Neil Davenport is a writer and politics lecturer based in London.
He blogs at http://the-midnight-bell.blogspot.com/
Laura Hall, 21-year-old boozer extraordinaire from Redditch near Birmingham, is the anti-drink campaigner’s poster girl of choice. Her claim to fame is that she has been banned from every pub and club in Britain for her supposedly wild, drink-fuelled antics. She has been arrested more than 40 times and made 29 court appearances for drunk and disorderly conduct, hitting a few coppers along the way and touring the nation’s police cells in the process. In short, she has become a one-woman symbol of Everything That Is Wrong With Binge-Drinking Britain.
Nevertheless, how the current generation of young people reacts to the effects of alcohol is notably different from previous ones. It is not helped by the way contemporary adult society appears genuinely frightened, alienated and rather unworldly about the follies of immature youth. In fact, nothing reveals society’s inadequate understanding of the human condition more than how we discuss young people and drink. Socialising the next generation into a widely agreed-upon set of values and norms was once an elementary part of adult life. The reaction to a troubled but relatively harmless youth like Laura Hall, as well as lesser offenders, suggests we’ve lost sight of how to guide adolescents into adulthood.
Over the weekend, Hall was interviewed in the Guardian’s weekend magazine, vaguely agreeing with the current prohibitionists that there’s ‘too much cheap booze everywhere’. The interview was ostensibly done to promote a typically prurient BBC3 documentary about her that was aired on Monday night. The sheer scale of Hall’s disorderly conduct certainly makes her an extreme case and, consequently, a magnet for sensationalist journalists. It is obvious that she is not suited to a quiet night on the town (though the documentary didn’t reveal her doing anything more dangerous than slurring her words and falling off the bed). But even by tabloid or police standards, there is no evidence to suggest that legions of Laura Halls are turning pubs and clubs into puking-and-fighting war zones. Indeed, crime figures released last week show that arrests for anti-social behaviour are down on previous years. The atypical Hall is hardly a ‘warning’ about young people going to hell in a handcart of alcopops.
The combination of large quantities of booze and young people has always been a rather explosive mix. Teenagers are often volatile, angst-ridden, melodramatic and tempestuous, and alcohol can amplify these emotions. Ask any young person why they will consume alcohol quickly and they usually say it’s to overcome the anxiety of mixing with peers and new people. The maturing part, of course, is learning how to handle alcohol without it leading to emotional meltdowns and worse.
Today, however, there is no cultural script that encourages the young to control their emotions in public (otherwise known as maturity). In fact, in today’s therapeutic age the cultural script is frequently the opposite – an unappealing mix of gross emotional incontinence and aggressive assertions of victimisation. Even without oceans of booze inside them, I’ve seen young people kick off in public – to bus inspectors checking tickets or shopkeepers, for example – using the therapeutic language of assertive victimhood. The old authority of adults has been usurped by the new authority of aggrieved victimhood. Laura Hall says she has a problem with authority, be it teachers or police, but then feels aggrieved and surprised when her challenge to such authority lands her in trouble. In this sense, she is a strikingly typical young person.
Elsewhere, the traditional script of adulthood, and the aspiration towards adulthood that once helped socialise young people, has been eroded more subtly and perniciously by the instrumentalist turn of our education system and wider culture. The tyranny of ‘relevance’ means that young people are not furnished with an historical imagination that can conceptualise change and transformation. This is important because without it, young people only see themselves ‘in the present’ and therefore have no understanding of themselves and the society they are meant to be part of. This lack of a sense of historical change excludes the possibility of personal transformation and encourages negative fatalism.
As an experienced sixth-form teacher, I find that one of the biggest maturing influences on teenagers is the grasping of how ideas connect with, and shape, wider society. As such, adult society can appear as one potentially based on open possibilities, dynamism and exciting change. It forces self-centred teenagers to start occupying their minds with something other than their own narrow and banal existences. A society that has lost the capacity for historical thinking ends up losing an effective mechanism to socialise young people. As a consequence, learning how to behave in adult company becomes a more difficult process to negotiate than it was for previous generations.
The anti-pub lobby insists that the root cause of the problem is cheap booze from supermarkets – and Laura hesitatingly agrees. True, alcohol is considerably cheaper in supermarkets than in pubs, but the war on pubs – including endless hikes in prices – has had more of a damaging impact on young people’s relationship to alcohol than cut-price booze in the shops. As more pubs close down, young people lose the opportunity to learn how to handle alcohol in a public, adult environment. Instead, quickly downing alcopops in parks or at each others’ houses (as Laura and her friends did in the TV programme) means that young people are divorced from grown-up expectations of public behaviour. It’s notable that the pub bans on Laura Hall only succeeded in exacerbating her wayward behaviour.
How young people consume alcohol today is a cause for concern, but adult society also needs to be less uptight and more worldly when it comes to young people’s drunken antics. Horror stories about young people’s irresponsible behaviour are a familiar staple of moral panics in modern society. However, 20 or 30 years ago it was quietly accepted that young people can act badly when drunk, but mature adults knew it was a ‘phase’ or a ‘rite of passage’. Quite simply, adult society was robust enough to cope with the odd Saturday night punch-up between local youths. Today, when eating fatty foods, smoking the odd cigarette or not dieting enough are seen as shocking, it’s no wonder that society has a collective heart attack in relation to devil-may-care, boozy youth.
While some young people do behave more immaturely when drunk today, we also live in a society that is far less forgiving and understanding when they behave recklessly. This is why the authorities are keen to keep on file any minor brush with the law from people’s youth. A belief that people may learn from their youthful mistakes would have to accept that individuals, even a repeat offender such as Laura Hall, are morally autonomous beings with the capacity to make good as well as bad choices. Although Laura Hall has accepted and rehearsed the therapeutic line on ‘the need to fill an empty void’, in an unguarded moment she snaps ‘it’s not as if I go round killing people’. It’s a statement of the harm principle that John Stuart Mill would surely agree with.