Saturday, 26 April 2014

Alcohol, Street Drinking and the Rise of the New Puritans


We often take it for granted that an age and society that fosters moral relativism and that promotes hedonism will lay few, if any, curbs, restrictions or moral codes upon others.

Debates that surround the issues of same-sex marriage, abortion and assisted suicide readily deny, despite sound reasoning that points to the opposite, the real societal impact of such lifestyle choices upon others, preferring to enshrine personal freedom as paramount in the public sphere. The sanctity of life and marriage is thus sacrificed for a new sanctity – that of personal choice. Those who oppose the new ‘freedoms’ of the age are vilified as intolerant, narrow minded bigots.

Diversity, Equality and Discrimination

Bizarrely, however, the new found ‘freedoms’ of the modern age do not extend to everybody. Even in an age of moral relativism, in which everybody has their own truths, certain lifestyles, which for many are grounded in addiction and illness, are still singled out for their effect on the public square.

Recently, while walking down a street in Brighton, I came across a sign in a newsagent doorway that read, ‘The Sale of Alcohol to Street Drinkers is not Permitted on these Premises – The Management’. It so happens that street drinkers have been on the end of near constant attention from the police and PCSOs in Brighton. Doubtless the authorities have their own reasons for doing so, so as not to put off the tourists, to curb antisocial behaviour, to keep the city ‘safe’. However, reading the sign I could not help but think what authorities are saying is somewhat discriminatory, prejudiced and insulting.

What is a ‘street drinker’?

What is a ‘street drinker’ might sound like a question with an obvious answer. It is someone who drinks alcohol on the street. One might ask whether, however, a couple sitting in a park in Brighton drinking champagne are ‘street drinkers’ and whether these persons would be refused champagne once word got around to newsagents to, ‘Watch out for the guy who drinks champers in parks with his wife.’ The word ‘street drinker’ seems to have other connotations of the poverty and misery of the outcast, denoting a ‘tramp’ like existence. These people, I assume – a certain ‘type’ of drinker - who cannot afford to drink in pubs, clubs and bars, but who drinks cans outside, is the real target. It would be too simplistic to say that this message from Brighton newsagents was of the ‘No Irish, Blacks or Dogs’ variety, because this kind of outlawed ethnic (and canine) discrimination was more clear cut. The term ‘street drinker’ is more subjective, a little more ambiguous and left very much to the arbitrary opinion of the newsagent who is being encouraged to think of a client base which is ‘out sort’ and a kind of customer who is ‘not our sort at all’.

Refusal register
The age of peculiar double standards

Our age, it appears, is to be the age of acute double-standards. For instance, what would the reaction be if, say, a wedding cake maker put a sign up today in his shop window saying that wedding cakes will not be available to same-sex couples who wish for such for their celebration?

Doubtless there would be an outcry, even a clamour for the delicatessen to be closed down by the vociferous LGBT community, especially in Brighton, even though the owner was acting in accordance with his sacred conscience. Where is the political movement for the rights of alcoholics, street drinkers and homeless people? Of course, it does not really exist, because these people either have no voice in the public sphere or are deemed unworthy of having a voice. Of course, one may reply, each shopkeeper has his own right to sell what he chooses to each and every customer as they come, as they appear and I could agree with that principle. It is one that I would say extends to the B&B owner who does not want homosexual activity in his establishment.

Yet, here in Brighton at least, it would appear that this is not the whole story. The decision by newsagents not to sell alcohol to street drinkers is one that has been made with the local authority in what appears to be a city wide action that singles out street drinkers for rejection, enforcing the idea that all are ‘equal’ before the law, but some are less equal than others. The initiative also has the striking effect of reinforcing the notion that somehow, because someone is homeless, poor, or alcoholic, that they are to be treated as pariahs or, at least, second-class citizens.

Local authority Initiative

As the pictures suggest, this is a Council initiative, to which various newsagents and retailers have signed up, we must assume, voluntarily. Other councils around the United Kingdom are doing similar, therefore one has to wonder whether what we are witnessing here is a national targeting of the homeless and street drinkers to be refused alcohol, dressed in the cloak of combating ‘anti-social behaviour’.

In an age that raises personal freedom to new heights of protection – even to the cost of society itself in terms of the common good, the personal rights of many who wield no power or influence in society are at the same time disregarded. I would personally defend any newsagent or barman from refusing an alcoholic more alcohol on the premise that he or she believes the alcoholic has had too much to drink and therefore should not be served. Yet this initiative does not appear to be objective but entirely arbitrary, depending not necessarily upon the drunkenness of the individual being served, but perhaps appearance only – on the basis that this person is a ‘street drinker’.

It goes without saying that alcoholism in general is a huge problem in the United Kingdom and that the social evils associated with alcoholism, in terms of domestic violence, family break up, marital difficulties and other issues are prevalent. Yet the ‘refusal register’ of Brighton and Hove City Council does not apply a single, objective or reasonable law to all citizens, but is obviously applied to the homeless, the poor and those living either in hostels or on the street. It goes without saying that for the chronic alcoholic, deprivation of alcohol can lead to fits, palpitations and other medical symptoms that most of us would find to be most distressing.

Wikipedia alone notes that ‘the withdrawal syndrome is largely a hyper-excitable response of the central nervous system to lack of alcohol. Symptoms typical of withdrawal include agitation, seizures, and delirium tremens.’ Ironically, the Brighton newsagents in which I took photographs is on a road in Brighton which is about to open new accommodation for 350 students. University students, for all of their academic gifts, are well known for ‘living it up’ and, from my own university days, I can attest that ‘the best days of your life’ are, for many a student, not days, evenings and weekends of careful sobriety. It appears that in Brighton, though not just Brighton, one law will apply to the drunkards who are homeless, poor or who live in hostels, but, I suspect, another law will apply to those who Brighton and Hove City Council believe will benefit the local economy and who come from more privileged and protected backgrounds.

New student accommodation being built on London Road
 Are ‘rights’ only for the wealthy?

As Brighton welcomes its first same-sex marriage, the defenders of this new law will say that marriage’s redefinition is grounded in the human rights of the individual to exercise personal freedom for the sake of love. How ironic, that in the same time such draconian discrimination will simultaneously be applied to the poor and homeless, many of whom will say they just need a drink because they have ‘the shakes’.

The laws that govern the public sphere in modern Britain often appear to be grounded in language and logic that at first sounds just and fair, but end up being entirely arbitrary, imposed on the populace from above and applied in a totalitarian manner. Catholics shouldn’t be quick to jump on a campaign for drunkenness in public spaces, but we should condemn the unjust discrimination against the poor whose only crime in the eyes of the authorities, it would appear, is not to be just ‘too drunk’, but not rich, socially mobile, or just not respectable enough and, in a city like Brighton, where hedonism and personal freedom are raised to the secular altar, that an initiative like this should be in operation aimed chiefly at the homeless is surely nothing short of scandalous.

Human nature is wounded and while redeemed, we are frail, fragile and fallen creatures. We need grace in order to overcome our vices. One suspects that the puritans of ages past were not at all times quite so pure as they led others to believe. Here in Brighton – and perhaps in your town or city too – we are witnessing not only the rise of anti-social behaviour, but the unstoppable rise of the powerful and certainly aggressive and certainly dogmatic, new puritans.

We should ask why the poor, the defenceless, the voiceless, the homeless should be made to be the scapegoats for the sins of so, so many. Are Brighton’s homeless and its ‘street drinkers’ take consolation in the fact that while the local authority considers them unworthy of being able to buy a drink in a newsagent or off-licence, they are free to get married to someone of the same gender. Is it time Brightonians asked ourselves exactly what criteria makes some drinkers better drinkers than other drinkers, because, let’s face it, we all like a drop and it’s not always in moderation. Brighton is known for many things, but moderation is hardly one of them.

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