Just what is it with the need to nag people into abstinence at the start of the year?
The start of the year is traditionally a time when people look to make fresh starts – the New Year Resolution to improve health, change bad habits or generally revamp our lives is a long-standing tradition, albeit one that very few people stick to (or even actually start). But in recent years, the whole ‘fresh start’ idea has been cynically commodified by prohibitionist groups who use the idea of a January restart as a way of social engineering. If we are already in the most miserable month of the year, the thinking seems to go, why not make it even worse for everyone by insisting that they arbitrarily (and temporarily) give up one of the things that they enjoy?
Before I go any further, I should make it clear that I’m not judging anyone’s chosen lifestyle. If you are a vegan or abstain from alcohol, good for you. That’s your choice. If you’ve chosen to give up something that you have a difficult relationship with or find morally objectionable, well done. I’m not even saying that you shouldn’t evangelise about your new lifestyle (though perhaps remember that finger-wagging self-righteousness is not a proven way of winning hearts and minds). This is not about the pros and cons of any particular lifestyle but rather the way that groups with very specific agendas have climbed on the New Year bandwagon to try to further their prohibitionist beliefs while people in desperate need of validation get to let us know how virtuous they are – because no one ever does a January abstinence programme without making sure that everyone else knows about it, do they?
The British government and our media campaigners have long been proponents of the ‘nudge’ method – little ways of pushing people towards doing the ‘right’ thing (i.e. what our betters think is good for us) but over the last few years, this nudge has become a blatant shove in the ribs. The BBC treat Veganuary in particular as though it is the official sponsor of the campaign – from Breakfast TV through local news to the One Show, the campaign is relentlessly discussed as though everyone is doing it. The implication is that if you are not taking part in some sort of month-long performative abstinence then you are a Bad Person. It’s a decidedly religious attitude. Indeed, Lent is marked by your more fanatical Christians by fasting and abstaining from meat and alcohol – the very things that our new secular spiritual leaders demand we give up for this newly ordained holy month for the church of self-importance. Coincidence?
We shouldn’t underestimate the religious aspect of this. Religion exists as a control valve for society – the rules of any religion are designed to keep the masses in check and what better way to emphasise that control over every aspect of someone’s life than by telling them what they can wear, say, eat or drink – and exactly when they can or cannot do it? As society becomes more secular, so new groups – possessed of a religious fervour, we might think – pop up to tell us how to behave. It’s for our own good, we’re told – but haven’t religious leaders been telling people that for centuries?
The fact is that Dry January was invented – or at least commodified – by Alcohol Concern in the UK is telling. Alcohol Concern is not an organisation interested in moderation – its raison d’etre is to denormalise alcohol consumption and to make it as difficult as possible to buy and sell booze. This isn’t about cutting down, reassessing your relationship with drink or anything else – it’s about getting people to see alcohol as a Bad Thing. We’ve seen the mission creep – we now also have Sober October as part of the continual nudging as well as a steady stream of alcohol scare stories that often have little connection to reality – for instance, the constant claims that alcohol is cheaper than ever or that we have more and more young people drinking to excess when a quick look at the evidence shows that the opposite is true – but which are repeated without question by media outlets who can’t be bothered actually looking into the claims made.
The depressing thing is to see people who should know better fall into this – I’d love to think that no self-respecting Reprobate reader is sucked into this nonsense, but in truth, I’ve seen beer enthusiasts and advocates of the pub as a Good Thing sign up to Dry January even though we know that the campaign is both a prohibitionist-led movement and a kick in the teeth for breweries and pubs at what is already the worst time of the year.
I’m not suggesting that periodic reassessment is a bad thing. We’ve probably all had periods where it made sense to take a break from drinking in particular. But that should be a personal decision, not some desperate bandwagon-jumping. You might genuinely find a new way forward in your relationship with booze, meat or whatever else if you make those choices for yourself rather than doing it because you have been pressured to. Stopping doing something you don’t have a problem with just because you’ve been told everyone else is stopping is mad. Do it for yourself, not for anyone else – and don’t place a deadline on it if you do. If drinking alcohol or eating meat is bad then surely it’s bad full stop – not just for a month here and there. When people struggle through January with gritted teeth and then charge for the pub on February 1st, it not only shows how insincere the whole thing is but also makes a mockery of those people who have genuinely struggled with addiction and spend all their time in a battle against sliding back – they don’t get to stop on a whim and a date to count down to when they can start boozing again.
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