This post is still in draft form and is posted here for constructive criticism and debate prior to final publication
Did anyone catch “Shitsville Express” on ABC2 on Tuesday Night? Joe Hilderbrand took four young politically-minded people on an emotionally-charged tour of persons affected by “alcohol-related violence” and asked for solutions. The results were unsurprising.
We are constantly told by politicians, the media and the public health lobby that we have a problem with ‘alcohol fuelled violence’. Alcohol is to blame for social ills, and this is a problem that can only be solved with more taxes to reduce consumption, and more regulation to discourage poor behaviour. Why, think of the children!
Yet as anyone who has travelled to Europe would know, alcohol consumption in Australia is relatively low by European standards, yet ‘alcohol-related violence’ is almost non-existent on the Continent.
The evidence for different reactions to alcohol across countries not purely anecdotal: a landmark study looking at alcohol-related aggressive behaviour across the world found that “alcohol-related aggressive behaviour—as measured by male involvement in drunken brawls—is about as likely to be present as it is to be absent” . Another found that “men engaged in drunkenness in 76% of 60 small societies examined, but aggressive drunken behaviour was found in less than half. ” The prestigious “Criminology” Journal recently observed: ” The evidence suggests that drinking has a strong effect on adolescent violence in the Nordic and Eastern European countries but has little or no effect in the Mediterranean countries”
What accounts for this?
What is it that makes “alcohol-related violence” such an issue in Australia? Why do Europeans drink so much more than we do and yet never seem to get out of control? After all, there is “There is enormous cross-cultural variation in the way people behave when they drink”. Why is it that here alcohol is associated with violent and anti-social behaviour, while in other countriesdrinking behaviour “is largely peaceful and harmonious”?
The answer to this question is not a mystery. Criminologists, sociologists, and anthropologists have researched this for decades, and have reached an overwhelming consensus: culture.
Multiple controlled experiments conducted under double blind control conditions have confirmed that aggressive behaviour is determined by cultural expectations rather than the chemical actions of ethanol.” Similarly, cross-cultural and longitudinal studies have shown that the effects of alcohol on behaviour are primarily determined by social and cultural factors, rather than the chemical actions of ethanol.
Let us stress this: science is clear – “we can conclude that there is no direct causal relationship between alcohol and violence”
In fact, so foreign is the belief that alcohol can trigger violence in European cultures that, to use one example, researches recently attempted to ask 300 individuals in Italy their perceptions of links between alcohol consumption and disorder/aggression. The note in the report is telling: “Their responses caused some difficulty and our translators were unable to convince many of them that there was not a ‘hidden agenda’ to the questioning. Quite simply, the vast majority of interviewees could not understand how anyone could imagine a connection between drinking alcohol and aggressive behaviour”
So what are the cultural factors that are determined? How can we convert Kings Cross on a Friday Night to the avenues of Rome? Again, we know the answer.
Experts divide countries into two categories: “integrated” cultures (think the Mediterranean, Latin America – most of the world in fact) where societies generally hold positive beliefs and expectancies about alcohol – children often sip wine from their parents glass etc, and “non-integrated” cultures (Australia, the UK, the US, Scandanavia), where public discourse is primarily on the negative effects of drinking and there is a belief in “the disinhibiting powers of alcohol”. In these societies, alcohol is associated with aggression, promiscuity, violence and anti-social behaviour” It is the non-integrated cultures where problems arise. “This variation cannot be attributed to different levels of consumption – most integrated drinking cultures have significantly higher per-capita alcohol consumption than the ambivalent drinking cultures. Instead the variation is clearly related to different cultural beliefs about alcohol, different expectations about the effects of alcohol, and different social rules about drunken comportment.”
This should not be overly surprising: our culture tells us that when people drink, they do bad things. The result of this is “a special alcohol-stamped “license to transgress” so ingrained in society that it has, in itself, become a rule… When intoxicated, drinkers are expected to alter their behavior and to engage with the crowd in varying degrees of promiscuity, vandalism, public displays of affection, loud and boisterous behavior, dancing, sex, and other activities that are normally under fairly strict social constraint”, rather unsurprisingly, they do so!
Expectations not only shape drunken behaviour, they also enable subsequent rationalisation, justification and excuses: In cultures where there is an expectation that alcohol will lead to aggression, people appeal to the fact that they were drunk in order to excuse their conduct.
When the media, our political figures tell young people that when they drink, violence and stupid conduct can occur, they are in fact priming young people to expect an aggressive outcome of their drinking – is it any wonder that they then oblige? A self-fulfilling prophecy is created.
To make matters worse, this unscientific belief in alcohol excusing behaviour has extended to our judicial system. Defendants in court often plead for mitigation on the basis that they were intoxicated at the time of the offence. It is not a particularly great feat of logic to work out what sort of mindset this denial of personal responsibility creates. Conversely, in cultures where learned expectations about the effects of alcohol are very different “appeals to drunkenness as an excuse for aggressive behaviour would not only fail to be persuasive, they might actually compound the severity of the offence..”
Perhaps Dr Eric Crampton from the University of Canterbury had it right when he said:
If we want to reduce the social costs of alcohol, then we ought to focus on the costs that drunks impose on other people. When we started taking drink driving seriously, we decided that drunkenness couldn’t be a defence to a charge of driving while intoxicated. And drink driving rates have dropped substantially. Nevertheless, drunkenness can be taken as exculpatory at time of sentencing for other offences because it can suggest a lack of intent to have committed the offence. If we want to address the social costs of alcohol-related crime, and if we want to impose the burden where it belongs – on louts who think it fun to get drunk and inflict harms on others – then we could start by taking intoxication at the time of an offense as being an exacerbating factor at the time of sentencing. We don’t try to reduce speeding by hiking petrol taxes, we do it by fining speeders. Why should we try to affect crimes committed by drunks by hiking alcohol excise taxes?”
Let there be no mistake about it therefore: by constantly claiming that alcohol is responsible for violence, our political classes are directly responsible for the problem.
Social anthropologist Kate Fox once argued:
I could very easily engineer a nation in which coffee would become a huge social problem – a nation in which young people would binge-drink coffee every Friday and Saturday night and then rampage around town centres being anti-social, getting into fights and having unprotected sex in random one-night stands. There are cultures where drinking is not associated with violence
I would restrict access to coffee, thus immediately giving it highly desirable forbidden-fruit status. Then I would issue lots of dire warnings about the dangerously disinhibiting effects of coffee. I would make sure everyone knew that even a mere three cups (six “units”) of coffee “can lead to anti-social, aggressive and violent behaviour”, and sexual promiscuity, thus instantly giving young people a powerful motive to binge-drink double espressos, and a perfect excuse to behave very badly after doing so. I could legitimately base many of my scary coffee-awareness warnings on the known effects of caffeine, and I could easily make these sound like a recipe for disaster, or at least for disinhibition and public disorder.
It would not take long for my dire warnings to create the beliefs and expectations that would make them self-fulfilling prophecies. This may sound like a science fiction story, but it is precisely what our misguided alcohol-education programmes have done
Shitsville concluded last night with each participant given a ‘soapbox’ on how to address the problem. While Siobhan Harris who bravely withstood the emotional manipulation of the show and continued to endorse individual liberty, and Jai Martinkowitz at least addressed the issue of personal responsibility, the other two participants took the easy cop-out answer of “more tax, more regulation”. The very things that science shows would, in fact, make the problem worse by entrenching the cultural mindset of the damaging effect of alcohol.
Malcolm Gladwell, writing in the New Yorker, recently examinedanthropological studies observing drinking culture in Italian migrant communities in New Haven which determined that it was unheard of for Italians to engage in violent behaviour, despite the fact that they drank as much as their next door neighbour who did. He concluded:
When confronted with the rowdy youth in the bar, we are happy to raise his drinking age, to tax his beer, to punish him if he drives under the influence, and to push him into treatment if his habit becomes an addiction. But we are reluctant to provide him with a positive and constructive example of how to drink. The consequences of that failure are considerable, because, in the end, culture is a more powerful tool in dealing with drinking than medicine, economics, or the law.
If we want to get serious about alcohol related violence in Australia, we must reject simplistic calls to ban, to tax, to regulate, to demonise alcohol. Instead, we need to do the exact opposite. We need to educate people on the positive effects of alcohol, we need to integrate it fully into our society, and we need to move away from the present model of excusing behaviour. This is by no means the only step necessary – concepts of masculinity, bar layouts, the management of drinking establishment, and indeed also the presence of security (big beefy bouncers are far more likely to create an atmosphere receptive to violence than one promulgating security) also need to be addressed. But if we want to get serious about the problem, the first step must be to end the demonization of alcohol and enact educational measures to promote more positive beliefs on the behavioural effects of alcohol. This is the exact opposite of what are political classes are presently doing – but the research is clear that it is the only way the problem shall be curbed.
Or, maybe we should just slap a sin-tax on all ignorant politicians who open their mouths, and affix mandatory graphic health warning labels on every poor journalist. That could also work.