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Tag Archives: decency

Ordinary citizens appear increasingly to be democracy’s and indeed decent, civilised behaviour’s last line of defence. In their day-to-day interactions it now falls to citizens to struggle against those who promote and support barbarism. That is to say, if it was ever sensible to remain silent – to opt for a quiet life – while someone in the company – perhaps a friend or family member – spouts nonsense or savagery, it’s no longer a safe option; democracy and decency are now under too much pressure.

During a recent BBC Panorama documentary on the rise of racist attacks in the aftermath of the Brexit poll, a social scientist made a telling point: it’s not that the racists have majority support; it is that they think they have.*

Those who hold and express vile views seldom if ever face an adverse reaction in social and family circles. Too few people or perhaps no one at all expressly disagrees with them, tells them that they should be ashamed of themselves or refuses to socialise with them. Moreover, they are allowed to take part in routine conversation and banter without reference to the knowledge that their most basic views are an affront to civilisation. To borrow a term from communication and media studies, racist thugs are being normalised. **

The same failing has resulted in the current friction over what men can and cannot say to and about women. There are those who hold that despicable behaviour is part of routine banter. The thing is, they are telling the truth and it is the truth because no one in their circle says otherwise. Colleagues, associates, friends and family – knowing their views and character – are willing to socialise with them, are willing to normalise them.

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A key moment for me came some years ago on a bus queue of all places. I tend to talk to strangers. I engaged when the person beside me started on about what was wrong with Irish society. Soon it became apparent that immigrants were the cause of Ireland’s problems. It got worse: each race, it was contended, brought particular failings and these were enthusiastically listed. Certainly I was shocked to be talking to an extremist but more shocking was that someone so extreme would be open with a complete stranger. When I gathered myself and began to argue, it was her turn to be shocked. Clearly she was unaccustomed to questioning and contradiction. She fell silent shortly before the bus arrived.

Thinking about the incident afterwards, I was made despondent by the idea that those views had become utterly routine, that in this woman’s circles her views were accepted as ordinary. My belief now while still chilling, is a little better. Yes, her views are held by many – far too many – but she is mistaken in thinking that she enjoys near universal approval. She is lulled into assuming approval by the absence of confrontation, contradiction and criticism and by being made welcome into the company of decent people.

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Tolerance is now so pervasively misunderstood that public discourse is endangered. “I’m entitled to my opinion” has come to mean, “I’m entitled to say what I like without having to answer for it.” An added variant is, “I’m entitled to talk about drains and football without mention of my more basic, noxious views.” Too many thinking people now consider trenchant argument to be impolite. They flop into an effete silence while racists, misogynists, liars, conspiracy theorists, even supporters of war crimes, and others with similarly vile views move and operate as if they were normal citizens of a decent and democratic society.

There might have been a time when journalists were expected to act but nowadays they are almost completely in thrall to news values and have for the most part left the field of struggle over fundamental values. They prefer to report comments on current issues without reference to a speaker’s basic and sometimes vile views; bluntly, they are activists in the process of normalisation.

That leaves the last line of defence: the thinking, participative citizen, aware of three things: i) that democracy is recent and fragile ii) that it depends on effective public discourse; and iii) that beyond issues, current affairs, even the differences between conservatives, liberals and socialists, there is a small number of shared positions that mark out democracy, civilised behaviour and human decency. That is now threatened and quiet politeness is complicity.

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* About 22mins: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yetFgoAkrGE

** qui tacet consentire videtur

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Joan Burton, Leader of the Labour Party, has responded to Sinn Féin’s overtures by ruling out a coalition. However, while her reasons for doing so are sound, they are not the most compelling. She says that she “would not jeopardise the country’s future in any way by seeing it going into the hands of Sinn Féin” but she is referring to SF economic policy.* That is of course a very good reason but there is something altogether more stark: the truly compelling reason the Labour Party or indeed anyone else must have nothing to do with SF is their human rights record, in particular their support for crimes against humanity.

Joan’s position is undermined, moreover, by the local government coalition of Labour, Sinn Féin and others at South Dublin County Council. The SF TD for Dublin South West, Seán Crowe, reckons that this alliance with the Labour Party has worked very well over the past few years and that, “There is a precedent there that we can work with Labour and others in an inclusive manner that can bring about change. South Dublin is a good example of that.” **

It is a glaring anomaly that Labour entering a coalition government to run the country requires the formal approval of party members, but a local government coalition can be agreed by cllrs. without so much as a discussion with members. After the 2014 local elections a party member objected on Facebook to involvement with SF. The last part of a Labour councillor’s reply was revealing, “In local government, the people are the focus. My community is what matters to me.” This is the hideous realm of the whitewash, a realm in which terms of decency (people, community) are used to cloak horror.

The Labour coalition with SF at SDCC is now in its second term. It has never received the formal approval of members in South Dublin. It is unconscionable that Labour has done a gratuitous deal with SF. It should never have started. It should end now.

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*http://www.irishtimes.com/news/politics/burton-won-t-jeopardise-country-s-future-with-sinn-f%C3%A9in-deal-1.2455028

**http://www.irishtimes.com/news/politics/sinn-f%C3%A9in-leaning-more-towards-coalition-with-labour-than-ff-1.2453529

The Irish government wants to reduce the public pay bill by 10%, about 20Bn. Discussion about how this might be done has been limited to familiar themes. The only nod to decency has been mention of leaving the salaries of poor public workers untouched but even this has been challenged as “unfair” to poor people employed by private companies. In these strange economic times why not indulge in the luxury of radical thought?

 

If we open discussion to hitherto unthinkable possibilities, it might lead us to reconsider our values. There may be a progressive but challenging way to reduce the public pay bill. Let’s consider putting a ceiling on the income of rich public employees. This course has advantages beyond reducing the total pay bill. It makes a statement about and begins to address excessive inequality in Ireland but it will make no one poor. Moreover, the conventional argument for outlandish pay, that high earners will defect to jobs in the private sector, no longer applies. Let’s calculate. How much would be saved if no public worker received in excess of, say, E200k per annum? Perhaps the number of workers that well paid is too small to make a significant saving. Let’s then calculate for 150 and 100. Going any lower might begin to push into the terrain of radical egalitarianism but 100k is more than twice the average industrial wage and five times the minimum wage.