Hit & Run

Viewing Bar Fights As Normal Male Behavior Encourages Violence

The debate about a 1985 kerfuffle involving Brett Kavanaugh reveals a split in perceptions of how men should be expected to behave when they drink.

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Senate Judiciary Committee

The 1985 altercation that led New Haven police to question Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, then a 20-year-old junior at Yale, does not sound like much of a bar fight. According to the police report, a 21-year-old complainant said Kavanaugh had thrown ice at him, while one of Kavanaugh's friends, Chris Dudley, had hurled a glass, injuring his ear. The genesis of the fight is barely intelligible: Apparently Kavanaugh and his friends were staring at the complainant, trying to figure out if he was the lead singer of UB40, which had performed in New Haven that night. The guy told them to cut it out in an unfriendly manner, which annoyed Kavanaugh.

I'm not sure what, if anything, this incident has to do with Kavanaugh's fitness for the Supreme Court. But attempts to use the story against him have provoked a revealing debate about how common it is for young men to get into bar fights. Broadly speaking, Kavanaugh's defenders think bar fights are a rite of passage for men, so they are no big deal, while his detractors say most men don't get into bar fights, so Kavanaugh's involvement in one reflects on his character. Although I'm inclined toward the latter view, I've yet to see any solid data on the question. But it seems likely that men who view bar fights as normal are more apt to start or join them.

"I don't know one guy, including myself, who wasn't in a bar fight," Newsmax TV host John Cardillo remarked on Twitter this week. "Not a single one." New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, one of the paper's token conservatives, reported that "I've been in two bar fights, though I suppose one was technically a 'Jumbo Slice fight.'" Fox Business Network correspondent Charles Gasparino bragged that "Ive been in dozens of bar fights (ask the guys I grew up with)," "nearly lost an eye in one," and "that's just one of the injuries (I have the scarred stitch marks to prove the rest)." Although Gasparino has "never been black out drunk," he said, "I have had to defend myself, which I am still perfectly capable of doing."

These accounts, especially Cardillo's, are very different from my own experience. I've patronized many bars over the years, but I have never been involved in a bar fight (or even witnessed one, as far as I can recall), and I know lots of male drinkers with a similar lack of such experience. For what it's worth, an online survey that Esquire conducted in 2010 found that 74 percent of the 5,000 or so respondents had never been involved in a bar fight. This was not a random sample, but given the magazine's audience I assume it was overwhelmingly male. Within this group of men who read Esquire and take the time to fill out online surveys, bar fights were definitely not the norm.

Some people are more temperamentally inclined to violence than others, which may be a good reason for anyone who values peace to avoid drinking with Cardillo, Gasparino, or their friends. But social expectations and beliefs about the relationship between alcohol and violence also can affect how people act when they drink.

In their classic 1969 study Drunken Comportment, the psychologist Craig MacAndrew and the anthropologist Robert Edgerton pointed out that behavior under the influence of alcohol varies between individuals in the same culture, across situations in the same individual, over time in the same individual, across cultures, across situations in the same culture, and over time in the same society. Their most interesting evidence came from cross-cultural comparisons, including societies in North America, South America, Africa, and Asia. They cited examples of tribes where people would get falling-down drunk without any dramatic changes in demeanor and others where people routinely got into bloody fights after drinking. Within the same society, people drinking in a ceremonial context would be peaceful and friendly, while people drinking in a less structured situation would be raucous and violent, even though the amounts consumed were comparable.

Violent tendencies vary from one person to another in every culture and situation. But when you combine aggressive people spoiling for a fight with a context that gives them an excuse, you are asking for trouble.