-sighted, stupid, and violent. This goes back to that time-worn adage we've all heard from our mothers: If everyone else jumped off a bridge, would you?
What has been nagging at me since Monday's run-in between Dunn and Ebert on Twitter is that the camouflage of celebrity coupled with the very public nature of grieving on social media seems to have created a desire in some people to downplay the heinousness of Ryan Dunn's criminal actions resulting in the deaths of two people. If we acknowledge Dunn's acts for what they were, then we must also acknowledge our own acts for what they are. If he committed a terrible act by getting behind the wheel after a few drinks, then so have we, and few people want to admit publicly that they're assholes.
People's defense of Ryan Dunn and umbrage over Roger Ebert's insensitive tweet is less about Ryan Dunn and Roger Ebert and more about deflecting blame for their own bad behaviour, and their defences for the behaviour, listed below, just don't hold up:
- We've all done it. Again, are we all jumping off bridges now?
- We shouldn't judge other people. I am judging the behaviour, not the individual as a whole, and when the behaviour is proven to result in thousands of deaths every year, why the hell shouldn't it be judged as horrendous?
- I often drive after a couple of drinks, and it's fine. Your experiment, being that it involves such a small test population, lacks scientific merit, and your behaviour is only fine insofar as you haven't crashed your car or killed anyone yet.
I am not free of sin, here. I know of what I speak. I drank a lot of alcohol for many years, and I made some bad decisions over the course of those years. Some of those bad decisions involved my getting drunk and squinting over the dashboard in order to deal with triplicate vision while I edged my way down side streets. I am deeply ashamed of that behaviour to this day for a number of reasons:
- The decision to drive after drinking alcohol was deeply selfish, because it placed more importance on my trip home than on the lives of the very real human beings who might have crossed my path.
- I was committing a violent act when I got behind the wheel after drinking. Punches thrown don't suddenly lack violence when they don't connect. They're still punches, and they still carry the potential for injury.
- My friend Cyril was hit by a drunk driver back in the early 1990s. The devastation that the driver brought upon Cyril's family, girlfriend, and friends was immense, and yet I still made the decision to put my keys in the ignition.
How did I get there? How did I arrive at thinking drinking and driving was okay?
Number one, I was an asshole. I didn't really think it was okay. I was a selfish alcoholic with self-esteem issues who chose violent behaviour over caring for myself and other people. Thankfully, I have grown up since then and gotten sober. Number two, the people who watched me walk out of public places with my car keys in my hand after multiple pints of beer were assholes. I'm still friends with the people who watched me walk out, but I'm in the business of calling spades spades today, so there you have it. Number three, we live in a culture rife with entitlement. I really thought I should be able to do what I wanted when I wanted just because I could (see number one).
People who drink and drive are assholes. People who let their friends drink and drive are also assholes.
You may think that I'm an asshole for writing all of this, but you are wrong. It is entirely possible to feel both empathy for Dunn, Hartwell, and their friends and families and still judge criminal actions as criminal.
Cyril is dead because some asshole took a strong depressant and decided it was alright to commandeer a ton of steel and machinery at a high speed while altered and in close proximity to other human beings. Ryan Dunn and Zach Hartwell are dead because Dunn chose to do that very same thing.
Ryan Dunn and Zach Hartwell's deaths are tragic, and I can only imagine the grief their families and friends are going through right now, but celebrity and public grieving, albeit emotionally seductive and powerful, do not change the indefensibility of his actions. These are not defensible high jinx. Had your friend or family member been mowed down because of his actions, I doubt you'd be telling people to be less judgmental of his behaviour because we've all done it and you think you can handle yourself after a couple of drinks.
These are violent and unconscionable crimes, and these are violent and unconscionable crimes whether our culture has matured enough to acknowledge them as that or not.
If you do drink and drive, even if you only do it after a couple of drinks when you think you're fine (you're not), please ask yourself why you do it. If you can catch a cab or sleep in your car or stay over on someone's couch, but you still get in that car and drive home, ask yourself why committing a selfish, violent, and potentially life-threatening act is your option of choice. The guy who killed Cyril maintained that he was fine to drive. I'm pretty sure that Ryan Dunn told himself he was fine to drive when he got into his Porsche. They obviously weren't, and you're not, either.
Look in the mirror, take stock of yourself, think about other human beings and how, although a lot of them aren't that great, a good number of them are people you love, and then DON'T DRINK AND DRIVE.
Choosing not to drink and drive is a really big step towards not being an asshole and inadvertently murdering people. Scout's honour.
If everyone chose not to drink and drive, my friend Cyril would still be here. Who do you know that would still be here?
UPDATE: I feel the need to clarify that I am not vilifying anyone who goes out for a drink or two, waits the appropriate amount of time for the alcohol to metabolize in their system, and then drives. It is possible to behave safely when it comes to the consumption of alcohol and driving.
Keep in mind, though, that buzzed driving is drunk driving.