GUEST COLUMNIST: It’s far better to try to understand each other than resort to jeering

POWER is at its most potent when it is implied. Revealed it loses its mystique. What inspires awe at a distance, provokes resentment not understanding in the actual encounter. So it proved in Seanad Éireann. Largely ignored for decades, some senators forgot that the cameras and microphones fixed to the furnishings in the Duke of Leinster’s former ballroom allow others to look in as well as them shout out.

When tragedy began as an art form the ancient Greeks consigned terrible events off stage. Murder was never committed in plain sight. Some events were too terrible to be seen. Horrible details repel people; they rivet attention but raise anger rather than encourage sympathy and anger is an unintelligent emotion.

Greeks knew that in tragedy, the human experience of being trapped between competing passions, awful deeds should not distract from emotional purification. It is this purification which is the purpose of tragedy. This is the good that can come from apparent chaos. It is the crisis that leads to catharsis. Emotions are a more terrifying drama than any actions Their tragedies were distinguished from their comedies by the use of higher language. In comedy base language, scatological references and lewd jokes might be employed. Today that would include words like “shite” and “fanny”. But tragedy scanned the higher emotions and used a higher language. It was intended to sear the soul not appal the senses. Alfred Hitchcock was a master of terror because he relied on the imagination of his audience to conjure horrors more intense than any gore he could create.

Horrifying deeds are symptoms, not the cause of unbearable tension between pity and fear, justice and revenge. The ultimate drama of great tragedy occurs because both sides are right. Much of our debate about abortion last week was played as comedy not tragedy. Only one side, pro-life or pro-choice, mother or unborn child was right. It was one dimensional in its emotional range. It was slapstick not purifying in its effect. The occasional violence of its language was a mirror of our own violent society. It was not a language of concern, less still of understanding, of those including those still unborn, trapped in the drama of real tragedy.

Much has been written since in this newspaper and elsewhere about the contributions to the debate on the Protection of Life during Pregnancy Bill by Fianna Fáil senators Jim Walsh and Brian Ó Domhnaill. Suffice it to say that they were either unable or unwilling to reply on the emotional range of their audience to comprehend the tragedy they intended to describe. Their graphic descriptions appalled but failed to create any deeper understanding. Abortion is not ultimately about the act itself. It is about the great tension between pity and fear that precedes it. Pity for the child, pity for the woman and fear of carrying the child on.

The rhetoric of excess was not confined to those two senators. Some in the Oireachtas and many outside it routinely used a rhetoric of violence aimed at opponents and opposite points of view. By violence I do not mean the threat of physical violence, though occasionally even that occurred. No, I mean a violent, hating, disrespectful and belittling rhetoric. In public life no less than in personal relations it is a language that pushes us away from understanding. The self-satisfaction that comes from a language of excess, as nearly anyone who writes in newspapers knows from shameful experience, is a selfish, short-lived and smug vainglory.

David Norris and I particularly like bawdy humour. But context and judgement are like timing in comedy.

The mistaken context and the lack of judgement meant that remark was not funny. It was not even a jeer, it was guttural abuse. Since 1987 I have voted No. 1 for Norris in every election he has won as a senator. I will again if he runs again. But last week, I saw a politician, who having once had the bravery to stand up against every taunt, momentarily resemble what for a lifetime he stood up against. Few of us share David Norris’s achievements. Most of us share his weaknesses. He would speak for us all the better if he apologised unreservedly to Deputy Doherty.

Walsh and Ó Domhnaill can be excused by being moved by the passion of intense debate over great issues. I do not know Ó Domhnaill, but I do know Senator Jim Walsh. He is sincere and he is entitled to his view. It represents a wider public that arguably is no longer proportionately represented in public life. It is a view hardly represented at all in the media.

It is the contradiction of so-called liberal rhetoric that it frequently uses the same violence of opinion it is supposedly opposed to. It has now having come of age and achieved a hegemonic majority adopted the language of the imprimatur and the nihil obstat. These, the doctrinal permissions to speak and to be heard once beloved of bishops are translated to the secular world of journalists and politicians as diktat. It is a form of political violence that liberal Ireland routinely and illiberally deploys against any argument it will not approve. But of course liberalism is not an apt description of any Irish majority.

A FERAL taunting, mocking and jeering is alive in our politics and in our public conversation because they are ingrained and unresolved in ourselves. Colonisation, nationalism and Catholicism, from street corner, to bus stop, to chat room, the ultimate urge is always the striving for domination. It is more intense and cruel than any other single thing. What passes for liberalism is not the flowering of goodwill, less still any making way for the other. It is the same, septic and unsatiated craving for domination; the infliction of opinion and dogma of one upon the other.

The closing down of who can speak and the censoring of what may be said is the great Irish object.

This is a country of rhetorically violent, begrudging and authoritarian archetypes. Croziers, party whips and harsh words are all used to intimidate and to belittle. Industrial schools, Magdalene laundries and psychiatric institutions were symbols; built like towering castles on the landscape of the Irish mind. “Bastard”, “queer”, “whore”, were common titles of infliction beyond their walls. Because you could be named, you could be buried alive in shame.

A country promiscuous in its appetite for words, we are casually cruel in their application. Blatant racist abuse is common place on our streets. In my hearing a fortnight ago a bus driver doing the public some service was saturated in the foul, racial abuse of a lout. That man of a different skin colour, from a faraway country, kept his dignity. The pity is we lose ours so often.


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