‘Disgusting’ a big word that feels almost physical
Opinion: Garda Commissioner’s position untenable
What have the following incidents in common? The systematic sexual abuse of a 12-year-old boy by a parish priest in Co Wicklow. The posting of vile sexual messages on a website by a man seeking to destroy an ex-girlfriend. An advertising campaign by bookmaker Paddy Power offering “money back if he walks” bets on the outcome of the Oscar Pistorius trial. A prolonged sexual assault by a man on his stepdaughter. The biting of the arm of a member of the Donegal Gaelic football team by a member of the Dublin team. The mentality of the man who raped and murdered Jill Meagher in Australia. And the actions of two members of An Garda Síochána in exposing the widespread abuse of the penalty points system by their colleagues and superiors.
What connects all of these incidents is that they have been, over the past year, described in courts, in the Oireachtas or in the media as “disgusting”. It is a big word because the emotion it evokes is so visceral that it feels almost like a physical sensation.
Disgust literally means the taste of something revolting – by extension we use the word to describe any instant reaction of utter repugnance. It is, sometimes literally, a gut feeling. Disgust hits us like a punch. We don’t choose disgust: it comes unbidden, before we have time to think or to rationalise. And because we don’t decide to be disgusted, the feeling has a kind of honesty. It comes from deep within our social personalities and expresses the things we can’t help ourselves feeling.
In our justice system, the word “disgusting” is often used by judges in relation to sexual crimes. For a judge who has had to sit through brutal detail about, say, the repeated defilement of a child, it is one of the few words that seem adequate in addressing the perpetrator. It conveys something particular, something beyond the necessary technicalities of the law.
It says the acts are not just illegal but physically, morally and emotionally repulsive. Judges cannot, or should not, rant at defendants, but “disgusting” packs all of the necessary anger and contempt into a single word.
In official political discourse, on the other hand, the word is seldom used. I don’t recall anyone in power being “disgusted” by frauds in the beef industry or by Charles Haughey’s theft of Brian Lenihan’s medical fund or by Bertie Ahern’s dig-outs or by Michael Lowry’s shenanigans with the mobile phone licence. I don’t recall anyone in power saying they were disgusted by the scandalous recklessness of the major Irish banks. So far as I can remember, it took the sound of the Anglo Irish Bank tapes, the mocking tone of those voices, to evoke expressions of disgust from people in power, with both Central Bank governor Patrick Honohan and Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore finding the tapes “disgusting”.
I’ve no doubt Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan was being entirely honest when he told the Public Accounts Committee in his now infamous comments that he found the making of “extraordinary and serious allegations” by the whistleblowers “on a personal level . . . quite disgusting”. (He did not, as he has repeatedly claimed since, say merely that he found the leaking of personal details disgusting. What personally disgusted him, he told the PAC, was the making of serious allegations.) Nor do I doubt that, as a man who has been in many courtrooms in a professional capacity, he understood exactly the import of the word; the way it points to acts that are not just illegal but viscerally and instinctively repugnant.
And this is why his position is untenable.
Demands that he withdraw the remarks or even apologise for them are irrelevant. Were he to do so, he would be acting as a rational player in the game of power, a tactician making a necessary retreat. Disgust isn’t part of the rational game of power. It is not a gambit to be made and withdrawn. It is an emotional truth. It is one thing to regret having expressed disgust but quite another not to have actually felt it.
On his own account, Martin Callinan felt about the making of allegations by the whistleblowers the way we feel about a noxious smell or a hideous sight or a depraved act. He was instinctively and helplessly repelled.
That repulsion is the essential and inescapable problem.
In so many parts of the Irish official system, the truth is a bad smell or a revolting taste. The only thing to do with it is to push it away as quickly as possible. That instinct led to the implosion of the political system, of the Catholic Church, of the banks and ultimately of the economy. In the official mind, it is not corruption that stinks but those who speak of its rottenness.
Callinan has been honest enough to give that instinct a face and a name. If he stays in office, the message goes out that it is still normal, in official Ireland, to be nauseated by troublesome truths.