(First published in The Dominion Post, May 15.)
TVNZ’s Sunday programme this week included an item about student partying in Dunedin. Residents unlucky enough to have noisy, drunk, inconsiderate students as neighbours have had a gutsful, and who can blame them?The programme included footage taken in a student flat famous for its parties. An occupant proudly showed the reporter his rubbish-strewn bedroom, still trashed after the most recent revelry.
To say it wasn’t fit for a dog would be an understatement. No self-respecting rat would have tolerated the mess and filth.Other footage included scenes of the annual Hyde St party that marks the start of the academic year. At this year’s event a St John’s Ambulance vehicle was attacked, a dozen party-goers were arrested and many more needed medical attention.
An anthropologist studying the footage might reasonably conclude that human evolution has peaked and that we’re now on our way back to being grunting cave-dwellers.I understand the programme is likely to be the subject of complaints that it didn’t fairly reflect the behaviour of the whole Dunedin student population.
That may be so. Certainly, Sunday did little to dispel the view that many students are pampered, narcissistic slobs. It seems a very long time since student culture was defined by political passion and cutting satirical wit.What struck me most, however, was the readiness to place the blame for the oafishness not on the students, where it belonged, but on booze. “It’s absolutely the alcohol,” said one of the aggrieved neighbours.
Otago University’s vice-chancellor, Harlene Hayne, also seized on alcohol as the culprit. If student behaviour was going to be changed, she said, New Zealand had to get serious about making alcohol harder to obtain.Professor Hayne appears not to have a very high opinion of her students. She seems to regard them as powerless to control their behaviour under the mystical influence of drink.
But of course alcohol makes a convenient scapegoat for the university’s embarrassment at the bad publicity brought on it by all the unruly partying.Don’t blame our students, Hayne seemed to be saying; blame the wicked liquor barons who force them to drink too much and then behave like oiks. And blame the politicians who refuse to tighten the liquor laws (no doubt because they’re in thrall to the booze merchants).
What Hayne and the disgruntled neighbour of the student revellers appear to overlook is that hundreds of thousands of New Zealanders drink alcohol regularly (I do it every day) without behaving badly.Drunken idiocy is not an inevitable consequence of liquor consumption. People don’t have to trash houses, urinate in the street, vomit in the neighbour’s garden or start fights. It’s their choice to do so.
The problem, then, is not alcohol; it’s us. This is a point made persuasively by the British anthropologist Anne Fox in a recent study of public drunkenness in New Zealand and Australia.Critics will question the credibility of Fox’s research because it was commissioned by the liquor conglomerate Lion, but much of what she says is inarguable.
She says we accept a level of drunkenness that would not be accepted in many other Western countries. But she also points out that even in societies where there is high liquor consumption, it’s not associated with anti-social behaviour as it is here.Fox argues that we accept drunkenness as an excuse for behaviour that would not otherwise be tolerated, and that scapegoating alcohol as the sole cause of bad behaviour merely diverts attention from “maladaptive cultural norms”. (I think that’s a polite way of saying we’re an immature lot, and who can disagree?)
Let me be clear: I detest boorish drunken behaviour. But no one is forced to get drunk, and still less to behave like a moron (or turn violent, which of course is far worse) if they do.Dunedin mayor Dave Cull had it right on Sunday, even if the vice-chancellor of Otago University couldn’t see it. Cull said there had been too much tolerance of bad behaviour.
As long as we exempt people from responsibility for offensive behaviour when they’re drunk, we’ll make no headway against the drinking culture that public health experts and sanctimonious academics profess to be so concerned about.
But of course it's easier to blame the liquor industry. It also panders to popular prejudices (enthusiastically stoked by the same academics, some of them employed by Otago University) that we are all at the mercy of wicked, unscrupulous capitalists.