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.”