Saturday, May 16, 2015

Karl du Fresne: Alcohol's mystical hold on Otago University students

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.

Karl du Fresne blogs at This article was first published in The Dominion Post, May 15.).


PJ said...

Thanks Karl – right on the point, but we should not blame these “young adults... kids, children” … whatever, either.

Parents, especially fathers, have been systematically dis empowered by idealist and politically correct zealots who have found their way into most government agencies and at very high levels.

Our anti-smacking bill is one high profile example and has parents reduced to bystanders to their children's behavior and for fathers, even a frown can be reported to the authorities as 'feeling threatened' and result in expulsion from the family home – or a lot worse.

We are all brought up by our mothers and the family anchored by our fathers – remove or neuter one or the other and we now see the result - “young adults” who have no sense of self discipline or the consequences of bad social behavior – they will “come right” in the end, but the state is doing the final upbringing.

Swift justice by mothers to their young children and fathers to their adolescent children is effective, and appropriate – how else can children learn to fit in?

Yes we oldies all say the same - “if I did that sort of thing as a 'young adult' my father would see to it that I never did it again” - and the tired old cliche, “never did me any harm” - so true.

I deserved and remembered what I did to receive the “clip round the ear” - I do not harbour any resentment or bad feelings as a result.

To bring children up in this pampered and pedo-empowered world can only be described as a form of child-abuse.

Geoffrey said...

Thanks Karl.

I well remember when I was responsible for inculcating a grasp of Military Law in young officers passing through the School of Army Administration in the 60's. A charge sheet prepared for personnel involved in disorderly behaviour that was compounded by alcohol was always to contain at least two charges; one related to the disorderly act and the other to the offense of Drunkenness.
For soldiers a conviction of Drunkenness resulted in a hefty penalty usually involving confinement. For officers, it was considered unbecoming and would probably result in loss of seniority if not cashiering.
The Code of Military Law quite specifically established that drunkenness was never to be considered as an excuse for disorderly behaviour.

It seemed to work...

bram52 said...

I agree Paul with what you say regarding the dis-empowered of fathers and the single mother epidemic, I do think also that you haven't given enough credit to the feminism movement , they deserve much more responsibility for their contribution to the destruction of family unit and the breakdown of standards in our western societies , we shouldn't forget their male hating agenda to demonize males and boys that is and has been their reason for being for the last 40 odd years

Colin Aldridge, Dunedin said...

Your analysis is fair and accurate when applied to the few students who behave so badly, supposedly under the influence of alcohol.

I recently retired from teaching at the University of Otago. In my time there I was left with no doubt that the majority of sudents there are fine young future citizens of this country; of the world. They did not deserve the treatment meted out in that Sunday programme.

It was clear to me that the Sunday effort was of the now common TV genre of "don't let the facts get in the way of a good story". I've given up on such so-called "documentaries". I'm getting my news from Radio NZ National and the good old, reliable Otago Daily Times, thank you very much...

RAYMONDO said...

I can assure you, and I write as an Otago resident, that what you said about the Vice Chancellor is accurate but what you said about what the mayor said is not quite the point. You see, the mayor is as soft as the rest of them because unlike the booze barons he relies on the repeat business of thousands of student to the Uni in order to pay for his prodigal use of ratepayers money!