Thursday 27 June 2019

Eilis O'Hanlon: 'Why the nanny state can't bring itself to butt out of our lives'

Irish politicians' appetite for telling people how to live their lives shows no signs of abating with latest ad campaign, writes Eilis O'Hanlon

Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan. Photo: Brian Lawless/PA
Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan. Photo: Brian Lawless/PA

Ireland has "disturbingly high" levels of sexual harassment. That's according to Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan, who has just launched a new three-year national awareness-raising campaign to tackle the problem under the slogan "Enough Is Enough" - and heaven help anyone who dares to suggest it's a huge waste of time and money.

This might, though, be a classic example of not seeing the wood for the trees. Did no one's alarm bells go off in Government on seeing figures that showed Ireland had the highest level of sexual harassment in Europe, and second only to Mexico in the whole world?

Did no one question whether it was at all likely that there was, as this study said, twice as much sexual harassment in Ireland than Britain? That doesn't sound plausible in two countries roughly similar in culture and social attitudes.

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The key here is the figure of "claimed" sexual harassment. Surely what the figures actually show is that Irish women are twice as likely as British women to report sexual harassment - and that's a good thing, isn't it? It may mean Irish women are the least likely in Europe to put up with, or brush off, certain behaviours as harmless. It's about how you frame the question. Are these women victims of harassment, or authors of their own destiny calling out harassers?

Of course, questioning the wisdom of official campaigns lays one open to the charge of not wanting to do anything to solve particular problems, when actually it's the Government which isn't doing anything. If sexual harassment really is as bad as he says, shouldn't the Minister for Justice be doing more than launching a half-baked "national awareness ad campaign"?

Commissioning some outdoor posters or ads on TV and radio, in cinemas, on social media and other digital platforms, is less a crackdown on harassment, and more another display of tokenism.

It's not as if people don't know sexual harassment is bad. They do it because they think they can get away with it. Smoking in pubs didn't end because smokers suddenly realised how unpleasant it was for other people to breathe in their second-hand smoke, but because it was made against the law, with penalties to match. Likewise, sexual harassers will stop when it starts to have consequences. That was the lesson of #MeToo.

Ads are notoriously ineffective as agents of change, and these latest examples are so full of cartoonish villains that few perpetrators will recognise themselves in the scenarios being acted out.

They also weaken the message by casting the net too widely, for example by showing an older female boss making a young male employees uncomfortable at work by touching his shoulders, or men pressuring female partners into sexual acts with which they're not happy, before asking rhetorically: "Does Ireland have a problem with sexual harassment and violence?"

The second ad looks at some of the excuses people make for inappropriate behaviour by lifting out of context phrases from a conversation with a focus group which was invited to watch the first ad and respond to the situations depicted. As we now know with bullying, the role of the bystander is crucial, but the message is muddled. Lumping harassment in with literal violence up to and including implied rape smacks of desperately trying to tick as many boxes as possible.

After another new report declared binge drinking has increased by 20pc in Ireland over the last 30 years, Senator Catherine Noone also called last week for Ireland to look at the experience of Iceland which "increased the drinking age to 20 years and put a ban on alcohol and tobacco advertisements". Politicians' obsession with the power of advertising knows no bounds.

She insisted she was only "starting a debate". Charlie Flanagan also declared that he wanted to "spark a national conversation" about sexual harassment. It's become the standard cliche from politicians who, despite itching to micromanage people's lives, also want to avoid giving the impression of being officious busybodies.

This is the same Catherine Noone who chaired the Oireachtas committee on the Eighth Amendment, which concluded that Irish women must be free to have full control of their own bodies. Women's bodies are their own until they decide that what they want to do with them is put some alcohol inside, then suddenly it becomes the State's moral duty to save them from making the wrong choices.

The Icelandic model, which Noone pointed to as an example of positive action, includes plenty of initiatives which are well worth considering, not least offering young people struggling with crappy personal lives opportunities to get "natural highs" through sport and leisure rather than drugs and alcohol. But, be honest, is the Government going to fund that kind of imaginative scheme? Probably not. They might slap a ban on booze ads, though, because that's easy.

At least the new Norwegian health minister is willing to resist the lure of nannying. "I do not plan to be the moral police, and will not tell people how to live their lives," announced Sylvi Listhaug, "but I intend to help people get information that forms the basis for making choices." Imagine being a government minister who doesn't want to tell people how to live their lives. Where will this madness end?

It's the cynical tokenism of it all which really grates. The Taoiseach actually flew to last week's EU summit on the future of Europe post-Brexit and announced that Ireland's priority was climate change. The Dail duly became the second country in the world, after Britain, to declare a so-called "climate emergency" after passing a Fianna Fail amendment to the Oireachtas report on climate change which was then accepted without a vote by the only six TDs who were in the Dail chamber, none of whom were from FF.

There are so many levels of political masquerade going on here that it's a wonder everyone's drivel detector didn't simultaneously go off. They're either fooling themselves or us. Green Party leader Eamon Ryan said the motion "will be of little meaning unless we are now willing to act on the recommendations of the Committee".

But of course they won't. Earlier this year, the Taoiseach couldn't even stick to his guns for 24 hours after saying that he was cutting down on his meat consumption to help in the fight against global warming. At the first sign of resistance from farmers, he crumbled and made it known that he'd had "a very nice Hereford steak" the night before. Somehow we're supposed to believe he will now leave no stone unturned in the fight against global warming. Irish ministers talk a good fight, but have neither the courage to emulate the new Norwegian health minister and butt out of people's lives, or else take hard, possibly unpopular decisions and stand by them.

All they do is parrot the right slogans. Whatever climate change strategy is devised, one thing is sure. It will undoubtedly include a big public awareness campaign. Ad executives can start house hunting for those villas in Umbria now.

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