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Mary Lou McDonald of Sinn Fein posted the following on Facebook and in a few hours, i.e. by midday on April 1st 2015, it had been shared over a thousand times.

“There was some mention earlier on that the Taoiseach and the Fine Gael/Labour government want to rewrite the Proclamation as we head towards 2016.

The Proclamation of the Irish Republic belongs to the people of Ireland. No government, not least the current government, has any right to alter or rewrite it.” – https://www.facebook.com/MaryLouMcDonaldTD/photos/a.498206116331.275763.58340031331/10152707553836332/?type=1&theater

Clearly it is ridiculous to suggest that a document produced a century ago could be rewritten. Three things, however, need to be said. Firstly, it is important that no document be elevated to the status of sacred text to be placed beyond examination and criticism. In the case of the 1916 proclamation its opening lines for example about Ireland summoning her children to her flag are incompatible with citizenship of a republic. Summoning children is more deeply daft and offensive than the UK monarchic tradition of referring to citizens as subjects.

Secondly, MLMcD is taking the familiar authoritarian line of speaking for the people. To say that the wording of a text belongs to the people of Ireland is meaningless other than in reference to the constitution where that ownership involves not stiffened preservation but vesting the power to change the text in a referendum. While the claim that the 1916 proclamation belongs to the people is meaningless, the devious intention behind the claim is not. This is an incident in a longer power play. It is a device that has been used many times. The trick is to put matters beyond discussion, to create blinding loyalty, respect and willing obedience. A person or group is to be insinuated as the true representative of the people and/or interpreter of special texts in opposition to an elected government, parliament or indeed the entire constitutional state. It is profoundly undemocratic relying on a perverse understanding of “the people”.

Thirdly, if the Taoiseach or anyone else wants to open a discussion on some sort of Proclamation for a New Republic, then let a debate begin. However, it must be emphasised that the discussion is essentially about choosing between contested political values. To be effective it will be a fraught discussion because Ireland is unused to contests over values, setting priorities and limits, and marking behaviour and beliefs as unacceptable – with the intention of change from time to time.

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I can’t put a date on it but I recall being in the canteen in RTE and asking one of my former colleagues in engineering to give me a quick rundown on this “internet thing”. Over diagrams and talk I became fascinated. I have to say that it was the abstract communication part of the technology that interested me more than the content possibilities. My recollection too is that I was using e-mail for a considerable time before I had anything resembling today’s net access. However, very soon after I had the net, I became aware of chat sites, i.e. very early social media.

Two things struck me. Firstly, I was working for RTE and the real time “chat” suggested citizen participation in TV current affairs. I wrote on that but failed to convince the Head of News and Current Affairs who reckoned that if it was to be used at all, it was more suited to entertainment. To spare his blushes I won’t name the Head but rest assured that I’ve reminded him over the years. (He’s a good bloke and takes the slagging well.)

Secondly, while I was arguing the potential, I was depressed by the content of these early chat sites. There was little or no, what might be termed, serious discussion. Some chat “rooms” were fine; ordinary people were having ordinary communication about mundane matters. The participants were civil, they exchanged information and well wishes across continents. I liked them and got to know some of them. However, many of the “rooms” and “sites” were devoted to intercontinental rudeness and abuse; people entered these rooms with just one thing in mind: to be nasty. In those days a “troll” referred to someone present in the room but not participating in the discussion. Trolling did not then refer to an increasing experience: ordinary discussants being subjected to abuse from people who simply wanted to ruin their chat. It seemed that this marvellous system would become a vehicle for intercontinental abuse.

Time has delivered a better outcome but that nasty strand has endured, indeed it’s flourished. In the early days the participants were mostly American and for a short time I considered the possibility that the vile speech, peppered as it was with “asshole” and “motherfucker”, was an American phenomenon. It wasn’t. This feature of the net that was established in the early days has attracted adherents across the globe and in large numbers. Anyone unfamiliar with this kind of vile, aggressive content can have a look at it by reading the comments under many of the music videos on You Tube. Discussion of the music can be informed or it can be pleasant, facile, fan-stuff but also it is routinely a shooting gallery for the ignorant and abusive.

Two related things can be said. Firstly, my experience of on-line participation has led me to the view that people behave on-line more or less as they do in the other parts of their lives. Decent people don’t become on-line monsters. They may avoid controversy or seek out flossy celebrity-centred talk, they may gossip with friends, they may keep up with family and friends, they may be active among people with a similar interest and crucially those who participate in serious discussions will do so on-line. It is therefore vital that few people follow John Waters of the Irish Times into a poorly informed technical determinism that sees attempts at on-line discussion as futile because the net is the preserve of idiots.* The truth is that just as the net is a good way of staying in touch with friends, it can also – with a bit of effort – be a good way of finding contending views and attracting useful criticism.

There is a tendency – particularly among those who don’t use it or who make little use of it – to see the net as particularly problematic. I’m reminded of a time when I was researching industrial/workplace vandalism and I came across a quote along the lines of, “Those people who break trees and park benches at night, where do you think they go during the day?” My point is that the web these days is where everyone – including the bad – goes. It is to be expected that forms of dreadful behaviour all too familiar in everyday life will appear on- line. It shouldn’t be more tolerated on line than anywhere else.

It is decades since I first heard someone say that they’d been abused on-line and that they were not going back. I argued that like resisting violence at football matches or reclaiming the streets, it is important that decent people do not vacate the space. The idea would be that the bad would be smothered by a mass of human decency and offenders would be reported and tackled. It can and has worked but there’s a problem in the way that many people use the net and the problem is facilitated by the way the net is developing.

Long before the net relative isolation was risky. In extreme cases abuse occurred in institutions, schools, prisons, camps, clubs, training – even families – areas into which good people could not or did not peer in numbers. Moreover, small, tight groups of friends attracted the person who would control by various forms of intimidation including manipulation of members’ need to belong.

Advice: Stay in the open. Don’t allow close association with any group to become overly important.

There is now considerable fear over net participation but it is misplaced. The fear should be – as always – over relatively closed groups and increasingly there are relatively closed groups on-line. Reports of parents shocked at what is going on are commonplace. Shock is not acceptable; it’s a lame excuse. There is a disgraceful acceptance of the line that young people are good at computers but older people just don’t know about it. It’s time to be intolerant of this nonsense and say that incompetence in this regard is as weird as locking oneself in the house and refusing to use broadcasting and text would have been two decades ago. Any parent – any citizen – who is not active on-line is failing. However, mere activity is not enough. It must go that bit further into understanding that the dangers present in life are present on-line. The basics haven’t changed.

Advice: Stay in the open. Don’t allow close association with any group to become overly important.

“Young people are good with computers.” Repeating it over and over again or making it a staple in mass media discussion doesn’t make it any less untrue. Saying now that young people are good with computers makes as much sense as saying forty years ago that young people are good with televisions. Young people today certainly use information technology a lot but their use tends to be quite limited. Moreover the whole thrust of development is towards a more limited use.

The great gift of the web is access to information but, we’re told, the information will be overwhelming unless it is managed. So begins the drift away from the open web as algorithms make recommendations based on past behaviour and like-minded FB friends determine taste, trends, acceptable behaviour and views.

I had a running gag a couple of years back when lecturing for Information Studies. On the way to lectures I would walk through a large open area in UCD which was equipped with very many on-line PCs providing easy access for students. I took to counting the number in use and the proportion of that number using FB. I then reported my findings to students at the start of the lecture. It was never the case that FB users were in a minority. Now, I use FB a lot and I like it but it was around then that I realised the extent to which FB had for perhaps the majority of users become the net. Since then all manner of apps have appeared whose express purpose is to make life easy by eliminating the need to search, to choose, to face something new, disturbing, distressing, confrontational or challenging.

Increasingly people do not surf the net as of yore. They rely on links, recommendations. This has two outcomes which I want to mention here. Firstly, in my own area of interest, political communication, it reduces the possibility of deliberative citizenship. ** Secondly, it is socially isolating, confines people to relatively tight groups wherein the nasty stuff familiar from media reports and scares can go unchecked.

I realise of course that there is considerable published material which argues that the net internationalises concerns that in the past locals could have swept under the carpet but this is not inconsistent with a view of net use which is relatively closed. An occasional report of injustice or protest or cruelty “going viral” does not mean that on-line pressure to conform from friends or information-management apps are not effective.

So, what’s the outcome of all this? Firstly, it should be emphasised that a portion of life has moved. It has gone on-line and it has brought with it ordinary concerns of life as well as familiar dangers. It is as important on-line as it is in the rest of life not to become isolated. In political communication the term used is “bubble”. Confinement in a bubble is like the older metaphor of an echo chamber. It’s about becoming closed off from discourse by over-reliance on a tight group of like-minded friends – no matter where they are in the world! “Cocoon” might be a better word as in most cases there are individuals fleeing to a security where they will be untroubled by questions, doubt, argument and counter-argument. “Cocoon”, however, doesn’t convey the menace which many parents have come to fear. “Gang” gets closer to the reality. Gangs are characterised by an us-against-world-mentality, rules, secrecy, discipline, leaders who are charismatic but border on insane, enforcers, penalties for breaking the rules and fear of the ultimate sanction: exclusion, banishment. “Gang” also suggests that this is a very old, familiar and serious problem.

The open web can seem scary with its cacophony, scams, intruders, liars, pornographers, schemers, predators, conspiracy theorists, religions, crackpots, healers and dealers but it is also rich in information, debate, cooperation and it has human decency aplenty. What evil is there lurks – as in the wider world – in the shadowy corners, cracks and alleyways. It’s both safe and stimulating on-line if a citizen has the confidence to wander the wide boulevards and engage openly with others. The same cannot be said for social media and restrictive apps which filter, create bubbles, cocoons and gangs. Mature citizens should be encouraged to use the confused expanses of open web to inform themselves and to participate. Yes, that old metaphor of the web as an agora is reappearing here. Younger and vulnerable citizens are safer and more likely to learn something new out on the open web.

In closing here’s a bit of advice for parents. Don’t overly limit a young person’s time on line. With limited time they’ll head straight for their little gang. Give them whatever it takes – time, skill, encouragement, money, example etc. – to see the possibilities to be free, inquisitive and participative on-line. A parent in an attack of self-pity might ask if they are failing as a parent if they can’t or don’t have a life on-line? Unfortunately, the answer is yes!
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* http://www.irishtimes.com/culture/media/if-you-re-reading-this-online-stop-1.1525539
** https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2012/09/05/republican-citizens-on-facebook-need-to-choose-their-friends-deliberately/

It’s difficult to imagine that anyone gets through life without occasionally having their integrity tested. (http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/integrity/) There are rare situations where showing integrity might bring appalling consequences – even death – and in such a situation fear unto dishonesty is understandable and forgivable. In most other situations the risk is small. Indeed the most common motivation for failing to act or speak with integrity is an ambition for career advancement. Now, let’s be quite clear here. If someone feels compelled to dishonesty for fear of being sacked, then that may be forgivable if the matter is relatively minor. However, a person who abandons their integrity for the hope of career advancement reveals a paradox: They progress by being precisely the kind of person who is unsuited to a position of trust or of any importance.

It is true too that in our times a calculating, professional, strategic way of thinking tends to be lauded and this provides a ready cover for acting without reference to good or bad.

Today there are calls for the resignation of Cardinal Seán Brady who acted in a professional manner rather than doing what was right. (http://www.herald.ie/news/i-didnt-realise-impact-of-child-abuse-brady-3097772.html http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01h7m8r) As a mature man of 35 years, well into his career, his integrity was tested. He failed the test and is proven to be “the wrong stuff”, i.e. a person lacking in integrity and unsuited to a position of responsibility. The consequences of his failure were dire for a number of abused children. The risk to him of acting with integrity was slight. His life, his family, his livelihood were not on the line. All that was at risk for doing the right thing was a petty hope of promotion.

There are ordinary people who pass such tests. They are rarely dealing with matters so serious. They do however speak up and/or act according to what is right – either morally or for the good of the organisation that employs them. In the short term they accept that they will anger the boss and their career will stall. In the long-term they may never recover that impetus for promotion or they may come to be seen as having integrity, precisely what is required in a more senior position.

Integrity is at the core of another, older post on this blog. (https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2010/11/24/time-for-a-clear-out-who-misled-and-who-remained-silent-as-a-completely-irish-made-fiasco-developed/ ) As the Irish property bubble/scam was developed with deliberation, there were those in banking, management generally, media, politics, the professions, education, public service, consultancies etc. who knew that it could end only in tears. Few of them passed the test: They lacked the integrity to speak up time and again. They preferred to take their chances by pretending that they believed in nonsense.

It is true that chancers lacking in integrity often make career progress. However, when they are found out, it is right that they be identified as “the wrong stuff” and asked to go.

It is generally thought that indiscriminate beating of children was permitted in Irish schools until corporal punishment was banned. This was not the case.
The following are rules of the Irish Dept. of Education:
“Corporal punishment should be administered only for grave transgression.”
“In no circumstances should corporal punishment be administered for mere failure at lessons.”
“No teacher should carry about a cane or other instrument of punishment.”
“Teachers should keep a copy of these rules and regulations suspended in their schoolrooms in a conspicuous place.”
I find it unacceptable that any teacher who flouted these rules should now remain in employment or in receipt of a pension.

 

A sensible and democratic approach is to treat Islamic dress as public argument. It can then be defended as free speech which invites counter argument, and it can be banned in schools to shelter children until they mature as citizens.

It is very hard to find a plausible argument as to why an adult cannot dress any way they like. Comparisons with motor cycle helmets, balaclavas and hoodies make no sense. Yes, it’s true that if you search, you’ll find that a male criminal evaded the police by dressing as a woman but that’s a world away from claiming that these masks make the control of criminality more difficult.

When journalists have bothered to ask women why they dress in this way, four reasons seem to emerge. Firstly, they are forced to do so. Secondly, they just like it. Thirdly, they believe it to be a command from God or that it pleases God. Fourthly, they are expressing a belief about the nature of people – especially men – which is determined by gender.

If a woman can be forced to dress against her will, it is likely that she is oppressed and unfree in many unpleasant ways but there is no way of knowing by dress alone what is going on.

If a woman simply prefers to dress in this way, nothing can or should be done. She’ll have to expect ordinary respect; the same as that due to any style minority, say, Goths.

However, if she is saying that God wants women covered up either because of divine petulance or because God shares the sexist views of some of Her followers, then the dress is an argument. The term “sexist” is used to refer to a belief that one’s character, behaviour etc. are determined by gender.

Now, at the extreme this is akin to wearing a sandwich board or carrying a placard saying that all men are rapists or the familiar, all men are bastards. At its mildest it is saying that men are driven exclusively or primarily by sexual desire prompted by the sight of a woman’s body, face or hair and that a woman is responsible for controlling this lust by covering up.

The question now arises as to whether the clothes, sandwich board or placard should be permitted? Of course, they should. It is a matter of free speech. However, fellow citizens who disagree are duty bound to engage them in argument. Leaving public order issues to one side, this suggests that anyone dressing in this way in public should expect to be confronted by argument in public in the same way as if they had mounted a soapbox and presented a speech or carried a controversial placard.

Very few people argue for unqualified freedom of expression and most people become conservative when it comes to children. Adults can and must make informed judgements based on argument and information. Children develop and need to be protected from noxious doctrines until they are mature enough to examine them, hear counter arguments and make decisions. If sexism (and, its consequent inequality) is considered a noxious doctrine, its expression in dress should not be allowed in a school.

 http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/weekend/2010/0807/1224276368541.html

http://www.nwci.ie/publications/fulllist/making-our-voices-heard/

In Ireland no one minds very much whether one believes in God or the form one’s God takes. Everyone has spent time trying to find a transcendent anchor for being and meaning. While it is certainly true that many – perhaps most – people find it difficult to argue that universal human values can exist without God, they are more than uncomfortable with the notion that different gods and different groups of religious adherents seem far too frequently to permit or encourage unkindness, cruelty or brutality. Some people avoid confrontation by taking refuge in “culture”; anything is permitted as long as it is sufficiently foreign. Leaving aside the question of abandoning suffering millions to their culture, Ireland’s relatively recent move to a multicultural society has brought the issue close to home. However, the problem lurks too in the folds of the controversy over faith schools.

The problem with religion is not God. It’s revelation. Finding God or feeling it necessary to crucify one’s reason does not lead to cruelty. That path starts at the feet of those who claim to be messengers; that God has told them what people must do, that God has inspired them or that they are particularly capable of interpreting the mind of God. Here is authoritarianism, the erection and maintenance of rules which are not subject to continuous argument – in short, savage certainty.

There are two debates:  i) the existence and nature of God; and ii) the creation of political values and rules to support those values. The two debates can of course be linked but not when the purpose is to avoid argument or to claim that noxious doctrines should be taught to school children.

In Ireland, as the Catholic Church declines, there are many who argue that it is essential to maintain schools with a “Catholic ethos”. Behind the Catholic stance are smaller but growing religions – like Islam – which are happy with their power to run a school according to a particular “ethos”. However, what is meant by “ethos” is not exactly public.

As long as great care is taken to avoid frightening them, there is little to be said against teaching children about, say, God, saints and sacraments. Moreover, religious schooling often features preparation for popular family events like first communion. Debate, therefore, about school ownership and management structures tends to emphasise the harmless and the happy. The contentious power to teach values is seldom mentioned and a thorough exploration of what might be taught is avoided. Most opponents of religious schooling either fall for this or are just as myopic; they charge off into today’s variant of the age-old debate over the existence of God.

The problem with faith schools is not management structures or ownership. The problem is not even God. The problem is the teaching of values. A post from “Anne Marie” in an Irish Times on-line discussion is typical of the confusion. (The discussion followed on from the article by Breda O’Brien, “Time for parents to ask the primary question” in The Irish Times of Saturday, August 7, 2010.) “Anne Marie” – making no distinction between religion and ethics – wrote approvingly of a school in Brussels: the choices available are “Catholic, Protestant, Jewish or Islamic religion or non-religious ethics”. So far, so tolerant but when someone wants to teach a child, say, that God sees different roles for men and women or that homosexual behaviour is wrong, it must be PREVENTED in schools. This is not denial of freedom. Everyone is encouraged to argue among adult citizens but children must be protected. It is crazy to allow any doctrine – no matter how nasty – to be taught to children as long as it can be claimed to be religion.

Now, most values taught in religious schools are either positive and progressive or at worst do no harm but some are daft and/or cruel, and – no matter what their parents want – little Irish citizens should be protected while at school from malicious nonsense about, say, equality, family, homosexuality etc. Anyone using the term “ethos’ should be required to say what it means in practice and if it includes cruel doctrines which decent people hope have been consigned to history, then it must be made clear that freedom means arguing with adults.

No one who came of age in Ireland before, say, 1980 could possibly be surprised by the contents of the Report and this may be the elusive reason – sought by so many commentators – why good people in Ireland did not defend their fellow citizens.

Fintan O’Toole (Irish Times 23rd May), in quoting a victim, gets closer to an explanation for the silence than possibly he realises, “ … regular beatings were just accepted. What you’re hearing about is the bad ones, but we accepted as normal, run of the mill … that some time in that day you would get beaten.” That describes the norm in ordinary Dublin schools and everyone knew – because children were told regularly – that much worse happened in Artane and “orphanages”. Bizarre as the words might appear at first sight, Ireland has experienced mass child abuse.

Unless encouraged, victims tend not to speak out, let alone speak up for others in a worse situation. Until very recently attempts to talk about what went on were routinely met by “time you moved on” or “got over it” and very strangely – perhaps perversely – many victims praise their attackers, and – in saying it didn’t do them any harm – express themselves content with their treatment.

Of course mass, routine child abuse was not of the same order as the crimes committed against the incarcerated children but it was sufficient to undermine solidarity and righteous anger, and to gain silence.