‘new sobriety’ and its antinomies
was a time when people used to sensibly cut down on their drinking this
time of year to save a few bob without attracting too much attention.
Now their efforts are amplified into the Dry
January campaign, coordinated by Alcohol
Change UK (formerly Alcohol Concern).
feeding into it this time around is the gathering movement dubbed the
‘new sobriety’, perhaps best exemplified here by Club
Soda, an organisation promoting
this generates much chatter on social media and some serious discussion
of the phenomenon, not all of it positive.
instance, landing in my inbox with a sickening thud has come a post for
Points, the Alcohol & Drugs History Society blog, that lambasts
‘the sober curious movement’ under the heading ‘Self-Help
Isn’t The Solution; It’s The Problem’.
I shouldn’t complain about it too much as it’s given me a rare
opportunity to use the word ‘lambast’, but the polemic, by a PhD
student from Illinois called Brooks Hudson (it’s happening both sides
of the Atlantic) is a peculiarly wild lambast, caricaturing mindful
drinkers as “media-types who share similar well-to-do backgrounds and
sensibilities” who are seeking solutions for problems they don’t
as Hudson seems to concede in his final paragraphs, when he’s calmed
down a bit, the sober curious are not uniformly awful people.
Dr Emily Nicholls, like me a member of the Drinking Studies Network (DSN),
who are all perfectly lovely people, of course. She’s recently
written about how ‘positive
sobriety’ has helped her personally change her relationship with
alcohol by breaking the stigma attached to not-drinking and the
consequent implication you’ve got a problem.
though, the fascinating academic research Nicholls is carrying out among
women pursuing a sober lifestyle gives her an academic objectivity that
seems more critical.
heard her speak on the subject a couple of times, including last month
at DSN’s excellent mini-conference on Excess, Moderation and Sobriety
where she located the new sobriety within a specifically neoliberal
construction of identity.
women interviewed by Nicholls look back on their old ‘drinking
selves’ when they were ‘out of control’ and ‘not themselves’,
contrasting this state with their authentic ‘enterprising self’, fit
to succeed in a society where the emphasis is on the individual as a
conscious, rational actor.
position is that this individualised approach might be helpful to some,
but it distracts from the underlying systemic problems, suchinadequate
healthcare and substance misuse services.
right to be angry about this. In Britain over recent decades serious
damage has been done to the health service by cuts and privatisation as
neoliberalism has prised open the welfare state in the relentless hunt
for private profit.
that is an ideology that shifts responsibility for their well-being onto
individuals and their lifestyle decisions. Mindfulness is an aspect of
it is, arguably, a relatively benign aspect that, as Nicholls suggests,
opens up a space to think about drinking without polarising the question
into ‘alcoholic or not’, and is presenting an interesting challenge
to the bankrupt paradigm by which most people understand drink problems.
it’s contradictory, and contradictions we should always embrace since
there is no progress without them.
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