This article was published in Catalyst on 12/04/2013.
Anyone who’s driven south on Punt Road over the last couple of years will be familiar with the rotating billboard near Richmond Station. On one side, it reads “Alcohol does not cause violence”; on the other, “Blame and punish the individual”. It’s a message founded on a dubious premise: that consumption of alcohol is not a possible reason for violent behaviour.
Beyond the contentious nature of that claim, there’s a crucial ambiguity in the statement. ‘Cause’ here can be understood in two ways: in the sense of to wholly determine (i.e. liquor consumption is the sole reason why violence occurs and is practically guaranteed to lead to violence); or, in the sense of to be a contributing factor.
If the first meaning is intended, the sign is essentially a straw-person exercise. Clearly, nobody believes that everyone who drinks alcohol behaves violently, nor does anyone think that intoxicants are sufficient to cause violence in the absence of any other contributing factors. Actually, when you think about it, this is the case for pretty much anything — it is hard to think of any phenomena that only have one isolated cause without getting tautological (e.g. death is caused by dying). To use the word ’cause’ this way is an absurd exercise, as you could just as well argue that “hydrogen bombs do not cause massacres” or “the sun does not cause daytime”.
What the billboard appears to be arguing, then, is that alcohol does not contribute to violent behaviour at all. Surely, this claim is no less absurd. We can pull out any number of relevant studies to debunk it, or we can simply use common sense: alcohol consumption causes mental impairment and loss of impulse control, which in turn leads to a higher prevalence of antisocial behaviour. The fact that the link isn’t direct is no victory for those denying causality: it’s scientifically, logically and empirically clear that the prevalence of violence increases when consumption of alcohol is widespread.
Even if one were to protest that not everybody responds the same way to alcohol — that it’s only ‘aggressive people’ who behave more aggressively under the influence of alcohol — we have to keep in mind that aggression is one character trait of many that may appear in different contexts. Some people subconsciously long for a fight at any given moment; some people repress until they explode; some people have a mildly aggressive nature and have a small (but no less potentially destructive) chance of acting out on it. Together, these categories probably account for a significant majority of the (at least, male) population, and alcohol raises the risk of violent behaviour in all such cases. ‘Profiling’ (say, not serving alcohol to men in polo shirts; not serving alcohol to any men under the age of 30) might reduce the prevalence of alcohol-fuelled violence to some extent, but it’s inherently problematic for all sorts of reasons — not just because of valid concerns about discrimination, but the danger of essentially replicating prohibition. In any case, it is clear that nothing of the sort is on the agenda of the people who designed this billboard.
What is their agenda? The answer is made apparent on the reverse side: “Blame and punish the individual”. The subtext here, of course, is that further alcohol regulation is not the way to deal with this problem. The focus on the ‘individual’ is a rejection of social policy; violence no longer portrayed as a cultural problem but a personal failing.
Placing the responsibility solely on the individual appeals to a popular conception of justice, but it seems like a misguided approach. If the solution were so easy, it’s unlikely that this discussion would even be necessary: after all, people who commit crimes under the influence of alcohol are punished by our legal system just as they always have been, and yet alcohol-fuelled violence is still considered a significant social problem. Furthermore, apart from the legal deterrent (least effective, it should be noted, when aimed at people under the influence of intoxicants), ‘blaming and punishing the individual’ is not a true preventative measure; it does not stop people from being assaulted. Regulating the sale and marketing of alcohol, on the other hand, might well have beneficial consequences.
It comes as no surprise to learn that one of the organisations responsible for this billboard — the Nightclubs Owners Forum — has a financial interest in the message being displayed. What’s a little more surprising is the identity of their partner in this campaign:
While it’s a curious alignment, it makes sense on some level. The Australian Sex Party does promote itself as a libertarian/individualist political group, and this does seem a fairly classical libertarian argument: in order for people to be permitted to act freely — and, if necessary, suffer the consequences of their actions — regulation must be minimised wherever possible. Although there is much to be said for some aspects of libertarian ideology, this is one area in which the philosophy appears fundamentally flawed. In this case, libertarian thinking has led to a demonstrably false claim on one side and misguided advocacy on the other.
Individualism and pleas for personal responsibility only go so far. Even the most ardent libertarian must concede that regulations of some kind are crucial in any form of functioning society. It follows, then, that when a significant social problem is apparent, possible further regulation of some sort must at least be given serious consideration. No credible discourse can avoid this.