1. Our society depends on alcohol. Alcohol is an almost ubiquitous component of our socialising, our celebrations and our cuisine. A recent article in the New York Times put it like this:
.. these same lifesaving social instincts didn’t readily lend themselves to exploration, artistic expression, romance, inventiveness and experimentation — the other human drives that make for a vibrant civilization. To free up those, we needed something that would suppress the rigid social codes that kept our clans safe and alive. We needed something that, on occasion, would let us break free from our biological herd imperative — or at least let us suppress our angst when we did. We needed beer.Yes this could be interpreted as saying that alcohol is compensating for faults in our ability to express ourselves. A sad admission but also an unavoidable truth.
And whether we like it or not, occasional misuse and overconsumption are inevitable consequences. That’s not to say that it isn’t important to do something about the frequency and volume of those instances of overconsumption. But people in denial of the nature of our society’s relationship with alcohol aren’t helping.
2. The Hospitality Industry is far from blameless. Spokespeople for the hospitality industry stress that the industry is playing its part and alcohol consumed off-premise does far more damage than that consumed on-premise. It’s a half-truth. Sure pre-loading is how many of the worst behaved drunks get that way. But if bars were truly, consistently fulfilling their obligation to deny service to the intoxicated, then places like Courtenay Place would look a lot different at 3am on Saturdays and Sundays.
3. New Zealand’s “Drinking Age” was never 20. All we ever had was a law that said anyone under 20 drinking in a bar ran the risk of getting a criminal record. Disobeying the law was normal and carried no stigma. If you got caught in a police raid and got a conviction you were considered unlucky, not naughty, let alone criminal. Of course if you were a law student you could argue that a conviction for something so trivial would unfairly disadvantage you in your career and get discharged without conviction. In other words, even the courts considered the guilty to be simply unlucky.
4. Alcohol abuse among young people is not some kind of modern scourge. In fact the only thing we know for sure about alcohol consumption is that in general it’s falling. The rest is anecdotal. Certainly it is easier than ever to witness disturbing and embarrassing displays by young people of their inability to consume alcohol sensibly. But why is that? A generation ago, our cities didn’t have strips of noisy bars licensed until well into the morning, where young people socialised and drank. Not as many as we have today anyway. Instead we did our early evening drinking in bars before adjourning to parties in suburban homes to conduct the business end of the evening’s alcohol consumption. Instead of falling over in the toilets of bars or Courtenay Place gutters, people turned feral, fought and passed out in each other’s homes and back yards.
One other change over the last decade that I see has been that people have been encouraged to spurn our reserved demeanour and behave flamboyantly in public. This is particularly true of sporting events, where it’s no longer enough to attend, clap and cheer then leave. Spectators are expected to become participants in a shared public spectacle. The most extreme example is, of course, the Wellington sevens. As I acknowledged above, we collectively depend on alcohol to shed inhibitions and fraternise. But at the sevens this is taken to an absurd extreme, by design.
There’s another particularly perverse aspect to the theory that today’s yoof are somehow off the rails. I was at university in the late 80s. At that time we saw a few remnants of the drinking culture that we were told had prevailed in the preceding decades. A culture of mini-tankers, drinking horns, projectile vomiting, “international rules” and other, frankly nauseating traditions. We were told that things had changed and internal assessment and tuition fees had robbed our university of its tradition of degenerate drinking practices. I’m not naïve enough to assume that the legends we were told about preceding decades were reliable. But we were being lamented and even mocked by the previous generation for our relative sobriety. Yes it’s just words, but not to impressionable people in their late teens and early twenties out to match the exploits of the previous generation. Every generation is influenced by the bullshit stories the previous one tells.
Which leads to a (slightly over-simplified) conclusion that:
one of the reasons that young people abuse alcohol is that their parents did.