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No one at all agrees with George Hook’s view that a victim of rape could be to some extent responsible for the crime. Well, that’s how it seems but it’s not true. Many people agree with him but right now they are silent. They are silent in the face of the powerful outrage expressed by the establishment and by thousands of ordinary decent people who have decided that there’s no room for equivocation on rape.* This would seem to be the first general lesson arising from the incident: if decency and the establishment – especially journalism – combine in outrage, then the expression of a barbaric viewpoint will be met with concerted hostility. In other words, anyone holding such a view will know that its expression will invite opprobrium.

There are two types of opposition and they can be represented by two Irish Times journalists. Firstly, there is the Fintan O’Toole view that George Hook and his associates should be boycotted. ** Secondly, there’s the Kitty Holland view that he ought to be heard and challenged.*** Both accept that his viewpoint represents a wider misogynist perspective, with FO’T adding that Newstalk Radio, George Hook’s employer, is editorially committed to serving/entertaining the audience for this kind of material. Indeed, it is argued by former Newstalk presenter, Sarah Carey, that, “When you make controversy your business model, this is inevitable.”† Unfortunately, that’s far from the truth because the number of vile statements/slurs capable of generating a reaction like this is tiny.

The second general lesson then would seem to be that there are some viewpoints which decency and the establishment find so reprehensible as to warrant exceptional action. That prompts three questions: how does a viewpoint gain this status; how many such viewpoints are there; and, is the list comprehensive?

The road to establishment opposition to rape myths is unfortunately long and tear stained. Marital rape was not illegal in Ireland until 1990. Clearly opposition developed slowly and at some point the numbers represented a breach such that what George Hook said *** appeared beyond that breach. It’s worth mentioning that this is a recent breach; GH has taken the same position many times and recently. Numbers determine in so far as to form a critical mass which delivers the power to say, “No right thinking person would say that.”

At this point the liberal has stepped on to thin ice in being asked to side with the bien pensant. I don’t intend to explore this in any depth. Suffice it to say that there is an old tension here between preventing speech that will cause harm and requiring speech that will challenge the orthodox view. 

In discussing the George Hook incident, I asked a handful of people to identify other views which would attract the same degree of opprobrium. The banishment of Kevin Myers for the expression of a view that was a curious mixture of misogyny and anti Semitism sprang to mind for almost all.†† Racism (including hostility to Travellers) or opposition to homosexuality came to mind too but there was a consensus that while these might prompt a degree of condemnation, it would be nothing like demands for dismissal or the boycott of a radio station. It was thought that there was just one other thing that would compare: child abuse generally and paedophilia particularly.

A list of viewpoints which a typical leftist or progressive would be quick to condemn did not feature. The ton of bricks which fell on George Hook would not fall on nasty comments about women (other than concerning rape) the poor, welfare recipients, politicians, public servants, immigrants etc.

It would seem that there are just these three areas which are condemned as, “No right thinking person would say that.”

Anyone familiar with my views would be surprised if I did not mention what for me was the most glaring omission but it is also a link to and informs the third general lesson.

It is necessary to plumb the depths of depravity to find worse than supporting a rape myth, anti-Semitism or child abuse but supporting and celebrating war crimes is certainly a contender. Now, the IRA for years conducted a campaign of selecting civilians as targets. Each incident was an unambiguous war crime/crime against humanity. Sinn Féin supports/celebrates these crimes while attracting a share of up to 20% of the Irish vote. Bizarrely, Fintan O’Toole listed Gerry Adams, President of Sinn Féin, among those whom he called upon to boycott Newstalk.**

Unlike speakers for Sinn Féin, George Hook (and indeed Kevin Myers) apologised and expressed the error of what was said but there was no way back. The third general lesson then would seem to be that there are viewpoints which decency and the establishment find so reprehensible as to be unforgivable.

So, what have we got? Well, in Ireland decent people and the establishment – especially journalism – can combine to direct a powerful hostility towards anyone expressing a barbaric viewpoint. There is then no redemption; apology, withdrawal, recantation count for nothing. However, very few barbaric viewpoints are considered so reprehensible as to warrant this treatment. There may be as few as three: support for i) rape myths, ii) anti-Semitism and iii) child abuse.

The sudden, public and entirely unexpected onslaught on George Hook and on Newstalk has given rise to suggestions that something has changed: on the one hand, that vile, dangerous nonsense will not be tolerated or on the other, that free speech is threatened. The reality is that too little has changed. The pusher of rape myths now joins a tiny number of officially recognised despicable speakers. Is it possible that the decent citizens and journalists who finally had enough of rape myth-making will pause, look about and ask, “Is there similar or worse that we’ve been ignoring for too long and that warrant the same treatment?” At the very least it might be argued that it is time for guidelines which include a reminder to journalists that there are indeed viewpoints that are so foul, dangerous or depraved that they cannot be ignored or normalised. That would permit the participative citizen to object, cause journalism to engage and the issue could be dragged out into the open, and considered as potentially despicable – the kind of thing that no decent person could say.

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* https://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/editorial/no-room-for-equivocation-on-rape-1.3217200

** https://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/fintan-o-toole-why-i-will-not-appear-on-newstalk-again-1.3216957

*** https://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/george-hook-should-be-challenged-not-silenced-1.3219952

https://www.irishtimes.com/business/media-and-marketing/george-hook-colourfully-bombastic-persona-with-distaste-for-political-correctness-1.3222742

†† https://www.irishtimes.com/news/ireland/irish-news/kevin-myers-i-have-no-career-left-my-reputation-is-in-tatters-1.3174510

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A news report in Saturday’s Irish Times has prompted me to return to the question of schools having a religious ethos *. While of course this applies to all religious schools in Ireland, the campaign in favour of fostering ethos ** is led by the Catholic Church.

The difficulty with addressing “ethos” is that it is never clear what is meant. If it means that any doctrine can be taught to children as long as it is said to be a feature of a religion, then ethos must be rejected. No responsible citizen would approve a rule saying that anything can be taught to a child as long as it is cloaked in religion. That would be a parody of religious tolerance.

In the short newspaper report a number of features of ethos – or more accurately Catholic ethos – appear. It is surprising, however, that no doctrines which appear regularly in public controversy are mentioned.

This news report suggests i) that teaching the existence of God and life after death is now threatened, ii) that if religious education is removed from the “public sphere” it could develop “in a more fundamentalist way”, and iii) that religious education is a part of the humanities and like other “creative subjects” is threatened by vocational/professional training as opposed to education.

Looking at these in order, it should be said at the outset that while there are those who oppose teaching about God and an afterlife to children – and they offer cogent argument against it – it doesn’t cause anything like the concern about teaching contentious opinion as fact. Ireland is a free and open society in which anyone may argue. However, teaching young children and arguing one’s case are entirely separate activities. All Irish children should be protected from noxious opinion presented as truth to be learned. To be blunt, any Catholic can and should argue the Church’s position on homosexuality, gay marriage, contraception, abortion etc. but all children must be protected from being taught those arguments as fact. It hardly needs to be added that this applies to all other religions which might want to teach in such a way.***

On the second point, it is accepted that there are many religious people who fear that their ordinary decency is threatened by extremists who wish to portray a particular understanding as the real or only interpretation. However, the fears of decent people for the future of their religion cannot be relieved at the expense of children.

The third point wants to pitch religious teaching in the camp of creative thought. It is true that religion and religious thinkers have contributed to the development, spread and maintenance of humane, decent values but to go on then to suggest that teaching a fixed doctrine to children is compatible with open debate and creative thinking is self-serving.

We want children to emerge into adulthood as thoughtful, iconoclastic and creative. We certainly don’t want them lumbered with cruel, divisive opinions held as doctrine. On the contrary, we want citizens ready and eager to debate the future of the republic. Whenever ethos is mentioned in relation to teaching children, the package must be opened and if necessary the bearer told that some of its contents relate to adult debate and not to children.
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* http://www.irishtimes.com/news/education/catholic-schools-should-remain-true-to-ethos-despite-challenges-1.1708941

** I tried to find a plural for “ethos” and discovered a controversy. I was attracted to the view that it is a word that doesn’t have/need a plural but you might like to anglicise and use “ethoses”, “ethosses” or stick with the Greek and use “ethe” but if you opt for “ethoi”, it would appear that Greek scholars will be annoyed.

*** https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2010/08/12/faith-schools-and-the-teaching-of-values/