Christmas is on our doorstep once again, and you know what? Even amongst all the chaos that 2016 has thrown at us, among all the hatred and division, and the ongoing War on Christmas, there is still one thing we can all get behind and come together about this Chirstmas. What is this wonderous thing that unite all peoples across all borders and even beyond all religions?
Alcohol, that’s what. Because no matter what religion you hold, what politics you agree with, or just how much you may hate selections of your fellow man, if you live in the West then odds are mighty good that you will be getting drunk this Holiday Period. Repeatedly.
Admittedly much easier to do what it’s 42 degrees outside and everyone’s already a little heat-stroked.
To say humanity has a relationship with alcohol is putting it lightly. In fact that relationship might even pre-date humanity itself with research suggesting our ancestors first got on the stuff 10 million years ago – roughly 9.8 million years before humans strictly existed. And hasn’t that relationship only grown with time; these days we plow through the stuff at a rate of 6.2 litres of pure alcohol per adult every year. That varies quite a bit depending which country you’re talking about, but it’s really quite impressive just how widespread alcohol use it – sure your Muslim nations drink a fair bit less than your eastern Europeans, but they still drink despite the stuff being (generally) banned by their religion.
And big surprise, right? Alcohol is awesome!
It’s no exaggeration to say that some of the greatest and most memorable events of my life were made possible by booze. Ask any young person (and any old person who isn’t lying) and they can tell you half a dozen stories of something hilarious/amazing/terrifying that happened that time when they were drunk. Alcohol wasn’t just a part of these stories, it unquestionably made them possible – there is no way Bob ends up taped to the roof wearing his sister’s skirt while bellowing the national anthem at the top of his lungs unless everybody present is drunk. Because if anyone wasn’t this either would have been stopped pretty damn fast, or else would have been accompanied by quite a lot of sensible nay-saying, which tends to kill the mood.
Pretty confident saying no-one present here was sober.
But shenanigans aside, alcohol is a key factor in a huge variety of entertainment and is central to making that entertainment work. Why? Because it helps people to relax, that’s why. Sure it’s possible to have a great time without drinking, but if you’re bored, tired, anxious, nervous, awkward or basically anything other than happy and well-adjusted, then cramming yourself into a social event is not going to be much fun. But add a decent amount of alcohol into the mix and suddenly everyone is enjoying themselves!
For a bit, anyway. Because while humanity may have an intimate relationship with booze, it often isn’t a healthy one. For every story we have of an amazing experience we had ‘that one time Gary got into the Sambuca’, we have dozens more about fights, sobbing meltdowns, catastrophic hangovers and some truly, exceptionally bad decisions that very nearly got everyone arrested or killed – and some where people actually did get killed.
It’s all fun and games until the idiot passes out and drowns, because everyone forgot he was in there.
Needless to say, it turns out fucking with our brain chemistry for giggles isn’t that good for you. For starters booze isn’t good for you, simple as that. It’s unhealthy and harmful, as if anyone who has ever had a hangover needed telling that. Drink too much or too often and you body gets unwell in pretty much every way possible. And we’re not just talking about your full-blown alcoholics here either – more than 20% of Australians drink enough to fall into this category and alcohol causes twice as many deaths as road accidents each year.
But it gets worse than that, because as we all know, those same bad decisions that lead to hilarious stories? Combine that with a bad temper, poor impulse control, or access to a car, and the results tend to be serious injuries and death. Booze is the single largest contributing factor of violence in Australia and pretty much everywhere else – it’s almost like angry, scared and/or stupid people do terrible, dangerous things when their inhibitions are being muffled or something.
And yet we as a nation not only continue to allow alcohol to be sold, but actually celebrate it as a part of our culture. Imagine if we started doing that with heroin, a far more potent but statistically far less dangerous drug – people would lose their god damn minds! It would be considered the harbinger of the collapse of civilisation. Christ, we’ve had enough trouble with the idea of not treating marijuana users on par with violent criminals, and are in fact in the process of slowly criminalising something relatively as harmless as cigarettes (I despise the thing, but seriously, smokes never caused anyone to glass a guy).
So in summary here we have a drug which is known to be unhealthy, known to be widely used, known to be commonly abused, known to cause violent and dangerous behaviour, and we as a society not only accept it but celebrate it as part of our culture, despite the fact that we totally loath all other types of drugs.
Because it makes us feel good.
For a bit anyway; then it makes us feel sick and unhappy for while.
Never fails to amaze me that hangovers are universally met with sympathy. Dude just willfully drugged himself, acted like a dickhead, made quite the mess and is now a pile of self-pitying uselessness. ‘Contempt’ seems like a more realistic reaction, but here we are.
So based on all of this you’d think the ethical case would be pretty straight-forward: the benefits of alcohol are massively, massively outweighed by the harm it causes to its users and innocent bystanders, and therefore we should be banning it, right?
Wrong. Turns out doing that actually manages to make things worse.
This is where that distinction between the principle and practicalities of a situation I keep banging on about becomes relevant. It’s not just enough to establish that, based on the facts of the situation, ‘we need to stop doing the thing’. We must also consider ‘why the thing is currently happening’, ‘what alternatives to the thing exist’, and ‘what is likely to happen if we make people stop doing the thing’. And in the case of alcohol these practical realities are pretty clear: people will literally brew booze in their toilets if they can’t get it elsewhere.
Ask yourself dear reader, if you are among the vast majority of people who currently consume alcohol, given the massive dangers and harms it causes, will you now abstain from it? I’m going to go ahead and assume the answer is ‘no’. Why? Because you aren’t the sort of violent, irresponsible arsehat who does stupid, dangerous things when you’re drunk, right? You know how to handle your booze and keep yourself under control, right? And given you know how to manage and minimise the dangers of drinking, you should be allowed to enjoy the benefits of alcohol since you’ve effectively eliminated the costs, right?
Second question: do you reckon there is a single drinker on this earth who doesn’t think the exact same thing about themselves? Because that’s the sort of practical barrier in between any community and banning alcohol. Last time we tried it people literally chose to sponsor violent gangs who wreaked havoc throughout society, rather than give up the alcohol. In the end the bans were reversed and all that effort and heartache got us was a massive spike in organised crime, a significant drop in the quality of the alcohol, and absolutely no less drunkenness than before. A situation which might sound familiar to anyone following the war on other drugs we’ve been losing for a while now.
A neat little summary of how that’s going, in case you were wondering.
All of this may sound like I’m saying we should just give up and not try, and that sure sounds like some pretty shitty ethics. But the point isn’t that we should give up on our principles, but rather that how we choose to go about achieving them makes a very big difference – the means we use may or may not be justified by the ends we seek, but they absolutely will determine what that ‘end’ looks like. Try a hardcore prohibition approach and the end we get will be the same utter failure we’ve had before. And in the face of the overwhelming cultural acceptance (not to mention massive corporate interests) alcohol has backing it, even the criminalisation-by-degrees approach used with cigarettes is likely to fail.
Happily there is an alternative approach that not only provides pretty good results, but also has the added benefit of treating alcohol users like adults, rather than children who need looking after for their own good: education. It may sound trite but it turns out all that ‘use alcohol responsibly’ guff we sat through in high school is actually working – young Australians now drink about 50% less than people the same age 10 years ago did.
The reasons for this are likely pretty complicated, but when our reaction to that fact is ‘that’s weird’, it’s not like there are many barriers actively working to stop them, is there? I mean some people likely view this as downright un-Australian. So the only explanation I can come up with is that they simple don’t want to drink like that any more. And that’s a pretty solid win all round if you ask me.