By Michael Clifford
I’m boycotting the Magill Summer School this year. There, I’ve said it. Under no circumstances will I travel north to the picturesque haven of Glenties, in one of my favourite counties, Donegal, to take part in an event so dominated by those like me: male, pale, and wandering past the “best before” date.
This decision has not been easy to make — I’ve never been to the Magill Summer School. In fact, unless I was drugged, kidnapped, and turfed out of the back of a Hiace van, outside the Highland Hotel on the town’s main drag, the chances of me being there would be lower than that of Kilkenny winning the football All-Ireland.
But standing up and going with the flow, joining the chorus, is always difficult.
For those of you who care less about summer schools, MacGill gives good copy. Every slow July, there is plenty said there, acres of expanding and expounding, which can fill up newspapers. By and large, though, the Magill Summer School is an echo chamber, where, to a great extent, everybody agrees that if they — the participants and attendees — were running the country, the job would be oxo.
In particular, the school provides politicians the opportunity to say how they would govern, if only they didn’t have to consider the priorities of voters.
Coverage of the event suggests that the age demographic of the audience is pretty high, and leaning towards males. As such, it is something of an old boys’ club.
Believe it or not, old boys’ clubs are not illegal. Not yet, anyway. So the MacGill Summer School is not representative of anything.
But the row over gender balance at the Glenties gabfest this week is unsettling for different reasons. The unfolding of the row is a salutary example of how narratives are formed in public discourse today.
It started during the week, when somebody with a Twitter account posted a screen grab of the gallery of speakers at the school. All were male.
All were Caucasian. Most were too old to even dream of playing in an All-Ireland final for over-35s. So, as Twitter began to tremble with rage, the slogan de jour, “male, pale and stale”, took flight across cyberspace.
By the time the real picture came into view, the outrage was beyond recalling. It turns out that the gallery of attendees was not complete. Women are contributing to the school’s panels and podiums, albeit a minority, but the original skewing of reality had set the tone by then.
Fewer than a quarter of speakers or panellists are women. This is far too low, but no lower than any other year. Would there have been anything beyond mild annoyance, if the original screengrab had portrayed the correct gender balance?
Anyway, once outrage travels across cyberspace these days, there’s no calling it back. One of Twitter’s functions is to feast on righteous indignation and so it was that the “male, pale and stale” gallery shot through cyberspace.
It didn’t take long for the first real impact on MacGill. An academic, Ben Tonra, who was scheduled to speak in Glenties, let Twitter have it between the eyes. “Fix it @macGillSummersc fix it now or I’m not coming. Full stop. No debate.” Twitter fell at the man’s feet. The revolution had commenced.
By the following morning, the ripples of outrage had burst out from cyberspace onto the corridors of Leinster House.
Catherine Murphy and Róiisín Shortall, joint leaders of the Social Democrats, issued a release, threatening their
withdrawal from the event if the gender balance wasn’t improved.
Ms Murphy spoke on Sean O’Rourke’s programme on RTÉ. “When we agreed, we didn’t realise it was so imbalanced,” she told the presenter.
Didn’t realise, or didn’t bother to ask? Did it just become a priority once it had taken flight on social media? Ms Murphy and Ms Shortall are politicians of considerable substance, admirably attempting to forge a distinct identity in an overcrowded political field. Like all politicians today, however, they scramble to surf the latest wave of outrage.
The director of MacGill, Joe Mulholland, didn’t do himself any favours. When Twitter was aflame, he kept digging by suggesting that it was difficult to find “the person with the right aptitude for some of the topics that are discussed in sessions”.
On O’Rourke’s programme, he mentioned how remote Glenties was. While he undoubtedly didn’t intend to suggest that women mightn’t be as comfortable driving motor cars in the country, that inference might well be taken.
In the end, he sorted things out. Two extra panels have been added to the school to discuss the Eighth Amendment and the difficulties in achieving gender balance.
That the former issue wasn’t on the original programme explains how out of touch the school now is. On one thing, I have some sympathy for Mulholland. Some years ago, I was asked on a not infrequent basis to present a late-night radio programme that had about 2.7 listeners.
Every evening, when I arrived and was told the panel, I asked: “where are the women?” And every evening, the male and female producers told me how difficult it was to get women to come on.
My own impression was that women were less likely to waffle and bluff.
The nature of these panels is often that participants are asked to talk on matters that are outside their own specific areas.
Perhaps men — mea culpa — have less self-respect in this regard. Perhaps also this is why there is a robust school of thought that if women were running banks and politics in the 2000s, we’d never have arrived where we did.
The whole kerfuffle about MacGill does highlight a few features about public life today. Nuance is absent. Once social media gets in on the act, reason is completely dwarfed by inflated — and often manufactured — emotion.
And there are prevailing orthodoxies, which must be adhered to rigidly in every facet of public life or the trolls will descend like vultures.
Currently, the orthodoxy is an understandable backlash against male power. The awakening, which has both global and uniquely domestic features, is a hugely welcome development for anybody interested in the broader issue of equality.
But one recurring feature of backlashes is that things can easily get out of hand. If MacGill is an old boys’ club, so what?
Every forum, every panel, every house does not have to be a battleground. Start your own summer school.
Invite people who are going to drive change, not just talk about it in an echo chamber, before returning to their everyday lives.
What’s next? Should the World Cup be cancelled, because the presenters and panellists on TV are nearly all men? Should those who are male, pale and long beyond their best before date be confined to men’s sheds?
Sometimes, a little perspective goes a long way. But I’m still boycotting MacGill, a fatal blow, I’ve no doubt, to this year’s school.