Debate continues on alcohol and violence

Following the previous post  Alcohol, violence and inhibitions here are more comments on the alcohol and violence debate at The Standard post Not all research is created equal.

Psycho Milt:

“This report’s lie by omission is that alcohol weakens those inhibitions.”

What lie by omission? First, saying that alcohol lowers inhibitions is a very different thing from saying that alcohol causes violence. Second, Fox’s statement “violent people were more likely to act violently in certain situations” assumes the situation “inhibitions lowered by alcohol.” What exactly is the complaint about Fox’s research, other than that you don’t like the resulting recommendations?

Macro:

“First, saying that alcohol lowers inhibitions is a very different thing from saying that alcohol causes violence.”

Tell that to the Police, Ambulance staff, and staff in Hospital Emergency rooms around the country. You might also try telling that to all the battered women, beaten by intoxicated partners.
It’s not the greatest leap of reason, to move from
“Intoxication lowers inhibitions” to
“Intoxication increases the propensity for those with a violent disposition to behave violently”.
Had Fox actually said that, then the report would not have been published, because it would have admitted that alcohol was a prime factor in many instances of violent behaviour. But No! we have the weasel words
“violent people were more likely to act violently in certain situations”
The lie is in the deliberate omission that alcohol is involved.

But Macro has omitted many things that Fox wrote in her report about alcohol’s involvement.

Psycho Milt:

Her point is that the person’s culture and personality bestowing them with a predisposition to violence is the prime factor, so she’s hardly likely to declare alcohol the prime factor. Alcohol is incidental, contributing no more than a lowering of inhibitions. It’s true that in some people, the lowering of inhibitions is a very bad idea because their true selves are malicious and violent, but the bottom line is that the problem isn’t the recreational drug, it’s the loathsome creature using it. Policy that directs itself to the drug rather than the loathsome creature is a waste of effort.

Magisterium:

“There is overwhelming historical and cross-cultural evidence that people learn not only how to drink but how to be affected by drink through a process of socialisation…Numerous experiments conducted under strictly controlled conditions (double-blind, with placebos) on a wide range of subjects and in different cultures have demonstrated that both mood and actions are affected far more by what people think they have drunk than by what they have actually drunk…In simple terms, this means that people who expect drinking to result in violence become aggressive; those who expect it to make them feel sexy become amorous; those who view it as disinhibiting are demonstrative. If behaviour reflects expectations, then a society gets the drunks it deserves.”

Heath, D.B. (1998). Cultural variations among drinking patterns. In M.Grant and J.Litvak (eds.), Drinking Patterns and their Consequences. Washington: Taylor & Francis.

Magisterium then explains the different approaches to alcohol and violence from a health perspective versus a behavioural perspective:

There is a big divide between people studying alcohol from a health perspective and people studying alcohol from a behavioural perspective. The former tend to have as a baseline the position that alcohol is a poison and poisons are bad for your health so we should research alcohol’s health impacts; the latter tend to have as a baseline the position that drinking alcohol is something that people do and what people do is interesting so we should research the things that people do with and without alcohol.

Thus we have Doctor of Anthropology Anne Fox publishing a paper that says “alcohol doesn’t cause violence, violent people cause violence” so Miss Nicki Jackson, Auckland Uni PhD student in the Dept of Health and Medical Science calls the report “completely flawed”. These two people speak different languages, and I wonder why the Herald contacted a person working academically in the field of health and medicine to comment on a report in the field of human behaviour.

In the world of human behaviour and how alcohol affects it, the defining work of academic scholarship is MacAndrew, C. and Edgerton, R. (2003) “Drunken Comportment: A Social Explanation”. Aldine, Chicago. If you haven’t read it and you’re not familiar with its conclusions then you really shouldn’t be making claims on how alcohol affects people’s behaviour. Because some very clever people have done decades of research involving people and cultures all over the world and they know more about this shit than you, and their findings have been critiqued and dissected and reproduced by other very clever people. And if you don’t know what conclusions all that research produced then you really shouldn’t go around claiming that alcohol causes violence, because you’re like someone claiming vaccines cause autism because everyone knows that because you saw it on Facebook.

Just about all anthropological research arrives at the same conclusion (I say most because I haven’t read every single paper in the world, and who knows one might disagree, but I have yet to find it): the way alcohol affects human behaviour is entirely cultural. People who get drunk don’t become violent as a matter of course; rather, people who get drunk act the way they have learned to act when drunk, or they act the way they think they can get away with while drunk, and in some cultures that means violence.

Basically, anyone who’s done any research on drunken behaviour will be completely unsurprised by Dr Fox’s research paper because, well, it just confirms everything that every other anthropological study on the topic says. They all reach the same conclusion: alcohol doesn’t cause violence.

Public health professionals all cringe when such papers are published because, like I said at the start, they’re coming from a position of ALCOHOL BAD and anything that says drinking alcohol can be a completely pleasant and uncontroversial experience for all involved is tantamount to heresy in that academic field.

A One News report had slammed Fox’s report in Lion’s research suggesting booze has little relation to violence slammed by academics

The report was funded by booze company Lion and took just seven weeks of research, suggesting alcohol has little to do with violent behaviour.

Gristle picked up on this:

7 weeks to undertake research and write a report is pretty good going. My guess is there was no research but reinterpretation of other people’s research. I doubt the report went through the normal peer reviewing by suitable qualified people.

this sounds like the “tobacco research” where the industry purposely created dubious research and skilfully placed it in the media to create the impression that the science was not settled and no regulation was required. This same approach has occurred with lead in petrol, car safety, CFCs, global warming.

The media is being played. It is a fundamental failing of the media not to have developed skills and methods to handle scientific debate and the role of self interested corporates and their supporting institutions and funded science.

It seems to me that the media can be played by different sides of the debate.

Psycho Milt addressed the 7 week diss.

The 7 weeks involved a team of researchers looking specifically at the Aus/NZ environment. There’d already been an extensive literature review, not to mention the 20 years she’d spent researching alcohol use in non-Aus/NZ situations. Writing the report took a further year.

The report states: Fieldwork commencing in July 2013. The paper was finalised in January 2015.

That’s 18 months rather than 7 weeks.

Gristle:

Of course one of the tests of research is to see how often it is referenced by leading researchers in the field. Unfortunately this process takes years.

And it is more likely to be referenced by researchers who agree with the behavioural approach to the problem rather than those who have a health perspective.

Magisterium:

this sounds like the “tobacco research” where the industry purposely created dubious research and skilfully placed it in the media to create the impression that the science was not settled and no regulation was required

No, it pretty much just confirms what every other anthropological study of the subject has concluded. It’s an entirely uncontroversial paper containing no real surprises.

Incognito:

There is nothing in the Fox Report to indicate that it has undergone anything like a peer-review. There are many assertions that are not backed up with literature citations but simply rely on her personal beliefs and experience and are subjectively worded.

”Elsewhere in this paper I acknowledge that alcohol has a very real physiological effect, but based on decades of research in the field, I am convinced that these physiological effects in no way determine a behavioural response.” [p# 15]

”As an anthropologist who has spent thousands of hours observing drunken behaviour, I can confidently assert that it is as predictable as any other ritually governed human behaviour.” [p# 16]

Magisterium:

This is a pretty good metasummary of the current understanding of drunken behaviour, drawing on the conclusions of hundreds of peer-reviewed papers:

http://www.sirc.org/publik/drinking3.html

TLDR? Everyone concludes the same thing as Dr Fox.

Incognito:

Looks interesting, thank you; will read later if you don’t mind. I do note, in passing, that the Foreword is dated 1998.

Who’s “Everyone”? Am I supposed to take this literally, in which case it is clearly incorrect?

The debate on alcohol and violence will no doubt continue, as will research.

Some questions I have from all of this:

  • If alcohol causes violence why are most people who drink alcohol not violent when drinking?
  • If alcohol causes violence are do some people only violent some times when they are drinking alcohol?
  • Why are people who are violent when drinking alcohol also violent when they are not drinking alcohol?
  • Were humans non-violent before alcohol use began (thought to be about 9,000 years ago).
  • Were Maori and other native populations non-violent before alcohol was introduced by Europeans?
  • If we had alcohol prohibition would violence reduce?

I have never become violent or felt like being violent when drinking alcohol.

Fox’s study report: Understanding behaviour in the Australian and New Zealand night-time economies

Frequently asked questions on alcohol use at CDC.

Drunken thuggery not alcohol’s fault

An article by Karl du Fresne in the Listener – Bar None – cites a recently published paper that lays the blame for violence on bad behaviour and not on alcohol.

A recently published paper looks at alcohol and its associated social problems through an anthropological lens and concludes we’ve got it all wrong. It’s not booze that’s to blame for violence and antisocial behaviour – it’s us.

This doesn’t surprise me. Most people manage to keep behaving themselves to a reasonable degree when they drink alcohol. It’s just that a minority become thugs when drinking booze, and too many others excuse them too much for their bad behaviour.

And it’s not just drunken thuggery that that is excused too much, it’s other anti-social and self harming behaviour that is accepted as ok and even funny that contributes to our ongoing binge culture.

“Understanding Behaviour in the Australian and New Zealand Night-Time Economies” is a paper by British anthropologist Anne Fox, who has studied drinking cultures for 20 years and worked as a consultant on substance misuse for the British Army.

A key finding is that despite a tightly regulated drinking environment, we accept a level of drunken behaviour that would not be tolerated in many other Western countries.

Scapegoating alcohol as the sole cause of violence, she argues, merely diverts attention from “maladaptive cultural norms” that allow New Zealand and Australian men to be violent and aggressive.

She cites other countries where a lot of alcohol is drunk but that don’t have similar levels of drunken violence:

  • Iceland has high rates of per capita alcohol consumption, along with a culture of preloading (drinking before going out) and all-night bar opening, “and yet violent crime [there] is almost non-existent”.
  • The Danes are big drinkers too yet remain “famously harmonious and peaceful”.
  • She points to Japan as an example of a culture where heavy drinking is widely tolerated, but overtly drunken or antisocial behaviour is not. Japanese drinkers seem quite capable of conforming to these social norms, according to Fox.
  • In Cuba men generally pride themselves on self-control when drinking, and risk being stigmatised if they behave badly.

And Fox details the example of Gilbralter…

…“a unique Anglo-Mediterranean hybrid” where she researched drinking and drug use among British soldiers. The drinking culture there is essentially Mediterranean and revolves around wine, food and good-natured sociability. Displays of inebriated extroversion, such as staggering about drunk or urinating in the streets, attract harsh penalties and social disapproval.

Fox says arriving soldiers are briefed on how to behave and are able to modify their usual drunken comportment to comply with Gibraltar’s social rules. Despite still drinking “vast” quantities of alcohol, they manage to remain self-controlled and well mannered.

An army wife from Glasgow told Fox she loved taking her children into Gibraltar pubs because it enabled them to see grown-ups drinking and enjoying themselves all afternoon and then walking home sober – something they never saw at home.

The lesson Fox took from Gibraltar was that “ultimately, to make any fundamental change in the culture of behaviour, we need to focus on the behaviour, not the drinking.”

New Zealand and Australian culture around drinking and violence are different.

Drunken behaviour is largely culturally determined, she says, and can be heavily influenced by situational cues. It can also be engaged or disengaged at will.

“As long as we continue to promulgate the myth that alcohol can radically transform a person’s behaviour, we can expect to see undesirable conduct in and around drinking venues. We must take the genie out of the bottle and return the responsibility for conduct to the individual.”

The lesson Fox took from Gibraltar was that “ultimately, to make any fundamental change in the culture of behaviour, we need to focus on the behaviour, not the drinking.”

Experiments show that even highly intoxicated people can control their behaviour and exercise good judgment, she says. She also points out that whereas we tend to excuse people who get aggressive or obnoxious when drinking, we don’t apply the same tolerance to other types of behaviour.

“Most people would not excuse theft because the person was drunk. Neither is it acceptable to insult or injure vulnerable members of society such as the elderly, handicapped or children. But taking off one’s clothes, urinating – but not defecating – shouting, fighting, singing, flirting and even going home with the ‘wrong’ person are all blamed on the drink.”

Most people control their behaviour most of the time when drinking.

“All the scientific literature suggests that as long as they have an incentive to control their behaviour, 98% of people can remain perfectly controlled even though heavily inebriated.”

But some use alcohol as an excuse to be thugs. And our culture has allowed that.

Fox doesn’t just blame antisocial behaviour on the self-fulfilling belief that drinking causes us to lose self-control. Where violence is concerned, Fox says, there are other, uglier forces at work.

We like to think of ourselves as an easy-going society, but as Fox puts it, “the flip side of the New Zealand national character reveals darker features of hyper-masculinity with its attendant norms of male entitlement, pride, honour, competition, fighting, racism and misogyny”.

Some of those things don’t need alcohol as an excuse.

Aggressive masculinity, she says, is evident everywhere, from schoolyards to sports fields, politics and pubs, movies and media. Violent sports, a culture of male domination and strong codes of male honour are all violence-reinforcing factors in society, as is conspicuous income inequality.

“Drinking culture doesn’t exist on its own. As one anthropologist has put it, drinking is a window on culture. So you see other aspects of culture, such as the macho culture in New Zealand, being expressed through drinking.”

And even victims of violence make excuses for drunken violence.

Fox tells of British army wives who blamed alcohol when their husbands assaulted them. “It’s not him, it’s the alcohol,” they would tell her. “He only does it when he’s drunk.” At which point the conversation would typically proceed along the following lines:

Fox: “Does he only drink when he’s with you?”

Army wife: “No, he drinks with his mates.”

Fox: “So does he beat his mates up when he’s drunk?” Awkward silence.

Alcohol does not cause the violent behaviour.

“There is no evidence that for most normal, healthy individuals, the presence of alcohol in the brain results in, encourages or unleashes violence. Alcohol can, in certain cultures and situations, be a facilitator of aggression if aggression is there to begin with, both in the individual and in the cultural environment. But it does not produce it where it doesn’t already exist.”

A major problem is that angry men (and women) drink.

She quotes a policewoman with long experience of weekend patrols in a large Australian city as saying: “I’ve never met a violent drunk who was not also violent when sober.”

Alcohol doesn’t increase anger, Fox argues. If anything, the reverse is truer: angry men drink.

If alcohol is merely used as an excuse for violent behaviour, government efforts would be better concentrated on social education, health promotion and sanctions on violent individuals.

New Zealand has successfully changed social behaviour on drink driving through education and sanctions. So perhaps we should do something similar with drunk thuggery.

She calls New Zealanders out on careless and inaccurate use of language that absolves people of responsibility for the consequences of their drinking. The commonly heard phrase “alcohol-fuelled violence”, for instance, suggests it’s all the alcohol’s fault, when Fox says the responsibility should be placed squarely on the perpetrator of the violence.

“If 100,000 people go out drinking and one person behaves badly or violently, we say it’s alcohol-fuelled. But what about the other 99,999? As long as you talk about alcohol-fuelled violence, you’re helping to perpetuate the belief that alcohol causes violence.”

I’ve almost fallen into that habit writing this post, thinking of using terms like ‘alcohol fueled’ and ‘under the influence’.

She also objects to the unhelpfully loose use of the phrase “binge drinking”, pointing out that a binge used to be defined as a period of drunkenness lasting two days or more. It was associated with neglect of self, job, children and other responsibilities. Now, however, the term is used to describe any alcohol consumption above the safe recommended guidelines. Fox says this blurs the boundaries between high-risk consumption and low to moderately risky drinking.

“In some surveys, you need only to have consumed more than four drinks in one sitting once in the past 12 months to be classified as a risky drinker. “There’s absolutely no argument that the medical and health implications of drinking too much alcohol need to be well publicised and well understood by the general public, which currently isn’t the case. But to brand as pathological the amount most normal people drink at a dinner party or wedding or on a night out turns the entire population into risky drinkers. So then how do you identify those who really are risky drinkers?”

I think this is an important point. Most of us can over-indulge occasionally without without causing any harm to anyone else and doing little or no harm to ourselves – no more so than occasional over-indulging of eating..

When it comes to violence it shouldn’t be difficult to identify risky drinkers, especially when they become drunken thugs.

It’s not alcohol’s fault some people become dangerous while drinking. But it’s our society’s fault that they have been allowed to use alcohol as an excuse.

Note: Fox’s study was commissioned by Sydney-based liquor conglomerate Lion.

Fox expects to be dismissed by some as a propagandist for the liquor industry, but insists that her contract with Lion stipulated no interference in her research, analysis or writing. “In fact, it was quite brave of Lion because it didn’t know what I was going to say or what the results would be.

“I am not a mouthpiece for the alcohol industry but I do believe that every stakeholder in the drinking culture has a right to be heard.”