A campaign that real men can tolerate

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THERE can be few campaigns that have been so securely based in popular approval yet have evoked such a surprising political reaction as Edinburgh's swish Zero Tolerance campaign. It was launched across bus shelters and hoardings in Princes Street a year ago by the district council, supported by the Provost and the chief of police, and is now entering its second phase.

The motif and the message of Zero Tolerance are spreading to several other municipalities in Scotland impressed by the impact of the campaign in Edinburgh. More than 70

per cent of schoolchildren surveyed by Edinburgh district council's women's unit before the campaign expected to experience violence in their adult relationships. And violence was the number one political priority, before child care and jobs, in a survey of the city's women. These two discoveries persuaded the women's unit that men's violent abuse of their power was part of everyday life and thus part of the council's responsibility.

The unit was emboldened by Canada's response to the 1989 Montreal massacre, in which 14 women engineering students were murdered by a young man who stormed their college, driven by pathological anti-feminism. In 1991 the Canadian federal government launched a dollars 136m campaign against violence against women.

Edinburgh carefully crafted its campaign. The city is precariously balanced politically - if Zero Tolerance was to survive, the ruling Labour group needed to unite all political parties around its challenge to the abuse of men's power. Zero Tolerance connected with the great and the good, with the politicians and the police. It wanted to transcend shame and fatalism by clarifying the conditions in which women and children are threatened and the power that sustains the threat.

Edinburgh was clever: it did not shrink from the manifest link between masculinity and crimes of violence and abuse, but nor did it leave men simply with blame and accusation. The campaign offered men the opportunity to show solidarity with women, inviting them to sign up to the campaign and endorse women's right to be free from men's violence. Many did. Research into the response to the Zero Tolerance hoardings found that only 12 per cent of men opposed the campaign.

The strength of Zero Tolerance lies in its iconography: it depicts images of women, not as victims but in circumstances of security, pleasure and rest. Below these images the captions intrude, almost as an assault, giving the facts and figures on the violence and sexual abuse endured by women and children. The images disturb the stereotype of the victim: these women's self-containment and serenity confirm their solitary strength and confound any fantasy that 'she asked for it'.

These comfortable scenes - a businesswoman restfully reading in her elegant apartment, a granny telling bedtime stories to a child - provide a clue to the cross-class character of the victims and also, therefore, of their assailants. They could be anyone. The viewers, both men and women, have to make a decision: where does their empathy lie? There is no opportunity for voyeuristic sympathy with the assailant or pleasure in the brutalised bodies of his victims.

London's Zero Tolerance campaign was launched last month by the Association of London Authorities with the support of the Metropolitan Police, which now has 65 designated domestic violence units. The London campaign is narrowly focused on domestic violence, rather than the spectrum of sexual crimes: 'He gave her flowers, chocolates and multiple bruising.' Edinburgh was about women, London's is less subtle: its target is men. None the less, like Edinburgh, the London campaign invites us to reinterpret everyday oppressions as offences: 'It's not just a fact of life, it's a crime.'

Zero Tolerance has its critics, north and south. Some of its erstwhile Conservative adherents in Edinburgh have lost confidence. 'I'm for the rights of women, but I'm not an extremist,' explained the council's Tory group leader, Daphne Sleigh. She acknowledged that 'vast tracts of Scotland are old-fashioned male- dominated communities, cloth-cap socialism, so feminism is an obscenity to them.'

Her own worry is that Zero Tolerance might be seen as 'one of those feminist things'. She still believes in the importance of confronting violence against women, but 'I prefer to get there without a major hassle'.

This tells us more about the state of British politics than it does about Zero Tolerance: our party system trails weakly behind the revolution in common sense as exemplified in the campaign, which cuts across all political alignments.

Zero Tolerance appears to have been accepted by ordinary men more readily than by some politicians and opinion-formers, who fear for the reputation of men in general. Zero Tolerance works with irrefutable evidence. The link between masculinity, violence and sexual crimes is as irrefutable as the danger of drinking and driving.

Yet embarrassed conservatives, cloth- capped or Jaegered, still balk at naming the problem. Their traditionalist approach to law and order still depends on a subliminal demonisation of men and the generalised fears of women. What the critics cannot accept is the linking of these crimes with men's abuse of power, rather than with their biology, or badness. By their silence they offer their fellow men no service and women no safety. Zero Tolerance, however, does not blame men, it enlightens them.