Reponses to Kevin Myers. Incitement to hatred or provocation to debate?
Journalist: Harry Browne'
The 'bastard son of a renegade priest'
Say it loud: I'm a bastard and I'm proud. "Bastard Son of a Renegade Priest", to give myself the full and fair title conferred upon me in my youth by a friend.
As such, and with a wary, American-educated suspicion of "Incitement to Hatred" and other censoring codes, I was particularly averse to seeing Kevin Myers get what he wanted: martyrdom on the altar of "political correctness". The pursuit of him this week, and any further pursuit in the wake of his apology, must give him satisfaction he doesn't deserve.
To be sure, the Thursday apology was disingenuous. "I genuinely feel that the word has no stigma attached to it," he wrote. That sits oddly with the haughty provocation in the original column: "Ah. You didn't like the term bastard? No, I didn't think you would."
Tuesday's Myers rant was exactly reminiscent of the Simpsons episode when Bart repeatedly sings the B-word about Homer's newly discovered half-brother – "Bastard bastard, bastard bastard" – revelling in the licence granted by its technical precision.
To my mind, the appropriate riposte to Myers's language was not prosecution or persecution but to reply with equal technical precision: "Go f**k yourself." If you value free speech at all, you simply cannot argue that people have some fundamental right not to be offended by something they voluntarily read.
Yes, words hurt, and it's sad and stupid to add The Irish Times imprimatur to the lexicon of the playground bully. But frankly, today's Irish playground – while a harsh place for the faint of heart or tongue – contains the offspring of such diverse families that the B-word is unlikely to enjoy more than a brief, unproductive flurry.
Lying behind the mild damage a word can do is an agenda that threatens real, material harm to children. With all due respect to the well-meaning people who have distinguished between Ed Walsh's "welcome debate" and Myers's dangerous offensiveness, they've got it exactly backwards – and Myers knows it. That's why he started his apology with hand-wringing about the possible setback to his cause: "I bitterly regret clouding an issue of major importance in Irish life…"
It's important that the slovenly arguments made by Myers, Walsh and their co-ideologues in the Sunday Independent are demolished for their content, not their form. After all, as Myers brags, in the 1990s, Americans wielding the same half-baked social science managed to slash welfare and wreck the lives of poor women and children – turning one-parent families into no-parent families by forcing mothers into long hours of low-paid work.
Sweet, sensitive Bill Clinton, you can be sure, never publicly used a dirty word about the women and children he was beggering.
The irony of Clinton enforcing "family values" has an echo in Myers, who has for years posed as a libertarian, if not a libertine. Now he wants the State to use punishment and incentive to push people into traditional marital arrangements. Not, of course, people like you and me, darling, who freely choose and change mates based on affection and inclination – just the "backward" and "lazy" poor, who make all their life-choices with an eye on our hard-earned taxes.
Myers has every right to peddle his stereotypes. But perhaps the most pathetic aspect to this week's outcry has been the myth that such ideas sit ill in The Irish Times. Even vicious Liveline attacks were tempered with words about the paper's normal integrity and liberality. Thursday's Morning Ireland breathed an ostentatious sigh of relief that it was back to its old self, with wondrous openness to criticism. Aren't we the lucky little country to have such a Newspaper to keep our Record?
With such a Hallelujah Chorus on RTÉ, it's no surprise that the paper's own tepid apology led off with such arrogance: "Irish society has changed hugely in recent decades... Much of this change is for the good and has been led by The Irish Times." (Note how they take no blame for the bad stuff.) While of course some important ideas have been relayed through the paper, and by some fine writers, the notion of this cautious collection of functionaries leading anything would be laughable if it weren't so widely believed.
If I may cite my own experience as an opinion journalist: I've had more freedom to express radical ideas in the Evening Herald than I had in The Irish Times. The last opinion column commissioned from me by The Irish Times, late in 2003, was not used – the relevant editor told me it was because I made the case for an upcoming act of non-violent civil disobedience at Shannon Airport: "a step too far", he said.
Now, if I'd said Iraqi children were bastards…