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Thursday, July 15, 1999

Breaking the silence?

Ian Hunter
National Post

Mother Jones, the American magazine with a feminist slant, is not my bedtime reading. But I was sent one of its recent articles on domestic violence. Oh no, I hear you mutter, not another rant about hairy, testosteronic, Neanderthals who batter their innocent wives into the doors of the chronically underfunded women's shelters. Well, no. Mother Jones reporter Nancy Updike writes: "A surprising fact has turned up in the grimly familiar world of domestic violence. Women report using violence in their relationships more often than men."

The research on which the article was based was conducted by a University of Wisconsin psychologist, Terrie Moffitt. After an in-depth study of 860 men and women, followed since birth, Ms. Moffitt concluded that wives hit their husbands at least as often as husbands hit their wives. The study echoes similar findings reported in the National Post recently involving Alberta couples.

This news may come as a shock to the unmarried. But most men who have trod the stony path of matrimony will have suspected as much, while being afraid to say so. Now a study by a female academic, written up by a female reporter, published in a feminist magazine, confirms it. What next? Will the New England Journal of Medicine discover that smoking actually improves longevity?

To the limited extent that the word "true" can be applied to any datum in what are laughably called the social "sciences"; it appears to be the case that more women are maimed or killed by men in domestic disputes than vice versa. In other words, women hit as often as men but to less effect. So with respect to the magnitude, if not the incidence, of domestic violence, women may still claim some moral high ground.

Where I live each year there is a "Take Back the Night" march. Some men, who sympathize with the broader objective of eliminating violence from the community, would like to march alongside their sisters and have sought permission. Each year they are curtly refused. To allow men to participate, the organizers insist, would deflect attention from the equation (the contemporary equivalent of the revolutionary slogan: "Four legs good, two legs bad" in George Orwell's Animal Farm) which they seek to implant in the public consciousness, namely "Men = Violence; Women = Victim." Now along comes Mother Jones and others to say it ain't necessarily so.

A few years back Statistics Canada reported that of 12,300 women surveyed, 51% had been physically or sexually assaulted by men. It rather takes your breath away that; every other Canadian man a wife-beater or a rapist. But when you got to the definition section, you discovered that "assault" was a term of limitless elasticity, embracing everything from an unsolicited kiss at the doorstep to disappointment at not receiving same. One wondered if the other 49% of Canadian women had lived their lives in a cocoon.

At the law school where I taught, we once held a faculty retreat to try to bridge the acrimonious chasm between our feminists and the rest of the faculty. I recall one of my colleagues, a middle-aged man, delivering himself of a maudlin speech about how he had always tried to treat his male and female students with equal respect; he finished up asking plaintively: "Where have I gone wrong? What would you have me do?" To which one of the feminists snapped back: "The very fact that you would ask such a question demonstrates that you are the problem."

After the meeting I discovered that this feminist had published a law journal article on the meaning of equality; she wrote: "it is in women's interest to refuse to subscribe to, or commit themselves to, any single meaning of equality. Feminist advocates need to learn to use the equality discourse on behalf of women in as many and as diverse situations as the term can bear. The needs and experiences of women will dictate the meaning of equality in each particular context."

When I circulated this quotation to my colleagues, its author and her friends accused me of sexism and a gross breach of collegiality.

Fortunately, I no longer reside in the cloud-cuckooland that Ontario law schools have become. Even so, I hold my peace on the myths of domestic violence.

Ian Hunter is professor emeritus in the faculty of law at the University of Western Ontario.

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