A prominent Hastings solicitor celebrating New Year’s Eve at Waimarama beats up his wife, his teenage daughter, and her friend staying over. Along the road a 14 year old girl is raped. At a party nearby two men are arrested for assault. Numerous incidents of aggressive behaviour and sexual violation go unreported.In the aftermath, some of the solicitor’s friends excuse his behaviour to alcohol, as if ‘it’ were the perpetrator, not the person. Others are less forgiving, and as this man has a reputation for alcohol-fueled violence, think it time he’s reported to Police.
The debate swings to and fro over post-party chardonnays, vodkas and beers, but in the end no-one has the courage to report the assault. After all, there would be a prosecution, names would be mentioned, perhaps headlines in the newspaper. All very messy.
The rape victim was drunk. She can’t remember much. The assaulted boy has a fractured skull. His attackers say he stole their beer.
New Zealand begins every year by cleaning up the mess left over from the party. The pattern is set. The dead are grieved, the wounded are patched up by surgeons, and psychologists. The damage to peoples lives and property is processed through the courts and insurance companies. And for all the incidents of alcohol-related violence we hear about in our communities and in the media, many, many more are silenced by shame and fear.
Alcohol abuse is New Zealand’s biggest social problem. Apart from being a factor in 66% of arrests for disorder, violence and sexual offending (Wellington 2002/03), alcohol harm costs the public health sector, $655 million; crime and related costs, $240 million; social welfare, $200 million; and other alcohol-harm related Government spending, $330 million. Lost productivity cost for New Zealand, $1.17 billion. (Easton 2002)
Whoever is in Government, we are now a secular state, where social policy is shaped mostly by the statistics and the budget, and expenditure of $4 billion a year on remedial work from damage caused by alcohol abuse will be a target for whoever sits on the treasury benches.
‘Getting out of it’ on alcohol is a national pastime. It’s part of what we do, and who we are as a Nation.
From high flyers guzzling Champagne in a corporate box, to kids under the bridge doing alco-pops, New Zealanders across the spectrum love ‘getting out of it’. We hate the hangovers. We try and forget things we said or did. But it was great getting drunk. Let’s do it again soon.
Softening the hard-wired Kiwi attitude that glamourises heavy drinking, and deems it socially acceptable to be a drunk, is a mighty challenge.
Our drinking culture began with the British colonists, and as early as 1846 Governor Grey responded to lawlessness provoked by drinking with tougher regulations on the supply of spirits. The ‘public house’, like those in the ‘old country’, was the model for the dispensing and consuming of alcohol. Hours were set at 6am to 10pm weekdays, with extensions on application. They stayed that way until 1917, when the problem of workers denting the war effort by being hung over on the job was socially engineered away, by restricting pub closing hours to 6pm, with no extensions.
With 6 o’clock closing came a very distorted public view of drinking. An hour wasn’t enough time, leaving work at five. So the 6 o’clock swill saw the jugs lined up, waist high tables and the bar to lean on, no chairs, because you can’t drink as much or as fast if you’re sitting down. Women weren’t allowed in public bars. Men swilled down as much beer as possible and spilled onto the streets shortly after six. Trading hours were extended to 10pm in 1967.
Although it’s tempting to link 50 years of the 6 o’clock swill with our binge drinking culture today, it was simply the public face of what was happening as frequently in private.
In the 1950’s and 60’s, most serious drinking happened at private functions, and clubs, both sporting and social. Friday and Saturday nights were little different than today. People got pissed. Maybe at the Rugby club after the game, or a dinner party. Perhaps both.
Now for young New Zealanders, especially men, heavy drinking is a right of passage, and most 21st birthday parties will feature the yard glass, which often renders the birthday boy, or girl, incapable of enjoying their celebration into adulthood.
Binge drinking is all about ‘getting out of it’. The term implies escape, a flight from ‘reality’, and begs the question: what is so shocking about ‘reality’, when the ‘unreality’ caused by excessive alcohol too often leads to violence?
Violence in our society is linked indisputably with alcohol abuse, and scientists tell us it is because alcohol weakens brain mechanisms that normally restrain impulsive behaviours, including appropriate aggression. The aggressive drunk misjudges social cues, thereby overreacting to a perceived threat, and the only way for people with an alcohol problem to overcome their affliction is to stop or reduce their intake of alcohol.
Every citizen can contribute to help change our attitude toward excessive drinking.
The next time a man attacks his wife and kids we should insist he is prosecuted. Teenage girls should be protected by their parents and carers from getting so drunk they are vulnerable to sexual violation, and people, young and old, should be given the message: it’s not ‘cool’ to be an aggressive drunk.