An initiation into the culture of unfreedom

Clamping down on students’ boozy socialising will only give rise to a society of life-long adolescents.

Neil Davenport

Topics Politics

Britain’s Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs recently attacked what it called the ‘culture of excessive drinking’ in universities and colleges. In a report by Caroline Healy, the council called on vice-chancellors and college heads to withdraw funding for clubs and societies that organise boozy initiation ceremonies and drinking games. It also criticised universities that allow drink promotion leaflets to be included in Freshers’ Week packs.

Moves to ban initiation ceremonies are based, according to the report, on a ‘concern’ with ‘young people’s interaction with alcohol, particularly its promotion and availability’. In other words, finding ways to restrict young people’s freedoms regarding alcohol consumption should now be considered a top priority within the education system.

Predictably enough, the New Labour government approves of these recommendations and is considering implementing a ban on drinking games at university campuses. Despite the unpopularity of the present government, its ongoing war against alcohol consumption appears to be one area in which it has been able to find supporters. Exeter University, for example, has already banned initiation ceremonies after a student died from alcohol poisoning on a night out with a group of student golfers in 2006. The president of the National Union of Students, Wes Streeting, said students should not be forced to take part in initiation ceremonies. He argued: ‘Every student has the right to participate as a full member in all sports and activities without the pressure of partaking in an initiation ceremony. Selection for competitive activities should always be based purely on ability.’

Elsewhere, one ex-Cambridge graduate and journalist, Laura Barnett, applauded the government’s stance. Discussing her time as an undergraduate she said: ‘We were, of course, expected to drink alcohol, and it was a good way to meet people – but it was also silly, puerile and exclusive. And, on the occasions when you drank too much, it was even dangerous. So I say bring on the ban.’ Streeting and Barnett clearly believe that students need protecting from peer pressure as well as from themselves. Nevertheless, there’s no evidence to suggest that students are forced at gun point to take part in daft drinking games. Barnett herself admits that she refused to participate in one such initiation ceremony.

It is dispiriting that proposals to regulate relatively harmless activities are welcomed on the grounds of health and safety, anti-bullying and crime prevention. Today, nothing seems to make officialdom and the commentariat more nervy than the thought of drunken people acting spontaneously and fearlessly. Yes, some drinking games are probably immature and puerile – but it’s also up to young people to make up their own minds about taking part in such activities.

That university and college drinking games have been targeted in particular is telling. Higher education has always been a testing ground for elite ideas and initiatives that attempt to change broader societal attitudes. Although the government’s war on public drinking is already advanced in society, this latest proposal attempts to determine further what is acceptable and unacceptable alcohol-related behaviour. It also suggests that any unregulated alcohol consumption amongst individuals drinking together is a problem in need of a ban or some type of restriction. The fact that such moves find widespread support indicates that attempts to ‘re-educate’ people about alcohol (avoid it) and freedom (too dangerous) are alarmingly successful.

Clamping down on the freedom to drink at universities and colleges is perhaps ensuring that teenagers entering higher education continue to be socialised in the ‘right’ values regarding the culture of unfreedom. From my experience as a Sixth Form and Further Education College teacher, young people do not favour the adult world of pubs. In fact, many express disapproval and even hostility towards these things. And they often express their disapproval by rehearsing the official line on the uncouth ‘horrors’ of drinking and the people who patronise such places.

In truth, though, many young people feel uncomfortable with the socialising rather than the drinking aspects of pubs. After all, this is an adult arena where you stand or fall on the quality of your wit, banter and insight.

In this sense, the government is officially sanctioning remaining a nervy adolescent all your adult life (no wonder so many twentysomethings live at home). Far from spending too much time in pubs, not enough teenagers and university students are learning to socialise properly or deal with the consequence of drink. Go in to many pubs today and you’ll be hard pressed to find people in their late teens or early twenties. While officialdom increasingly suggests that drinking more than a few units is ‘silly’ and ‘immature’, it is the over-regulation of public drinking that actually leads to displays of immature behaviour.

Because they constantly hear that there is something ‘dangerous’ and ‘wild’ about having four pints down the pub, young people are more likely to learn about drinking away from pubs, where there is little etiquette, and where they tend to exaggerate their loud and drunken behaviour rather than try to control it. By contrast, a culture that suggests drinking alcohol is actually what sophisticated and mature adults do encourages young people to act sober (even when they’re not) rather than theatrically drunk.

The ACMD proposals to ban daft drinking games is the latest shot fired in the war against booze. Drinking and socialising has always been a key area of student life, and learning to negotiate the pleasures and pitfalls of both stands young people in good stead for a responsible adult life. By clamping down on such campus activities, officialdom sees personal autonomy and public freedom as necessary casualties in the war against drinking. In truth, the ongoing infantilisation of young people will store up far greater problems in the future than any amount of excessive campus drinking. If we want to see a robust return to adult values and behaviour, it’s time officialdom called last orders on its out-of-control campaign to turn all of us into diet-cola-drinking 12-year-olds.

Neil Davenport is a writer and politics teacher based in London. He blogs at The Midnight Bell.

Previously on spiked

Dolan Cummings urged us to stop seeing drinking as a social problem. Mick Hume looked at the recent crack down on drinkers. Brendan O’Neill said Nutts to the anti-alcohol experts. Tim Black criticised Scottish plans to eradicate cheap booze. Neil Davenport noted how Britain is undergoing prohibition by stealth. Dr Michael Fitzpatrick urged doctors to refuse to become the high priests of the new anti-boozing temperance movement. Josie Appleton argued against all booze bans. Or read more at spiked issue Drink and drugs.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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