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Man up? We also need to sober up if we want to stop domestic abuse

By Mary Kenny

Recent visitors to Dublin may have observed, on their way back to the airport, a huge notice plastered up by the Liffey, urging men to be kind and nice to women. "Behind every great man there's kindness, courage and support for women and children," it says, exhorting men to "Man Up" and be gentle, perfect knights.

This enormous poster is part of a campaign against domestic violence. Safe Ireland, which sponsors the campaign, point out that "strong men stand against domestic violence".

Last month's launch drove home the shocking statistic that 700 women and children are made homeless every day because of domestic abuse, and that nearly half of men are not aware of the impact that violence in the home has.

The campaign is thoroughly decent, and wholly to be endorsed, but there is nothing new about the thinking behind it. The Methodists were running this kind of crusade in the middle of the Victorian period. Baldassare Castiglione, the Italian Renaissance courtier, was making similar points in the 16th century. The Trinity College Dublin rationalist historian, WEH Lecky, informed us that the cult of the Virgin Mary was deliberately promoted in the Middle Ages so as to "soften" the rough manners of men, and from this emerged the notion of Christian chivalry.

Down the ages, there have been many attempts to teach the male sex not to be brutal, not to use violence or to impose their superior physical strength on others. Chivalry's "women and children first" was counter-cultural and counter-intuitive, too - it went against the practices of nature, whereby the strongest animals dominate.

When my husband reported the tragic Biafra/Nigeria war in 1967, he was upset to discover, during a blockade, that the young warriors were given priority of food and supplies. Women, children and old people were of lesser importance. "The young warriors come first," he was told, "because without the young male's strength we have no nation." Our own ancestors might have thought similarly. Yet every society has learned that the taming of young men, with their capacity for aggression, is a civilising necessity.

The 19th century Methodists, who churned out crusading pamphlets against "wife-beating", and "child cruelty" came to one, overweening conclusion about domestic violence, with one overweening cause: alcoholic drink. And from this arose the temperance movements of the Victorian period, which did a great deal of good. Communities such as Bournville in Lancashire were built by Quakers as an ideal and harmonious place, with one forbidden law: there was to be no public house constructed there. Hobbies and events focused on temperance, with such delights as lemonade dances and chocolate-drinking soirees (chocolate being profitably produced by Quaker entrepreneurs as an alternative to the demon liquor).

Feminists in Finland and the United States, at the beginning of the 20th century, then came to believe that the best possible way to reduce domestic violence was to ban alcohol altogether. And so Prohibition was enacted in 1919 in these two countries. It isn't always recognised that Prohibition was predominantly a feminist movement - supported by the non-conformist churches such as the Methodists and Baptists - and at the beginning, there were many reports of its success. By 1922, violence against women and cruelty to children had fallen dramatically. Partly "dry" states, such as Utah, still have lower rates of domestic violence than states with high alcohol consumption.

It's obvious that one way to decrease the amount of domestic violence in Ireland would be to make a serious effort to reduce the consumption of alcohol. Alcohol is the enabler of over 85% of such violence. But can that be done? Prohibition legislation was a failure: you cannot ban a substance which has been in a culture for centuries (and which many people can enjoy in moderation). Prohibition, moreover, led to bootlegging and profiteering criminal activity. But it would be no harm to emphasise, a little more clearly, that the link between domestic abuse and alcohol is very, very strong.

This new campaign - like the many campaigns before it to make people better and gentler - is also up against an awful lot of mixed messages. The chivalrous sentiment behind "courage and support for women and children" is exactly what the torchbearers of equality between the sexes spurn. When I was a young feminist we thought the idea of men being "kind" to women was patronising and condescending - just another tactic of "oppressive patriarchy".

And if society emphasises that women are the equal of men, and can be just as combative as men, why should men be chivalrous? The "mixed messages" of macho movies, disturbing screen violence, and a pornography free-for-all is another challenge for the "Man Up" advocates.

The Jewish intellectual George Steiner once wrote that "the Jews have been trying to blackmail humanity into virtue for over two thousand years, via Moses, Jesus and Marx". So it's still a work in progress.

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