In Ireland, anybody speaking clearly gets accused of arrogance

Speaking truth to power is something we’re not very good at, writes playwright Colin Murphy

Writing my first play, Guaranteed!, about the bank guarantee, I grew interested in banking. And one of the great films about banking is, of course, Mary Poppins.

Mary Poppins is not actually about Mary Poppins. She would be a poor hero of a story: she doesn't struggle, she doesn't suffer, she's never afraid, she doesn't change, she doesn't learn. (She is, after all, practically perfect.)

But Mr Banks, the man who hires Mary Poppins as nanny to his children, Michael and Jane, does all those things. He is the hero of the film, its moral protagonist. And he is, as his name suggests, a banker.

Mr Banks is the embodiment of British virtue, a model of conformity with the values of the time. As he sings:

A British bank is run with precision
A British home requires nothing less!
Tradition, discipline, and rules must be the tools
Without them – disorder!
Chaos! Moral disintegration!
In short, we have a ghastly mess!

He is, in other words, a representation of the consensus. And what does he do? A profession that relies fundamentally on the operation of consensus.

By “consensus”, I don’t mean merely “agreement”. I mean a kind of social contract: an assumed, implicit set of rules that governs how we behave and speak in public – and perhaps even how we think.

Eoghan Harris has written about consensus in this sense in his document Television and Terrorism. George Orwell used the word "orthodoxy" to describe something similar in his preface to Animal Farm:

“At any given moment there is an orthodoxy, a body of ideas which it is assumed that all right-thinking people will accept without question … Anyone who challenges the prevailing orthodoxy finds himself silenced with surprising effectiveness.”

In a healthy parliamentary democracy, arguments exist in dialectic. One side proposes a thesis; the other side proposes the anti-thesis; and the result of the argument is some kind of synthesis.

But consensus doesn’t work like that. Consensus doesn’t tolerate opposition. Consensus works by dismissing or delegitimising dissent. As far as the consensus is concerned, there is no argument – or, at least, none worth acknowledging.

This is why banking is a useful illustration of the workings of consensus. Banking requires a kind of mass suspension of disbelief.

The word "credit" comes from the Latin credere – to believe. You put your money on deposit with the bank and it lends that money to other people. If you believe that the bank will be able to give it to you when you need it, you leave it there happily until you do need it.

And it will be able to as long as that belief holds. If that belief ruptures, and people decide en masse they want their money back, the bank won’t have it.

Banking can’t work if it constantly has to prove to us that it has our money – it can’t tolerate the argument. Because the argument itself can set off a spiral of doubt. And even a good bank can be brought down by that doubt.

That’s why critics such as David McWilliams got accused of “talking down” the banks, and told to “pull on the green jersey” – because public criticism can be self-reinforcing. It can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

This is what happens in Mary Poppins, when Michael and Jane visit the bank and a banker takes Michael's tuppence. Michael shouts at him: "Give me back my money!" He's overheard by a customer out in the main banking hall. "There's something wrong," she says, "the bank won't give someone back their money." And so she demands her money and so does the woman next to her, and suddenly there's a run on the bank. And with that run Michael's father's career collapses and, with it, the structure of his life, with all its tradition, discipline and rules.

The story of Mary Poppins is the story of a man who learns that the consensus in which he has placed his faith is fallible, that it has led him astray. It is the story of the downfall of a banker and the redemption of a man.

Mary Poppins is the catalyst and the guide for that journey – she is the one who opens his mind. She is the Obi-Wan Kenobi to Mr Banks’s Luke Skywalker. “Use the force, Luke,” Obi-Wan Kenobi says to Luke Skywalker.

“Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” Mary Poppins says to Mr Banks. And that’s what Mr Banks says to his boss in the bank at the denouement. It is his moment of rupture with the consensus, his formative act of dissent. It is how he speaks truth to power.

An Irish paradox

Speaking truth to power is something we’re not very good at in this country and culture. The media may do a lot of speaking truth to political and business power, and even celebrity power. But the most pervasive and damaging power is often the social one – the power of consensus. This is the country, after all, that invented the boycott.

Eoghan Harris speaks of “the clarity crime” – how anybody speaking clearly gets accused of arrogance. Instead of speaking clearly, we use euphemism.

But there’s a paradox here. This lack of clarity of discourse, this fear of speaking our mind, is also the source of some of the unique strength of our literary culture.

Euphemism. Ambiguity. Ambivalence. The unsaid. Silence. Our theatre is threaded through with these. The language of a civic culture that seeks to avoid direct argument, confrontation and clarity becomes a theatrical language incredibly rich in nuance, in evasion, in elision.

Billy Roche is one of the masters. He told me a story once about performing his one-man show in a small venue in New York. He noticed a woman in the front row who wasn’t having any of it. She may even have fallen asleep. At the bar afterwards he found himself standing beside her. He asked her did she not like the show. “In New York,” she said, “we like it right on the nose.”

Our theatre, thankfully, doesn’t do it on the nose. But nor does our social discourse, often. And this is a problem.

Think of the litany of scandals that we have experienced or unearthed in recent years: the industrial schools, the Magdalen laundries, the mother and child homes, the concealment of clerical sex abuse; offshore accounts; the housing and credit bubbles; corruption in An Garda Síochána; most recently, bullying and harassment in the culture sector.

Whatever about whether there were crimes involved, these were also cultural episodes. They entailed transgressions that became embedded in belief systems and dense webs of human relations, and became normalised.

The great moral question that the Holocaust poses for us is this: how did ordinary Germans allow it happen and how did they come to participate? The standard answer is the line often attributed to Edmund Burke: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” (In fact, there is no definitive source for the quote.)

But the worst we have to fear is not simply that good men and women do nothing. The evidence suggests that good men and women don’t just do nothing – they do evil. They do wrong.

What would I have done?

The Holocaust may be the most extreme case of a malign consensus imaginable. But the moral question it demands that we ask is of the same type, if not of the same order, as these Irish cases: were I in their shoes, what would I have done? Would I have spoken out?

As a reporter and writer covering these domestic scandals in recent years, these are the questions I have faced. Had I, for example, joined the Christian Brothers in the 1950s and been posted to Letterfrack ... Had I been a priest in a diocesan office to which child abuse was being reported ... Had I been an economist working in a real estate firm or stockbroker in Dublin in the early 2000s ... Had I, as a playwright, witnessed somebody being bullied or harassed by a director or producer … what would I have done?

But to ask what would I have done underestimates the problem. It suggests the problem is one of action or inaction – of courage or cowardice. But consensus is more insidious than that. The question is not one of courage. The question is one of insight: what would I have seen? Would I have seen that it was wrong?

I think we are prone to this kind of consensual thinking in this country. I suspect it's a cultural thing, rooted in our history as a rural society, intertwined with Irish Catholicism, postcolonial. The sociologist Niamh Hourigan suggests, for example (in her book Rule Breakers), that Irish history has dictated we as a people would place an inordinately high value on relationships as opposed to rules.

But whatever the explanation, this is a problem. And so, when individuals emerge who do things differently, who speak out, who want to give it to us (or to their peers, or their superiors) right on the nose – people such as Sgt Maurice McCabe, or historian Catherine Corless, or Christine Buckley, or Morgan Kelly – they often struggle to be heard.

These people – the whistleblowers, the dissenters – don’t merely have the courage to speak out. They have something rare that enables them to see through the consensus in the first place. Some kind of sixth sense, or else simply a very pure sense, that manages to stay uncontaminated by social forces.

Michael Lewis wrote a book, turned into a movie, about the men who saw the American subprime crisis coming, The Big Short. He suggests that this sense was often correlated with a kind of social awkwardness, even Asperger's syndrome. The people who spotted the crash coming were wired to stand apart from the crowd.

David Hare wrote a documentary play about the financial crisis, The Power of Yes. He suggests that those who saw the crisis coming tended to have lived in very troubled societies, such as George Soros, who, as a boy in a Jewish family, survived the Nazi occupation of Hungary.

These people weren’t taken in by the consensus that things could only get better because they knew how quickly and radically things could always get worse. They could imagine what was unthinkable for those around them.

The seers

When writing Guaranteed!, I set out to find out who were the people who had seen the Irish bank collapse coming. This took me to London, where I met with a hedge fund manager who had made a lot of money shorting (betting against) the Irish banks.

What had he done and seen that the rest of the financial community, in Ireland but also in the UK, had not? He had looked at the growth rate of Anglo Irish Bank’s loan book and realised immediately that that kind of growth was off the charts. No bank could grow that quickly while following prudent procedures, he thought.

Anglo had boasted about those growth rates in its presentations. But the rest of the industry saw them, or chose to see them, in the context of the apparent economic miracle of the Celtic Tiger. Ireland was rewriting the rules, so why couldn’t one of its banks do so also? They saw what they wanted to see. They saw what everyone else saw.

For some reason, this particular hedge fund manager wasn’t taken in by this. So what did he do next? He came to Ireland. He talked to people on the ground: builders; bankers. He learned properties weren’t selling, builders were unable to finish developments and meet their loan repayments, and the banks were giving them extensions on their loans to avoid defaults.

All this information was available to anybody who chose to go out and seek it. Indeed, many people had parts of the picture. A rare few managed to add it together. The implication of the whole picture was that the entire economy was a house of cards. And this was an appalling vista.

In his judgment on the Birmingham Six’s case against the police, in 1980, Lord Denning said the consequence of accepting as fact that the police had lied would be “such an appalling vista that every sensible person in the land would say, ‘It cannot be right these [legal] actions should go any further.’”

In other words, even though the evidence may suggest it, the conclusion that evidence leads to is inconceivable: it can’t be conceived of; it can’t be imagined.

The quality that these dissenters have is a kind of imagination. They can envisage a different world to the one that everybody else sees around them. Dissent is an imaginative act as well as a moral one.

Ireland was full of “sensible” people in 2007 and 2008, sensible people who saw evidence that the Irish banks’ lending was outrageous and that the property market was on the verge of collapse. But they baulked at the appalling vista and defaulted to their belief in the system.

Don’t laugh at them. You would probably have done what they did. And the fact that you, or we, now recognise the fallacy of that groupthink, in retrospect, means very little for our ability to recognise such a fallacy when we’re surrounded by it.

The gramophone mind

Public consensus is a curious beast. It is near absolute until it is shattered. It appears inviolable until overthrown, and then it is impossible to understand how it was once so strong.

What happens in these cases, commonly, is that the consensus is eventually breached, and almost immediately a new consensus forms, often around its opposite. Orwell called this “the gramophone mind”.

“To exchange one orthodoxy for another is not necessarily an advance,” he wrote. “The enemy is the gramophone mind, whether or not one agrees with the record that is being played at the moment.” The record may change but we all still hum along. Today we have “the social network mind” (a less elegant metaphor, admittedly). Whatever the feed pushes out to us, we respond to.

So if, previously, there was a consensus of silence, or of unseeing – of nonwitness – now there emerges a consensus of judgment. Twitter threw up a useful case late last year. John Waters gave a talk at the University of Notre Dame, entitled “When Evil Becomes Virtual: Cyberspace, Failing Media, and the Hoax of the ‘Holocaust of Tuam’”.

The Fine Gael TD Ciaran Cannon, a former junior minister for education and currently Minister for the Diaspora, took to the media to denounce Waters. He accused him of a “shamefully insensitive reinterpretation of the facts”. He said he was “deeply disappointed that a seat of learning as respected as the University of Notre Dame would host such an event”.

The thing is, Waters hadn’t given the talk when Cannon objected. Cannon was objecting to the talk, and to the university hosting the talk, on the basis purely of its title. This is a quintessential example of the strategy of delegitimation. Cannon wasn’t objecting to what Waters said. He was objecting to Waters being heard.

We can think of the breaching of consensus as a process of accountability. The first stage in this process is that the dissenting voice be heard, that what they are saying be investigated and the truth of it established, and that, where necessary, redress be sought. The media is crucial in this, and very good at it: giving the whistleblowers their voice; harassing the powerful for an answer; animating the public to demand one.

Accountability is most often thought of as holding those responsible to account – that’s the first stage. But it should also be thought of as society making an account of itself, to itself – this is the second stage. This is the stage where we hold a mirror up to nature, where we seek to understand how this all happened in the first place.

This is more difficult for the media. Media people tend to think of themselves as going against the grain – fighting spin. But what tends to happen is that, once some whistleblower or dissenter breaks through, the media piles in … and a new consensus quickly forms. The gramophone mind.

This new consensus may be a necessary part of the first stage of accountability. It helps drive the public outrage that demands that Sgt McCabe be vindicated, or that bankers be held accountable, or that the church pay its fair share of redress.

But this new consensus can get in the way of the second stage in the process of accountability: the need to understand how this scandal happened.

This kind of understanding requires asking difficult questions – questions that people don’t like because asking the question can suggest a wish to excuse the errant behaviour. The objective, though, is not to excuse the behaviour but to understand how it arose. That requires admitting the possibility that the people involved were ordinary people, maybe even good people, who somehow bought into a corrupted mindset.

Journalism vs drama

Journalism is not good at exploring this because journalism likes certainty, clarity, and simplicity. It tends towards judgment. The British playwright David Hare, who indulges in occasional journalism, says the difference between journalism and drama is that drama can handle ambiguity. Drama gives us ambiguity because drama forces us to suspend judgment. It forces us to empathise.

The dramatist must create a hero with whom the audience can empathise: this is why Mary Poppins needs Mr Banks. In screenwriting lore, this truism is reduced to the edict "save the cat". In Alien, the first thing Sigourney Weaver's character, Ripley, does is save a cat. The American screenwriter Blake Snyder popularised the idea that, when we first meet the hero, she has to save a cat, or something similar, in order to subliminally make the audience like her. (If this sounds ridiculous, start watching for this moment in films.)

In good drama, though, it’s not enough that the audience empathise with the hero – they should empathise with the antagonist as well. The drama should not merely be reassuring for the audience; it should be difficult. The audience needs to experience the conflict, not merely witness it. They need to feel their prior judgment about the morality of the story called into question. At a good play, we, the audience, do not merely watch conflict – we are conflicted.

Aristotle was the first person to theorise this. Drama was about catharsis, he wrote, a strong empathetic reaction to the predicament of the hero. That hero should be “a man who is not eminently good and just, yet whose misfortune is brought about not by vice or depravity, but by some error or frailty”.

If journalism tends to be about “them”, drama should be about “us”. If journalism has the effect of emphasising our distance from events, drama should emphasise our complicity. If good journalism should have you shouting at the telly, good drama should have you cowering on the couch at the “misfortune of a man like ourselves”, as Aristotle puts it.

That makes drama a very useful tool in this second stage of accountability: the holding a mirror up to nature; the bid to understand.

The great idealists

Donald Trump and Nigel Farage are the great dreamers of our age. The great visionaries. The great idealists. They are the men who looked at the society around them and saw that it could be another way – a way that the entire establishment thought was inconceivable. They are the great dissenters. And their dissent is against the liberal consensus – our consensus.

“Make America Great Again”, “Take Back Control”. These are the great imaginative projects of the moment – as the liberal consensus was once the great imaginative project of its time. But then we reached “the end of history”. “There is no alternative,” we were told. Liberalism grew complacent. The consensus spread wide but thin, based not on argument but on belief. And then the great recession punctured it.

We are now in a great fight for liberal norms with the new nationalisms of Trump and Farage – or we should be. But much of the liberal mainstream still doesn’t take this fight seriously. They still treat Trump and Farage as rogue dissenters against an unimpeachable consensus.

Their response has largely been, and still is, to seek to delegitimise them: as thugs, as racists, as misogynists, as ludicrous, and therefore unworthy of debate.

Last November Bob Geldof spoke at the Abbey Theatre, introducing a lecture by Samantha Power. Geldof ridiculed Trump for his orange hair and then suggested that Trump’s fringe was hiding the number “666” engraved on his forehead.

Samantha Power, though, suggested a quick thought experiment. Imagine an older man in America today, she said: a man ferociously protective of his family; who values both the competition of the business world and the traditions of his community; who feels his place in society is under threat; who is troubled by the changes he sees in the world around him. A Willy Loman for our times, she said, referencing the flawed hero of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman. Now, she said, think of that man as a Trump supporter.

So, should we view Trump’s supporters as devil worshippers or Willy Loman? The dilemma for liberals is nearly captured in that opposition. Too many, too often, are falling into the trap of the former view, enjoying the supposed wit of their ineffectual attacks on Trump and ignoring the substantive circumstances that brought him to power and the real challenges involved in changing those circumstances.

Sometimes the consensus will be malign and sometimes it will be benign. Sometimes the dissenters will be right and sometimes they’ll be wrong. The point about dissent is not that we should concede to it but that it should be heard. Not simply because there’s a right to free speech but because the consensus needs to be tested. We need the dissenter to expose and challenge our consensus, to force us to interrogate it and justify it; to move something from being a passive consensus to being a dialectically held position.

Trump and Farage are mostly wrong. But they were right about this core thing: the people they most actively represent and cultivate were being forgotten, marginalised. Sometimes the awkward voices need to be heard because they’re right. Sometimes they need to be heard because, even though they’re wrong, they’re pointing to something we haven’t seen. The thing about awkward voices is you’re rarely going to like what they say, but shut them down and you lose your great warning sign.

This is a little bit like getting notes on a script, which happens a lot in the screenwriting process. The notes are often awful and the first instinct of the writer is often to dismiss the credibility of the person giving them. But the notes always tell you this crucial thing: something is wrong.

The contest for power

Arthur Miller was an acutely political playwright. Death of a Salesman is a savage indictment of the American dream – but it is also a display of great respect for, and empathy with, the American dreamer.

American and British drama is full of politics. The West Wing, House of Cards, The Crown: each is a treatise on the use and maintenance of power. In Britain this tradition goes back to the history plays of Shakespeare: "history" is a misnomer; these are plays are about politics, about the contest for power.

The great Broadway hit of recent years, Lin-Manuel Miranda's Hamilton, recently opened in London, is a musical about one of the "founding fathers" of the US. Last year's Tony award for best new play was won by JT Rogers for Oslo, a terrific play about the 1993 Oslo Peace Accords. The 2014 Tony was won by Robert Schenkkan for All the Way, a play about Lyndon B Johnson's bid to pass the Civil Rights Act.

In Britain the 2015 Olivier award was won by Mike Bartlett for King Charles III, an imagining of a constitutional crisis in the near future following the death of the current queen. That beat Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall, about Thomas Cromwell's navigation of the court of Henry VIII.

In Ireland, we've had a few plays and a TV series on Charles Haughey; a bad political satire by Brian Friel, The Mundy Scheme; a number of works by Hugh Leonard, whose 1966 RTÉ series on the Easter Rising, Insurrection, was a surprise hit when rebroadcast last year; and the very occasional contemporary television drama, such as No Tears.

Political drama, as a genre, tends to be on the nose. We don't do "on the nose". The great representation of politics in Irish theatre is Patrick Pearse in The Plough and the Stars: he's offstage.

But what could be a more political statement than that? Irish drama doesn’t do politics, in the sense that it doesn’t concern itself with the politics that journalism (and much British and American drama) focuses on: the politics of state, with the personalities and shifting allegiances and compromises that dictate how power is wielded.

But it does do politics in the sense that Miller does in Death of a Salesman: the politics of broken homes and fractured communities; the politics of a society, often one that has turned its back on, or been abandoned by, the State.

All theatre relies on empathy, but it is particular to Irish theatre, I suspect, that it relies so heavily on empathy for the outcast, the social underdog. In this sense, Waiting for Godot is the story of Irish theatre: a pair of outcasts, stuck in some godforsaken spot, waiting for an enlightenment, or redemption, or release that never comes (or comes only in very flawed form).

From JM Synge’s Christy Mahon and Pegeen Mike, to Sean O’Casey’s Juno, to Samuel Beckett’s Vladimir and Estragon, to John B Keane’s Sive, to Tom Murphy’s Gigli-obsessed Irish man, to Brian Friel’s faith healer, Francis Hardy, to Marina Carr’s Portia Coughlan, to Enda Walsh’s emigrant Cork family living on the Walworth Road, this is a theatre of small men and women – of people like Willy Loman.

Also there could be Captain Boyle and Joxer in Juno and the Paycock, who ask themselves: "What is the stars?" That moment is the embodiment of Oscar Wilde's line in Lady Windemere's Fan: "We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars."

Arthur Riordan updated Wilde's line in his wartime romp, Improbable Frequency, making it less romantic but truer of Irish society. "We're all in the gutter, but some of us have an ear to the ground." Isn't that the Irish predicament? The overhearing; the watching out; the constant recalibrating; the whispering and qualifying and understating. The ear to the ground.

There is something here, too, of the challenge and potential both for journalism and for drama. The gutter and the stars: seeing things as they are, and seeing things as they might be. That echoes George Bernard Shaw, and the words he gives the Serpent, in Back to Methuselah:

You see things as they are, and say why.
I see things as they might be, and ask why not.

As reporters, as writers, as readers and as citizens, this is the challenge we face: to see things as they are, and ask “why?”; to call out the injustices; to be alert to our own tendency to dismiss dissent.

But we also have to reach for the stars; to try and imagine an alternative reality to the one we perceive; to see through the consensus around us; to realise that, much though it may be comfortable, it may have to be re-imagined.

Because other people are doing this. And their imagination is darker. And if we don’t have a vision of comparable power to confront it, it may overwhelm us.

  • This is an edited version of the 2017 UCD Kopschitz Lecture, Playwriting, Journalism and the Challenge for our Times, delivered by Colin Murphy in memory of the pioneering Brazilian scholar of Irish studies Maria Helena Kopschitz. Murphy is a playwright, screenwriter and columnist with the Sunday Business Post. His new play, Haughey/Gregory, about the "Gregory Deal" of 1982, will be produced by Fishamble Theatre Company at the Peacock Theatre in February: