Drunkenness is no excuse

New Zealand Centre for Political Research

The New Zealand Centre for Political Research is a web-based think tank that takes a research-based approach to public policy matters and encourages the free and open debate of political issues. www.nzcpr.com

Because alcohol is seen as a cause of negative behaviour, alcohol-related norm violations are explained with reference to drinking rather than the individual. Thus, by believing that alcohol makes people act badly, we give it a great deal of power. Drinking becomes a tool that legitimates irrationality and excuses violence without permanently destroying an individual’s moral standing or the society’s system of rules and ethics – Barbara Critchlow, 1986

Almost every week our newspapers carry stories of events that get out of hand when partying revellers become a public nuisance. In most cases Police are called in or someone ends up in A&E. Invariably the booze becomes the target rather than the bad behaviour of party goers and there are calls for further restrictions on alcohol.

Dr Anne Fox, a UK anthropologist and founder of the British based consultancy Galahad SMS, has been studying drinking cultures around the world for the past 20 years. Working in the field of substance abuse, Dr Fox has assisted numerous organisations including the British Army, the Home Office and the Youth Justice Board. In 2012, she accepted a commission from the Lion Foundation to look into alcohol-fuelled violence in Australia and New Zealand. The study, which involved several months of field work and focus groups, began in mid-2013 and the paper, Understanding Behaviour in the Australian and New Zealand night-time economies, was published earlier this year.

While most reports treat alcohol fuelled violence as an inevitable consequence of heavy drinking, this research encompasses human behaviour and cultural norms to provide a different perspective which is worth examining.

Dr Fox found that unlike in many other countries, New Zealanders to a large extent blame alcohol for unacceptable behaviour, rather than drinkers; a little like blaming cars for speeding instead of drivers.

As Dr Fox, who is this week’s NZCPR Guest Commentator says, “One of the strongest and most universal beliefs we encountered in our research among adult New Zealanders is in alcohol’s transformational powers. A belief in the ‘disinhibiting’ power of alcohol runs through New Zealand society from the youngest to the oldest.

“Although conclusive evidence to the contrary exists, many New Zealanders still believe that alcohol has the power to hijack their better natures, control their thinking and make them do crazy and stupid things.”

First, some facts about drinking: around 80 percent of New Zealanders drink alcohol, with a consumption rate of 9.3 litres per head of population in 2011-12, compared to France at 12.6 litres, Germany 11.6, Denmark 10.6, and Australia 10.1.

The Ministry of Health estimates that 15 percent of the New Zealand population are “hazardous” drinkers, and they recommend that a safe level of consumption is four or five standard drinks ‘per session’ for men and three or four for women.

Dr Fox describes our drinking culture as festive or episodic, similar to Nordic drinking, in that we drink at times that are largely separate from ordinary life. This contrasts to the Mediterranean drinking culture, where alcohol consumption is integrated into daily life – as in some parts of rural France, where working men may enjoy a shot of red wine with breakfast, or in Germany, a small glass of beer.

Many studies have been carried out to better understand “drunken behaviour”. Dr Fox quotes cases where participants who received non-alcoholic placebos acted in a far more inebriated manner than those drinking alcohol, even to the point of slurring their speech and experiencing blurred vision – until they were told that they had not received any alcohol.

This extensive research has led to the conclusion that it is not alcohol itself that causes a loss of inhibition – alcohol acts as a symbol that gives people the licence to behave in an uninhibited way.

A key point made in the report is that drunken behaviour is determined by culture, not chemicals, and is far more under a drinker’s control than some might believe. The brain state that relaxes inhibitions and frees up behavioural expression is voluntary and reversible.

This is not to say that alcohol has no physiological effects – of course it does. In fact, the paper warns that irrespective of cultural norms, “drinkers should not attempt to drive, operate machinery or be in sole charge of infants or young children, to give just a few examples”. But, the physiological effects do not determine the behavioural response.

Dr Fox found that the ‘average’ New Zealander knows very little about the way the body processes alcohol, what levels of drinking are harmful, how tolerance and dependence can develop, or what the signs of alcohol poisoning are. The report highlights the need for more effective alcohol-education strategies, including a better understanding of the ways in which young people learn to drink in cultures that do not have a problem with alcohol abuse or anti-social behaviour.

It also suggests that young people need more facts: “In anything but minute doses, alcohol is extremely damaging to a developing brain”. Parents and teenagers need to know that brain development continues until around age 21, and that large amounts of alcohol are harmful.

They should also understand that alcohol stimulates the brain in the same way as natural endorphins. That’s why participants in experiments using placebos can end up feeling just as drunk as those using alcohol. In other words, individuals are perfectly capable of creating their own buzz without needing alcohol.

In one focus group described in the report, young women indicated that while they understood that excessive drinking could lead to liver disease and accidents, this information had little impact on their drinking patterns. But when they were told that a rum and coke has as many calories as a bar of chocolate, and that three pints of beer have the same calorie content as a hamburger, they were horrified and immediately began discussing ways to cut their intake.

A crucial question addressed in the report is whether alcohol causes violence. The point is made that if alcohol is the cause of violence it would affect all sexes across all societies equally. Clearly it doesn’t. For most normal, healthy individuals, there is no evidence at all that alcohol unleashes violence. As an Australian policewoman explained, “I have never met a violent drunk who was not also violent when sober”.

In Costa Rica, 26.2 percent of men fight after drinking compared to just 3.5 percent of Danish men and 3.7 percent of Spanish men. In spite of Luxembourg having one of the highest alcohol consumption rates in the world, it has one of the lowest homicide rates, whereas Jamaica has one of the world’s lowest alcohol consumption rates but in 2005, had one of the highest homicide rates.

In many countries, drinkers remain in control of their behaviour, even when severely inebriated. In Japan, heavy drinking is widely tolerated, but overtly drunken or anti-social behaviour is not. Likewise, Cuban men pride themselves on control when drinking. In Nigeria, the more a man consumes alcohol and remains sober, the more respect he gains, and amongst students, being able to drink and remain sober makes one a “hero”.

While violence does not go hand in hand with alcohol use, in certain cultures and situations, alcohol can facilitate aggression – but only if aggression is there in the first place, both in the individual and in the culture. Alcohol does not produce aggression where it doesn’t already exist.

So what leads to aggression and violence?

The report explains that while some violent offenders are born with brain abnormalities, other risk factors such as complications during birth, lack of proper nurturing in infancy, or being born into a violent home environment, can predispose a child to violent and aggressive behaviour.

The way in which young boys are raised also has a crucial influence on the levels of violence within a society, since if they are trained in both non-violent responses to conflict, and face-saving avoidance techniques, they won’t react aggressively to every perceived slight, taunt or jest.

In the same vein, domestic violence will not be eliminated by locking up all perpetrators – if young boys are continuing to be socialised in the same way as their violent fathers.

International evidence shows that cultural change to suppress potential aggression in boys can be successful. In Kenya for example, to attain a high status among Maasai men, a boy would have to kill a lion, but the prohibition of lion hunting has forced a re-direction of cultural definitions of manhood – now, educational achievement is equated with high status and masculinity in Maasai tribes.

Different societies have adopted a range of approaches. Violence-repressing cultures such as Japan and Denmark are rich in social and cultural solutions for non-violent conflict-avoidance and have strong community-based values. Virtually no support is found in these cultures for aggressive responses in day-to-day situations.

If New Zealanders continue to believe that alcohol causes people to behave badly, we should expect undesirable conduct in and around drinking venues. The script needs to be changed from excusing such conduct to, “You are in control of your behaviour at all times. Drunkenness is no excuse.”

We also need to change our cultural norms – violence and aggression need to be re-defined in the popular consciousness as forms of weakness that will attract scorn and social ostracism.

The justice system also has an important role to play.

The report outlines how Newcastle police are targeting the 5 percent of the population who are responsible for 90 percent of the violence. They have increased bail compliance checks from 40 to 400 a month, making sure that each night offenders, who are out on bail or probation and are subject to a curfew, are not on the streets.

Whether New Zealand would be prepared to accept a New York style zero tolerance approach to anti-social behaviour – given that some would view it as an unwelcome intrusion into civil liberties – is a question that needs to be asked.

Given that offenders in most countries, who drink and drive, are required to attend educational classes in order to regain their license, the report suggests that those convicted of violence or aggression could be required to engage in rehabilitation with regards to drug and alcohol use, violence and conflict avoidance, and so on.

When it comes to the judiciary, their major concern is whether intoxication in assault cases affects a person’s mental state to the extent that they can be said to be acting involuntarily and therefore without criminal intent. The report finds that in a majority of court cases, not only is drunkenness considered to effect moral judgment and self-control, but that faculties appear to be regarded as incapacitated in direct proportion to the volume of alcohol consumed. In this respect the law and science are diverging.

The implications are serious. Perpetrators understand that if they use intoxication as an excuse for their behaviour, they may be charged with a lesser crime and receive a more lenient sentence. And if media commentary reports that drunkenness is an acceptable excuse for poor behaviour in the courts, then this reinforces a perceived license to transgress.

In her report, Dr Fox notes that culture is like a balloon: if you squeeze one end, the other will bulge out. This means that behaviours that are driven by very basic underlying human needs will not be eliminated by a process of change, but will be distorted or displaced, sometimes creating serious unintended consequences. As an example she explains how the reduction of drink driving in the UK, has had a negative impact on binge drinking, since some people who would normally have moderated their consumption because they were driving home now feel free to ‘binge’ since they have arranged alternative transport.

As far as public policy is concerned, Dr Fox’s report is confronting. The understanding that “alcohol-fuelled” violence is really “culturally fuelled” violence means that raising or lowering the price of alcohol, changing opening hours, or restricting or banning advertising, will not make it go away.

When such behaviour threatens society, offenders should be sanctioned and stigmatised not only socially but through the justice system. Whether policy makers will have the courage to go further and tackle the violent underbelly of New Zealand culture, in order to bring about real change in the future, remains to be seen.


Do you believe New Zealand has a culture of violence?


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