A few months ago, I was out campaigning for a student election I was running in and so, was going around one of our student halls of residence. As I was walking around, I passed the kitchen window of one of the first year’s flats. As I looked through the window, you could see the usual mess you would expect of a student kitchen – unwashed dishes, pizza boxes, empty packets of food etc. But also, as my gaze wondered to the top of all the cupboards and cabinets, I was struck by the sight of a large collection of empty bottles of alcohol, all neatly lined up next to one another. This empire of spirits stretched far and wide, and occupied all of the spaces on top of the cupboards, cabinets, and had spilled over onto the floor and shelves in the kitchen. There must have easily been around 40-50 bottles, all mostly large bottles of spirits such as Vodka, Bacardi, Jack Daniels; as well as a mixture of some bottles of wine and cider, as well a few cans of beer here or there. Symbolic in many ways, I thought, of a predominant culture and mind-set existing amongst many students and young people in this country.
This is not a rare sight on university hall campuses, and it is something I have seen people do a number of times during my degree – collect and then display, their empty bottles of alcohol. But it is this image which has led me to reflect on how we believe university life should be spent. And it is for many, a lifestyle predominantly focused on going out clubbing and drinking. We seem to be here for the experience and not the education.
Alcohol and responsible drinking are a sensitive issue with students, often because of the labels and fingers (which are in some places unfair) placed on students. Terms like ‘binge drinking’, ‘alcoholism’ do more to alienate than to educate from the second they are used, regardless of their intent or message, simply because of the stigma and negativity associated with such terms. And with this in mind, let me be absolutely clear from the very beginning. I am *NOT* here to point any fingers, I’m simply interested in WHY such a culture exists, and most importantly, who really benefits from this. As the young people of our society, we are the key driving force of change, there is little we cannot achieve if we put our minds to it. But at the same time, I think there are lots of things which distract and hold us back into sitting in a box and conforming to a stereotype that does us no favours. Of course there is nothing wrong with going out and having a good night out with some of your friends, and enjoying yourself, but we have to question why society tolerates – indeed encourages – certain forms of potentially harmful behaviour but not others. We’ve all seen it, we’ve all experienced it, why then do we normalise such behaviour? If this pattern of over indulgence is repeating itself, then there must be something in our environment which leads so many of us to behave in this way again and again, with each new batch of freshers. What are the factors which lead to the continuity of this status quo? A status quo which serves only to keep us distracted and pacified – much to the delight of those who profit from our passivity.
The sad fact of the matter is you get more respect for the number of bottles you can drink and shots you can down, than the books you read. We’re infected with this ideology, and the freedom we have at university, we then translate that freedom into harmful and toxic (quite literally) habits. Most of us shrug our shoulders and tell people to lighten up, that this is the way things are. Why?
Personally, I think that there are namely three core reasons for these attitudes in young people towards alcohol and their drinking habits – Independence, Marketing and Ideology. University life presents us with a chance for freedom, the freedom to do things the way we want to, without the intruding eyes of our parents. The golden chance to do the things we have always wanted to do. If ever there was a time for us to really stretch our wings and take flight, this was it. But seeing those empty bottles in the window makes me feel sad and only disappointed at all that is going to waste. Imagine if all those bottles were books, how much of a better place would the world be? When its all said and done, we have to understand alcohol is a drug, just like heroine is, just like marijuana is, and it is a depressant at that. Alcohol is more harmful than heroin or crack when the overall dangers to the individual and society are considered, according to some recent scientific studies. So what happens when the youth of a society are getting drunk more often than not? Birthdays, Christmas, Diwali, New Year’s, weddings, anniversaries, graduations, revision, end of exams, start of exams, or sometimes just for the sake of it – all reasons we give ourselves to get drinking. Escapism or indulgence? Fun or fallacy? Generally speaking, people see their youth as the time to be young and free and do what they want. University for example, is the prime time to do all the things they weren’t able to before and the things won’t be able to do in the near future. Liberated from the boundaries of home and parents, in a place where pretty much anything goes, this is how most people react. And at the same time there is the chance for a brief escape from the regimented reality awaiting them after graduating, of joining the masses in the ‘real world, in which they won’t have such freedoms again. Yes, youth is about freedom, but freedoms only useful if you really make use it. The upper classes aren’t the only ones abusing their privileges – so are we.
Let’s consider this in context of what we know is happening on a global scale at the moment. One out of every six children on earth works in a Fortune 500 sweatshop, owned by billionaires. Sweatshop workers live in perpetual poverty, earning just over $200 a year and 85% of sweatshop workers are young women between the ages of 15-25. In order to meet the basic nutritional needs of their families, sweatshop workers spend between 50% to 75% of their income on food alone. Clearly, you don’t need me to state how lucky we are to be in this position. But is this all we wish to leave behind, as we meander through lectures and exams, only to get a paper with an official looking-stamp-and-a-nice-photo-for-our-facebook-profile-and-21-likes? Only to join the drones, become a worker bee, and spend our lives, surviving a week at a time, waiting for the weekend to glimpse by for a fleeting sense of relief? So when we are on the brighter side of those statistics, and we are in a position where can make some change possible, who benefits from us reaching for bottles and shots, instead of books? A study by the BMA in 2009 revealed that alcohol-related illnesses were costing the National Health Service £3bn a year and killing 40,000 Britons. Meanwhile, the drinks industry spends £800m annually marketing its products. “What lies behind us and in front of us are small matters in comparison to what lies within us” – Emerson. We must not lose sight of the greatness that lies within us.
Even so, we justify our actions and the limits we will push on the notion, and convince the world and ourselves, that we will fight those important battles when we’re older, citing our reasons as “You’re only young once, you won’t get this time back”. And this I believe, is the product of marketing and ideology. In her book No Logo, Naomi Klein writes “the astronomical growth in the wealth and cultural influence of multinational corporations over the last 15 years can arguably be traced to…[the idea that] successful corporations must primarily produce brands as opposed to products… with brand identity waging a war on public and individual space”. And taking this idea further, in The conquest of cool, Thomas Frank argues “the proliferation of ‘alternative’ lifestyles that the West has witnessed since the 1960’s are merely the ultimate subordination of identity to the market, in which people purchase personality traits as they would any other commodity.” It is these images and lifestyles – lifestyles and images which many young people try to emulate, in the clothes they wear, the music they listen to and the lifestyle they lead – which are constantly fed to us from young through hours of TV, movies, the media and the music industry – all idealising a lifestyle of alcohol with its positive associations of glamour and style, of women and cars, flashy lights and such. But do they ever show the consequences of living like that?
In my second year at university, I was running my own student night, and saw first-hand just how many people profit and benefit from things being the way they are – and we aren’t one of them. And these people certainly don’t have our best interests at heart. On a broad scale, Diageo ,(owner of Smirnoff Vodka, Baileys, Blossom & Hill, Guinness, Johnnie Walker) the world’s largest producer of spirits and major producer of beer and wine for example, is openly in support and in favour of the government spending cuts, urging the government ‘not to hesitate’ or ‘water down’ its cuts – a policy which many students are opposed to, so much so that it was the focus of the student movement and protests this year. I also find it interesting, that these guys are also having a say in writing our health policy, instead of say – the people of this country. And interestingly, a senior executive at the drinks firm also made donations to Nick Clegg’s private bank account last year. So its clear where their allegiances lie. Or taking it a bit more local, the promotions companies of Reading – do they really have our interests at heart? These events are run by promo teams of students who organise the nights, pull in the numbers only to get a very small cut of the profits. For example, as the event manager for Touch Party on a Tuesday at Revolution (a popular weekly student night in Reading) I used to earn 5-10% of money on the door, so lets say 400 people come to the night, each paying £5 entry, thats £2000, of which I would get paid £160 for my work. For probably 75% of the work (getting a Guest list together, getting names for it, booking in socials through JCRs and student societies, selling tickets, getting the venue ready, organising and managing a promo team) I’m still only getting a meagre 5-10%. Meanwhile the CEO of Touch Party for the night rocks up for 2 hours to do a DJ set, gets a few girls to whack their tits out for his amusements, and makes a tidy sum of around £1500, after other costs (promo, dj, etc). And often, with this particular company anyway, many other students I know who worked alongside me – myself included – were left unpaid. Probably why I’m now sitting on his blocked list on fb. But the circus continues, there are plenty of others there to pop up and replace me and the weekly profits continue year on year. And this is probably only touching the very surface of it all. Meanwhile, students will spend £15-20 and get drunk, some will embarrass themselves, get into fights, some will puke up and piss in the streets, some will lose their phones, wallets, keys, but all will damage brain cells and because of this, slowly lower their intelligence. Scientific research and studies show that those who regularly drink over the recommended limit – so more than 2 double spirit+ mixers (and carbonated mixers containing sugar slightly speed up the rate at which alcohol enters the blood stream, so those buckets of energy drink + alcohol are definitely no good!) – show a smaller hippocampus brain region: the part of your brain responsible for memory, as well as the well-known fact of damage caused to the liver. And many young people today, drink well over the limits even before entering a nightclub (often because of low alcohol prices in supermarkets) Can you imagine any other scenario in which waking up with bruises, less money, a headache, nausea, damaged brain and memory cells and a damaged liver would be celebrated? To make matters worse, we normalise these unhealthy drinking habits through nonchalant attitudes and light-hearted jokes – a fanpage called “Water into wine? I just turned my student loan into vodka! Your move Jesus.” has over 100,000 likes on facebook. It’s almost as if there is a trend that all the empty bottles in the window, all of the hangover statuses and statuses about the gaps in memory of the previous nights antics are deep down just attempts for us to validate ourselves to our peers. Drinking more implies we’re more fun and adventurous, and it must have been a really great night if we base our judgements on the consequent hangover. Another consequence often overlooked are the strains created on public services, in London its gotten so bad that the ambulance service have created what they call ‘booze buses’ just to cope specifically with alcohol-related incidents during nights out. All of this may be a very grim picture, but is it really that far from the truth? I’m not saying that this is EVERYONE, and that it’s all the time but certainly it is a large proportion.
There are of course some students who aren’t like this, a lot of whom are involved and engaged in the students’ union for example. Nonetheless, this is still a relatively small minority when we consider the number of full time undergraduates students there are living just on campus (one of the challenges SU’s constantly face is getting more students involved in the Students Union). It’s also a shame that these students are often grouped unfairly alongside those I discussed in this post, and their great efforts and work is too often overshadowed by ‘headline’ news which will sell papers. So we cant forget that there are some positives examples of young people, but at the same time, we cant overlook the even bigger majority who aren’t always such great examples.
As a result, most of us come to university, and our youth, making the choice to use our freedom to escape into a fantastical world full of glamour, heels and messy nights. A place where we are truly free of our burdens, and free from the cold, dark realities of an unjust world because ultimately, we feel helpless. The 3 or so years at university is often seen as an escape from what we leave behind, but also (what we feel) is coming, the spectre of the looming future hovering before us, the inescapable future we think we are destined for but deep down in our hearts, we wish it wasn’t that way, we wish for something else… something more. We wish but we do not believe that it could be different. That things could be different. Because in our hearts we are fearful, we don’t want to chase our dreams because we lack the courage to see them come crashing down before our eyes in flames, until we are left with nothing more than the pain of lost opportunity and hope. And so, we see University life as the only chance to do what you want, no questions and no regrets. We choose to tread only in the shallow waters, and make pained efforts to maximise our pleasures while we are there. But deep inside, we know the real issue is still there, like the pebble in our shoe, uncomfortable, annoying and stubbornly refusing to go away and leave us in our moment of peace. So we refuse to even acknowledge its existence, to do so would be to reveal the fear, lying beneath the flashy lights and drunken laughter. And so we choose the path of least resistance and maximum comfort. Conformity is security. And meanwhile, the injustices and suffering of the world outside continues, but as nothing but a faint whisper, struggling to be heard against the bright lights and booming sounds of what surrounds us. We accept this because in the end, beneath our veils and layers, we are afraid things will never change. And if we carry on this way, they won’t.
Hiding in fear won’t change anything. We have our whole lives, not just the time at university, to do what we want to, to follow our dreams, and to lead in the direction we choose. Don’t waste it. Go out. Live, love, laugh. Dance all night until your feet hurt. But at the same time, stand tall and strong for something, or risk one day dying for nothing. Its time for us to confront our demons, confront our imperfections and confront our flaws so we can find our true beauty. Only when we vanquish our inner demons, can our angels appear. And on arrival, we will find strength in the beauty of our own being. A beauty not based on anything external, material or temporal, but shining, emanating constantly – like a candle burning from within. A light to give us hope. A light to guide our way. And only then, will we realise who our real enemy is.