Bar none

by Karl du Fresne / 02 April, 2015
An anthropologist says Kiwis and Aussies who blame booze for their violence should instead point the finger at our macho culture.
Photo/Getty Images

Call them the liquor wars. They have been raging in New Zealand since the 19th century and the battle lines are clearly defined: the liquor industry and supporters of a more liberal regulatory regime on one side, advocates of tight controls (for example, on opening hours, liquor advertising and the legal drinking age) on the other.

Put more crudely, it’s booze barons versus wowsers. The arguments both ways are wearisomely familiar and have been recited for as long as anyone can remember.

But a new front has opened in hostilities. 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.

“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.

The paper was commissioned by the big Sydney-based liquor conglomerate Lion, which will inevitably result in questions about Fox’s independence. But she avoids overt polemics, instead using evidence from a year’s research in New Zealand and Australia, plus volumes of supporting evidence, to reframe the debate over alcohol and move it in a new direction.

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.

The paper was written as controversy raged on both sides of the Tasman over binge drinking and “alcohol-fuelled” violence (a phrase Fox rejects as misleading), but her central thesis is that alcohol doesn’t have to be associated with antisocial behaviour. 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.

As evidence, she cites heavy-drinking societies that manage to remain peaceable. Iceland, for example, 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, Fox writes, yet remain “famously harmonious and peaceful”.

New Zealanders and Australians, by international standards, are only moderate per capita consumers of alcohol, yet many of us seem incapable of drinking without risking harm to ourselves or others. So what’s the difference?

Anne Fox: aggressive masculinity is evident everywhere, from schoolyards to sports fields, politics and pubs, movies and media. Photo/Haagen Hopkins


Fox’s conclusion is that although alcohol gets the blame, the real problems are rooted in our cultural attitudes. We treat liquor as if it exerts some mystical power over us, thus allowing us to exempt ourselves from personal responsibility when we behave badly.

As Fox puts it, “most people [in New Zealand and Australia] still believe that alcohol has the power to hijack their better natures, control their thinking and make them do crazy and stupid things.” But she says there is conclusive evidence to the contrary.

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, too, men generally pride themselves on self-control when drinking, and risk being stigmatised if they behave badly.

She also cites the British enclave of Gibraltar, “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.”

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.”

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 appropriate response to drunken behaviour might be coming down harder on offenders and more visible policing rather than restrictions on sales and marketing. Photo/Getty Images


According to Fox, even New Zealanders have some power to control how they act when they’ve been drinking, as long as it suits them to do so. In focus groups, for example, it emerged that young people who preloaded at home were perfectly capable of appearing sober if they wanted to get into a club.

“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.”

Conversely, Fox tells of experiments in which some participants were given wine while others unknowingly drank an alcohol-free placebo. Those given the alcohol-free drink became just as disinhibited as the ones drinking the real thing – confirming, she argues, that we are culturally programmed to respond a certain way in drinking situations.

To put it another way, how we behave when we’ve been drinking is determined culturally and socially rather than chemically, Fox argues.

While alcohol acts as a depressant, slowing down the messages sent by the brain to the body, Fox says its chemical effect is not independent of our “neural scaffolding of thought, belief and expectation”. Behaviours associated with alcohol are ingrained in us early in life and can be acted out by children as young as six. She makes the radical assertion that the brain state that enables the relaxation of inhibitions and “freeing” of behavioural expression is voluntary and reversible.

But she 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”.

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.”

She doesn’t buy the notion that drunk men are powerless to control their violent impulses. As evidence, she 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.

Fox also refuses to accept that alcohol somehow triggers violence in people who otherwise display no violent impulses. “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.”

Violence in the New Zealand and Australian entertainment precincts she studied was not caused by normal people who suddenly turned savage or aggressive, but by violent people, she says. “Violent people 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.

She goes on to conclude (and critics will probably claim that here she’s pushing a liquor industry line) that if alcohol really does cause aggression, government supply-side controls and prohibitive measures would be justified. But 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.

Many societies drink more per capita than New Zealand but they stigmatise displays of drunkenness. Photo/Thinkstock


Fox draws an interesting distinction between our drinking patterns and those of some European countries. New Zealanders and Australians are classified as episodic, celebratory drinkers who drink on occasions that are delineated by custom and law, typically at parties or in pubs and clubs. Such occasions signify a special time separated from ordinary, everyday life.

It’s a pattern conducive to binge drinking, in contrast with cultures where moderate alcohol consumption is woven into the daily rhythm of life. In Germany, for example, she says it’s common to see working men enjoying a small glass of beer with breakfast. In rural France, some men still have a “coup de rouge” – a shot-sized glass of red wine – before beginning the day’s work. She describes these as “integrated” drinking cultures where alcohol is not generally associated with antisocial behaviour, even though per capita consumption may be higher than ours.

Fox, whose father founded the department of anthropology at Rutgers University in New Jersey, spent part of her childhood in France and recalls that on saints’ days at school, a jug of wine would be put on the table for older pupils. “And the interesting thing was pretty much nobody touched it. It wasn’t anything special. Instead we’d cut school and go to cafes, where we’d try to look incredibly grown-up so the barman would serve us coffee.”

That was an example of what might be called the forbidden fruit syndrome. “Whatever is forbidden is going to be attractive,” says Fox. In this instance it was coffee, which was off limits to children.

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.”

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?”



Okay, so we use alcohol as an excuse for behaving badly. But what should we do to change things? Fox’s paper includes a raft of recommendations. The first is that we should stop focusing on “alcohol-fuelled violence” and address what she calls cultural reinforcers of violence, such as aggressive masculinity.

A cultural shift can be achieved, she says, by recognising that individuals are in control of their own behaviour and should face consequences, such as social stigma and heavy penalties, for transgressions.

Fox also suggests we should de-emphasise consumption of alcohol for its own sake and refocus on entertainment and group conviviality. She urges better drinking environments, with higher ratios of females (both staff and patrons), a wider range of ages (violence is less likely in mixed-age groups) and a clear message that bad behaviour will not be tolerated. She was alarmed at the number of bars and clubs in New Zealand and Australia that served people who were clearly drunk.

She is also an advocate of consistent, visible policing (she found that police are more effective on foot than in patrol cars) and clear penalties for bad behaviour. In the New South Wales city of Newcastle, Fox notes, police show little tolerance for bad behaviour and young people are well aware that infringements, such as sexual harassment or urinating in public, will earn them a heavy and immediate fine.

Safe, well-managed 24-hour food outlets are important too, she says, as is adequate transport out of the entertainment districts of large cities.

Fox suggests that even language can be used to change harmful concepts of masculinity and to indicate social disapproval of violent behaviour. In Australia the term “king hit”, meaning a powerful blow delivered without warning, has been rebranded in the media as the “coward’s punch” following a series of highly publicised king hit-related deaths and injuries. The long-term effectiveness of this change in terminology has yet to be measured but Fox calls it a step in the right direction.

She is especially emphatic about the need for better alcohol education. Young New Zealanders and Australians appear to know very little of the basic facts about alcohol, she says. Effective programmes should offer a balanced portrayal of both the negative and positive aspects of consumption and provide unbiased information about alcohol’s real effects.

Scare tactics don’t work and can even be counter-productive, she insists. “The element of risk is, for many young people, an added attraction to drug-taking or binge drinking.”


Some of Fox’s findings will please the liquor lobby. She argues, for example, that alcohol-related violence will not be deterred by raising the price of liquor, closing bars earlier or banning advertising. “Efforts at alcohol control will be ineffective if not related to changes in the macho culture of violence.”

But she doesn’t entirely let the liquor industry off the hook. She suggests, for example, that beer advertisements that stress the cult of male mateship – as some undoubtedly do – risk reinforcing the less desirable aspects of macho culture, such as brutal competitiveness and misogyny. Advertising, she warns, can reinforce or glamorise “maladaptive cultural norms” around drinking.

Similarly, Fox makes no attempt to play down the negative effects of excessive alcohol consumption, especially among the young. “Your brain doesn’t finish developing until you’re in your early twenties, in many cases, and the effect of binge drinking on a developing brain is very damaging. But this has been misinterpreted and translated into a fear of children having any access to alcohol at all.”

As for the likely reaction to her paper, 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.”

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