Further laws against ‘hate speech’ to enforce a common ‘decency’ are more about muzzling freedom of expression than protecting the vulnerable, writes Margaret Hickey.
THERE wasn’t any media storm earlier this month when the country had its own Charlie Hebdo moment as the Director of Public Prosecutions announced that no proceedings would be brought against journalist Brenda Power following complaints about a Daily Mail article she wrote in 2014 on the prevalence of feuding and violence among the Traveller community.
The complaint under the 1989 Incitement to Hatred Act, was made with the support of the Irish Council for Civil Liberties. Apparently freedom of expression undermines civil liberty.
Brenda Power and others who brave the PC warriors on this subject are motivated by a clear sense that the rights of young Travellers to education, health and social integration are impeded by a quasi-nomadic lifestyle on the cultural and communal periphery.
They may be right or they may be wrong but the argument they make carries the same aspirations that every rights’ body on the globe promotes for children everywhere.
Nothing revolutionary, reactionary or, less still, racist about such views you may might think but nevertheless they are grist to the PC phobia busting mill as provocative views in another context might be to Kalashnikov-wielding maniacs.
According to Equality Minister Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, existing restraints on freedom of expression are insufficient proofs against “hate speech”. We need legislation to enforce a universal code of “decency”. According to one speech he made in the Dáil, “... (in this country) you can say whatever you like and write whatever you like about Travellers”.
Perhaps you can but not without consequences. On foot of a Garda investigation which led to Brenda Power being questioned under caution and the matter being referred to the DPP, she spent a year living with the very real possibility that she could end up with a criminal conviction.
Fortunately for her, there is a separation of powers underpinning our democracy and it is the DPP not any government minister who determines what you can say or not say, write or not write.
Further laws against hate speech with the aim of enforcing a common decency are more about muzzling freedom of expression than protecting the truly vulnerable. These kind or restraints on free speech have in the past prevented child abuse from coming to light.
They may not have had the force of law behind them then but they had the force of those whose power placed them above the law. Laws grounded in the shifting sands of what may or not be thought decent or hateful give the powerful a weapon to enforce their views. It is fair to say, to put the matter simply, that Aodhán Ó Ríordáin’s idea of what constitutes decency would not be the same as a reverend mother’s.
If a jury sometime in the future, assuming Aodhán has his way, were asked to determine whether an article such as the one Brenda Power wrote on Travellers, was within the bounds of decency, would they not be likely to interpret according to the prevailing view of what was politically correct. It is more important our laws serve the truth than any shifting ideas of decency of speech.
Our society is coming more and more sensitive to the truth when it offends the new orthodoxy of secular liberalism. Sure, religious orthodoxy was just as oppressive in its day but it is hardly progress to attack others for playing dirty and then go on and use the very same tactics yourself when the balance of power is switched.
Laws are always stress tested by lawyers and politicians in any case so that is why it is so important to avoid pliable, interpretation friendly terms. When Desmond O’Malley was ejected from Fianna Fáil in 1985, it was under a party rule that made “unbecoming behaviour” a basis for expulsion.
O’Malley’s unbecoming behaviour was not, as the rule envisaged, some major social lapse like falling down drunk but taking principled position in a Dáil vote at a time when the party whip had been withdrawn from him. Of course there is a lower threshold of scrutiny for party rule books but one would be rash to assume that the law of the land could not have similarly rickety legislation. History shows that laws are as sound and fair as the lawmakers who enact them.
Bias blinds. Selectively of course. Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, whose crusading spirit cannot be questioned, and who unlike most politicians is prepared to nail his colours to ships that look like they might not sail, politically speaking, offers a good example of seeing things through the distorting lens of prejudice. Some examples stand out.
During the Marriage Referendum campaign, he took exception to the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland ruling against Newstalk Breakfast’s presenter, Chris O’Donoghue, for failing to be impartial, yet he himself stalled a debate on 7 Lá (TG4) because of the alleged Sinn Féin sympathies of contributing journalist, Eoin O’Murchu. In a similar parallel, he reported the mayor of Naas, Darren Scully, to the gardaí under the Incitement to Hatred Act for remarks he made about the black community in the town.
The mayor had withdrawn his comments and resigned his post but this was not enough for Ó Ríordáin. However, in a reverse instance, he himself supported a Labour motion, forwarded by the Clontarf branch of his party to the annual conference, recommending that Catholics be screened for top positions in the civil service.
He withdrew his support when the matter became controversial. How would he have felt about a complaint to the gardaí? For people like Aodhán, some social groups are fair game while others are a protected species. In typical doctrinaire fashion, he declaimed in a Dáil debate that “diversity is the truth, sameness is a lie”.
That is true for the social and cultural groups the minister supports but it is not true for faith communities of various denominations who want to retain the religious charter and character of their schools.
It is a sad development when political correctness stymies debate in public fora because of the real phobia, literally the fear of causing offence by crossing a line into some -ism or so-called phobia.
Even the original bastions of free and fearless debate, the universities, are not immune to this self-censorship. Germaine Greer is among many whose liberal credentials are not in doubt who is now blacklisted by universities because of her un-PC opinion that transgender surgery does not turn a person into a woman or a man as the case may be.
That she has a highly arguable case doesn’t count. It is undeniably a sensitive subject and undeniably offensive to a small minority.
However, free and open debate is the bulwark of a free and open society. It is not possible to maintain either without having one’s views and convictions offended and in return offending others.
It may mean being branded publicly as a “right-wing extremist” or a “left-wing bigot” but at least you have a chance to explain why you are more than the label or even why the label was never right to begin with.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved