‘Drunken violence’ as moral panic, pure & simple

by · January 21, 2014

From a previous panic – mods & rockers on the rampage

From a previous panic – mods & rockers on the rampage

Societies appear to be subject, every now and then, to periods of moral panic. A condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests; its nature is presented in a stylized and stereotypical fashion by the mass media; the moral barricades are manned by editors, bishops, politicians and other right-thinking people; socially accredited experts pronounce their diagnoses and solutions; ways of coping are evolved or (more often) resorted to; the condition then disappears, submerges or deteriorates and becomes more visible. Sometimes the object of the panic is quite novel and at other times it is something which has been in existence long enough, but suddenly appears in the limelight. Sometimes the panic passes over and is forgotten, except in folklore and collective memory; at other times it has more serious and long-lasting repercussions and might produce such changes … in legal and social policy or even in the way the society conceives itself.

—Stanley Cohen (1972), Folk Devils And Moral Panics

The moral panic appears to us to be one of the principal forms of ideological consciousness by means of which a “silent minority” is won over to the support of increasingly coercive measures on the part of the state, and lends its legitimacy to a “more than usual” exercise of control.

—Stuart Hall et al. (1978), Policing The Crisis

This summer Sydney has been experiencing a media-initiated moral panic over “alcohol-fuelled violence”, very much fitting what the late criminologist Stanley Cohen describe in his classic account of 1972. Slightly unusually, it has been the liberal Sydney Morning Herald (and its Sunday edition, The Sun-Herald) leading the charge, with barely a day going by without another lurid front-page story on the issue. The paper, which last year went tabloid, seems to have decided to employ a campaigning style appropriate to its new format. Another unusual aspect of the panic is that the centre-Left ALP has tried to use the campaign against Barry O’Farrell’s Coalition state government, and O’Farrell has been pilloried for not instituting immediate tough measures to stop the violence.

After a period of silence O’Farrell has re-emerged with a sweeping set of new laws (the government’s factsheet here), including mandatory minimum sentences for people who kill others with one punch while intoxicated (a harsher penalty than if you do the same thing while sober!) and multiple restrictions on alcohol sales and service in a newly demarcated Sydney CBD zone. I’ll leave it to others to sift through the multiple inconsistencies and hypocrisies in the new regime: how they will likely lead to increased criminalisation and incarceration of Aboriginal and homeless drinkers, how they will most likely move problems rather than fix them, how they could produce new flashpoints with a “3am swill” effect, how some of the laws are really only about increasing the powers of the police to deal harshly with anyone they don’t like, and how certain sites are conveniently exempted to protect current and future casino operators, major hotel and tourist businesses, and so on.

But let’s return to the moral panic that has been the clear winner today. As per Cohen’s schema, a “folk devil” has been identified in the shape of young men out to have a good time by partaking of alcoholic beverages in one of the city’s nightlife hubs. Again following Cohen, this folk devil is then scrutinised from a variety of viewpoints, with notables and experts pontificating about the deeper causes of the psychological, moral or social malaise he represents. To get a taste of the mishmash of colourful explanatory frameworks being bandied about in recent weeks, read this article by Peter Munro on “What makes one man attack another?”, from which I have drawn some choice quotes:

An unchecked primal urge … “Guys will be guys, won’t they. They want to look good in front of their friends” … “These guys are just fuelled up with testosterone” … “It’s like one primate thumping another, or one intoxicated primate thumping another” … The male’s brain is often still developing going into his 20s. … “They behave like our close primate cousins during this developmental period” … “It’s very primitive and you see it played out on the … streets” … Some young men seeking their place in the world — competing for partners and social status — lack suitable social structures or mentors to restrain their primal urges. … The portrait of a violent adolescent is typically someone disengaged from school or work. They act on impulse because they lack suitable mentors or social structures to set boundaries on their behaviour. They are likely narcissistic, with no respect for authority and few, if any, skills in anger management. … “We know that young people who are on the pathway to violent criminal careers typically come from broken homes, poverty, marginalised neighbourhoods and deviant friendships” …  They develop a “twisted view of masculinity … They look for easy victims to display their status, their extreme machismo” … “Action movies, a sporting culture very much focused on dominance and win-at-all-costs, video games, violent internet porn” …

Well, you get the idea. I guess at least Munro didn’t go as far as Elizabeth Farrelly and link drunken violence to the trend for Ned Kelly style beards. If you can bear more of this kind of thing the Herald has a section full of it.

Facts, schmacts

Tucked away in Munro’s grab bag is an important fact, that “alcohol-related assaults across NSW have fallen more than 20 per cent since 2008”. But such facts are little more than a speed hump in the way of a good-going panic. This is because moral panics require unwarranted generalisation from anecdotes and particular instances, and avoid a balanced and rational account of the totality and complexity of the problem they are allegedly addressing. The SMH’s 2 January editorial didn’t hesitate to draw out the lesson, whose class undertones are hard to miss: “A culture of self-indulgent thuggishness is being incubated, primarily in broken families, and fuelled by alcohol, drugs and the normalisation of violence in popular culture.”

So you can peruse the most reliable data about alcohol and assaults — such as the gold-standard ABS survey of personal safety and violence — and find that most forms of interpersonal violence (including that involving alcohol) have been on the decline for two decades. Among other ABS data is the reality that “deaths from assault using bodily force” in NSW have been steady or perhaps even trending down over the last decade (see the graph from Richard Farmer’s blog, below). Or you can read more balanced overviews, like this one by Don Weatherburn (head of the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research, and hardly a bleeding heart), to understand the decrease in alcohol-related reported assaults and emergency department visits (as well as acknowledgement of the difficulties in accurately pinpointing trends). Or you can see the NSW data laid out in graphical form in this good report from The Guardian. Or maybe you can even discover that problem drinking has been declining, including among young people, for a while now, despite the best efforts of some public health campaigners to continue claiming there is a crisis (although their efforts have probably laid the basis for the popular impression that there is a crisis). To our self-proclaimed moral guardians, whipping themselves into frenzies over the need for the state to act right now, such hard information is irrelevant or a distraction.


People have asked me what sensible measures I think can be taken to curb drunken violence; measures that progressives could put forward to shift the current debate. My view, however, is that this is not a real debate, and so there is nothing worthwhile to be engaged with or shifted.

When you have senior police officers wanting to move police from ensuring publican compliance with Responsible Service of Alcohol (an evidence based policy) to “preventing violent incidents” on the streets (which has a lousy evidence base because police almost always intervene after the fact) you should realise that “evidence” about “sensible measures that work” is not really in the game. One look at the general outline of what the SMH and others are demanding should indicate that the “solutions” being sought involve widespread state control over young people drinking and having fun, on the basis that very many people who never have and never will become violent when drunk need to have their freedoms taken away in order to prevent what are relatively rare actions by a small minority.

The state versus society

Simple measures such as improved all-night public transport services (an easy way to prevent all-too-frequent flashpoints where frustrations over getting home boil over) barely register on the public radar, while exemplary sentencing, limitation of opening hours, lockouts, jacking up the price of alcohol and (I could barely believe it until I read it) renaming assaults to be called “cowards’ punches” are demanded as ready-made solutions. Out of all the unambiguously positive measures possible, O’Farrell has delivered only a free bus service out of Kings Cross on weekends, without addressing the parlous state of Sydney’s transport beyond that small area.

The key point here is that the state is not expected to improve social conditions; rather it is called on as part of a campaign to more closely control its citizens (their behaviour, their morals and, in this case, even how they talk about violence). The fact that such controls rarely fix the problem is secondary to the fact of getting the state to try to control.

As The Piping Shrike points out in passing, posturing such as that which we are seeing over drunken violence reflects expectations that the state will solve a social malady when in fact the state is congenitally incapable of solving such problems. At most, states might administer social ills differently — too often via an increase in repressive powers that shifts the problem and creates new social difficulties. This is exactly what we are seeing in O’Farrell’s response. The reality is that a quick fix for drunken violence is an unrealistic expectation while existing social relations remain in place. This is not to diminish the frustration of health workers at the front line of dealing with drunken violence and its consequences, nor the disappointment of progressive “harm minimisation” advocates that their suggestions have been ignored for years. But in a moral panic only one side of the solution ever gets taken up with any enthusiasm — not more funding for health but more funding for police to crack down on revellers, and not the liberal harm reduction policies but the ones that involve effective prohibition and tight social control.

The only useful progressive response, then, is to start with the recognition that there is nothing in this moral panic for progressives. Moreover, the very premises on which the panic rests need to be rejected precisely because it takes real-world suffering by individuals and their families, and turns it into a general demand for greater control by the state over its citizens (a demand, furthermore, that cannot deliver the results promised of it). Perhaps more controversially, I think progressives should challenge the stereotype of the “folk devil” being peddled by media and politicians, and to defend the right of young men to drink alcohol and party. It is the dangerous fantasy of paternalistic state control over undesirable social behaviours by undesirable social elements that is at the centre of this moral panic.

What is interesting is that O’Farrell, hardly an enemy of the hoteliers and alcohol industry, caved so quickly to the hysteria. After a bruising defeat for his government in the Miranda by-election late last year, there must be enough nervousness about losing control of the political agenda that maintaining a sensible and considered approach came to be thought of as unsustainable. Of course, as with all such panicked responses there is no guarantee that it will get the genie back in the bottle for him.

A previous Left Flank post on moral panics and the politics of anxiety can be found here.

Filed under: drugs, Featured, health, media, NSW

Discussion11 Comments

  1. Desmond Murphy says:

    Forgive the capitals, but I am so enthusiastic about your voice of reason, fact and moderation that I must shout out.
    Thank you for defending the right of young men to drink alcohol and party.
    Thank you for digging down (though you didn’t have to go very deep) and clearly showing that the present fuss is just a cover for extension of state control and
    limitation of individual liberty.
    Best Wishes,
    Desmond Murphy

  2. Phil says:

    Eloquently addresses some of the things I’ve been thinking about (in my own far less coherent manner!) Thanks, a great contribution to the ‘debate’.

  3. p_x says:

    Great post. I agree with your rejection of the premise although it is always dangerous for the left to ignore apparent popular sentiment based on policy/administrative reason and an unwillingness to get their hands dirty in a climate of hysteria.

    Leaving aside sentencing policy, don’t these tabloids realise that by demonising alcoholism they are basically alienating their core readership, and indeed the Australian character since colonisation? The contortions were obvious when David Penberthy wrote a column about how he loves a few Bundys and wines but the line stops at violence – probably knowing full well that these absolutes are untenable. It’s amazing that the loudest proponents of state paternalism and urban/administrative regulation are meant to be the voice of ordinary Australians.

  4. paul saxby says:

    It’s a bit rich, for newspapers to reap massive income from posting double page ads for large scale liquor outlets and then decry and even misrepresent the prevalence of alcohol induced violence. I do however think that the consumption of high alcohol mixed drinks combined with increased caffeine laden soft drinks is a new phenomenon. We have a lot of wide awake drunks now with nowhere to go.

  5. […] This is an edited and updated version of a post at Left Flank blog. […]

  6. […] Tad Tietze has written eloquently on Left Flank of the applicability of sociologist Stanley Cohen‘s classic model of […]

  7. […] to Twitter to link articles and graphs charting the decline of alcohol-related violence. Blogs like Left Flank were quick to describe legal challenges as artificial “moral […]

  8. […] to Twitter to link articles and graphs charting the decline of alcohol-related violence. Blogs like Left Flank were quick to describe legal challenges as artificial “moral […]

  9. Annie says:

    Great article. I’m getting on, well into middle age. The traction of moral panics about youth (ah, those were the days) updated to young men having proclivities (alcohol/sex/aggression/drugs/violence/whatever) seems as pervasive as it is pervasively unconvincing as a threat.

    Maybe I don’t get out enough, but it seems to me that my demographic and younger happily point out that the incidence of alcohol associated lethal violence has decreased and get a bit angsty about how to further decrease it without demonising young people.

    The Olds, and I’m talking people in their 70’s and 80’s still seem to think that the media reports Facts and ponder What is To Be Done! This leads discussion in my family that mummer about the use of steroids or some such to avoid the discomfort of talking about the awful systemic violence we know is hovering around us all.

    Dependent on the state to defend ‘our’ capital and supply the conditions for a waged income, its not surprising that many think that the state magically determines behaviour.

  10. […] about why they happen at particular times. If you go back to the stats Dr Tad Tietze cites in his post at Left Flank, you have the paradox that the rates of assault have been declining. It would be […]