Is alcohol the real problem in our society?

Alcohol is perpetually used as an excuse both by authorities and users for the poor behaviour which leads to so many significant problems in our society; the greater question should possibly be to ask if it is not our society, communities and our culture which is actually to blame.

I recently read a very interesting article written by social anthropologist Kate Fox (see below for the link). She argues that the various myths and misinformation surrounding alcohol, as well as government, health authorities and drinks industry messages are actually the driving force behind the high levels of alcohol related anti-social behaviour, violence and sexual promiscuity we experience here in the UK.

The argument in its simplest form is similar to ‘guns don’t kill people, people kill people’. Although undoubtedly true, the counter argument is not a difficult one; remove the guns and those people who may have a propensity to kill someone will not have the means to do so; or at least not quite so easily.

Kate Fox suggests that if people are bombarded with the message that alcohol leads people to be violent, they will end up being convinced that this is indeed a fact over which the individual has no control. Consequently they may when drunk potentially demonstrate this behaviour, believing it to be the fault of the alcohol rather than their own inability to control their emotional and instinctive behaviour with rational thought.

There can be no doubt that suggestion can lead to behavioural change; if we believe we are going to get drunk we will often act that way. The quantity of alcohol we consume will have a physiological effect we will notice, so we know we are getting more drunk. The suggestion in Kate’s article would be that it is our behavioural response to these physiological stimulus which are in part controlled by our values and the assumptions we make because of the ‘propaganda’ we are fed, which leads to violent and promiscuous behaviour.

Many years ago with a group of friends on a trip to Spain we went to a football match in Barcelona’s Nou Camp stadium, imagine our joy when we discovered that there were good people employed to sell drinks within the stand; we didn’t even have to move from our seats. Our joy was even greater when we realised that you could buy beer….

By half time we had all consumed a few bottles and were starting to feel the effects, our chanting and behaviour changed as we absorbed the atmosphere fuelled by the alcohol we were drinking.

It wasn’t until half way through the second half when one member of the group pointed out that on the back of the Heineken bottle there was clearly marked ‘Sin Alcohol’; it didn’t take us long to translate this into ‘Alcohol Free’…

So despite the fact that we had been drinking alcohol free beer for the past couple of hours, almost every member of the group could testify to having had the feeling that they had been getting a little drunk, yet to a man once we knew we all realised we were sober and our behaviour changed accordingly. The cheering became polite claps, the shouted advice to the players / referee became considered debate amongst the group and we quickly realised that it was in fact one of the dullest games of football anyone of us had witnessed in a while.

So had we been the type of people who had violent tendencies, who had witnessed violence regularly in our lives or who had grown up in more violent surroundings, would our behaviour have had the potential for violence when we were drinking alcohol free beer? Well I certainly can’t rule it out.

Having said all of this, there is still clearly a physiological effect of alcohol as well as a psychological one.

Kate Fox’s suggestion that she could reproduce the effects of alcohol on society with caffeine if starting from a blank page, are probably not very far from the truth. Most people wouldn’t drink 15 straight espressos, because it doesn’t make sense, but then does drinking 15 shots of vodka make any sense?

For example I know that if I have more than a couple of cups of coffee a day I get a little twitchy and it affects my sleep, so I avoid it. I can’t say I’ve always done the same with alcohol, despite knowing the cost to my health and wellbeing the next morning.

Although I’ve argued many times before about the misunderstanding people have of alcohol, the quantities they consume and the relative strength of alcohol, most people understand the effects and side affects of alcohol and its detrimental impact on some sections of our community.

Although I accept the principle of Kate’s theory, the reality is that we have 60 Million people in the UK who are already programmed to believe in the effects of alcohol and we have a culture which embraces it.

The vast majority of these people drink alcohol in moderation and although they may believe the rhetoric they have enough control over the rational side of their mind to control the emotional side which is so much more susceptible to the cultural influences.

Most people know that fighting is wrong, that damaging property is wrong and that although we all occasionally experience emotions which suggest to us that we want to fight or damage property as a result of the triggers we encounter, the inhibitors we have learned prevent it. These inhibitors (such as legal consequences, pain, values, cultural beliefs, compassion, empathy etc.) are, in the vast majority of us, strong enough to resist the effect of alcohol which does reduce our inhibitions.

The big question is how as a society we ensure that alcohol consumption continues to deliver the positive contribution it does by bringing down only those barriers we want it to break down; to make us more socially engaging, more confident, more relaxed without affecting our social responsibilities which we should maintain as effective members of a civilised community.

As things currently stand the quantity of alcohol consumed remains a problem, because the more we drink the more our inhibitions are broken down and triggers become more pronounced, which consequently leads to the problems we currently associate with alcohol.

So if we accept that ‘guns don’t kill people, people kill people’ then maybe we should accept ‘alcohol doesn’t cause anti-social behaviour, people cause anti-social behaviour’. It may not have quite the same ring to it, but it is a one dimensional truth.

So if the only way to stop guns being used to kill people is to rid our communities of all guns, then the only way to stop alcohol being used as an excuse for violent and promiscuous behaviour must be to get rid of alcohol?

However we have to recognise that prohibition in various forms has proven time and time again to be ineffective and that the vast majority of people enjoy alcohol responsibly, so simply banning alcohol can’t be the answer. Ban something which gives people pleasure and you drive it underground and make it more desirable.

The point is that both with guns and alcohol, they are just manifestations of underlying problems in our society, in our communities and with our culture. Banning alcohol, restricting alcohol and increasing the price of alcohol, is a little like a doctor treating the symptoms and not the cause. The more we ignore the cause and think we can solve the problems by treating the symptoms and maintaining them at their current levels, the more the root causes will continue to grow.

There are many cultures where alcohol is not consumed for religious or cultural reasons, but there are also plenty of cultures where alcohol is consumed without the negative consequences we see in the UK. We will start to address the problems associated with promiscuous behaviour, anti-social behaviour and violence when we stop blaming the alcohol, which only acts to highlight the existing problems in society and start dealing with the root causes.


Related Stories

Is the alcohol message all wrong?BBC


Date – 12th October 2011

Submitted by – Peter Mayhew


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