Dáil Éireann’s linguistic stylebook, entitled the Salient Rulings of the Chair, contains a list of insulting nouns that TDs are not allowed to call each other in the chamber. “Gurrier” is in there, as are “guttersnipe”, “rogue”, “scoundrel”, “corner boy” and “yahoo”. “Scumbag” makes the list too. The purpose of the banned-words list is to create an atmosphere for civilised and even, sometimes, constructive debate.
In recent days “scumbag” was being flung around the Dáil chamber as pointedly as stones at a stoning. Yet it was deemed to be perfectly acceptable parliamentary language because the TDs were not flinging it at each other but at people outside the walls. Helen McEntee, the Minister for Justice who has implemented significant legal reforms, especially in the area of domestic violence, let herself down by referring to those who rioted in Dublin city last month as “thugs” and “scumbags”. On Thursday, she told an Oireachtas Committee on Justice she stood by her use of the term, but said she was using it to describe the behaviour and not the individuals.
The New Oxford Dictionary of English defines a scumbag as “a contemptible or objectionable person”. Polite society prefers the acronym NOS (Not Our Sort). In common usage, a “scumbag” invariably hails from the wrong side of the tracks. It is a word that reeks of social class prejudice. And it is a word that has suddenly become intrinsic to Fine Gael’s manifesto.
Despite the ready availability of a lexicon of applicable nouns – rioters, looters, vandals, lawbreakers – McEntee’s pejorative playbook quickly became the party’s chorus. On radio, Neale Richmond, from the largely affluent Dublin Rathdown constituency, dismissed Dublin South TD Bríd Smith’s objection to the terminology. That’s what the shopkeepers whose premises were looted would call them, Richmond retorted. That refrain was taken up by his colleague, junior minister Patrick O’Donovan, on RTE’s Drivetime when he seemed to relish repeatedly calling the rioters “a bunch of hooligans and thugs”.
Shop owners, understandably, might call those who robbed and vandalised their properties all the names under the sun, but that does not license elected national representatives to do the same. That politicians who are forbidden to call each other scumbags have no compunction about using it to describe citizens says something disturbing about their own them-and-us attitude.
The effect of the language deployed is to construe the rioters as a breed apart. They wear trackies and drink cans, unlike various dodgy types who have swanned in and out of Leinster House over the years in expensive suits and monogrammed shirts. When did we ever hear a government minister call people who appear on Revenue’s regular lists of tax defaulters “scumbags” or “thugs”? The cost of the rioting has been estimated at up to €20 million. By way of contrast, €10 million is the sum reaped by Revenue in chasing down the tax evaders in its latest quarterly list. While the looters made off with runners and cigarettes, some of the tax defaulters made off with hundreds of thousands of undeclared euro.
Words matter. Donald Trump twigs that. He uses words to get down and dirty and to win over voters who have nothing in common with him other than the patois. The online hatemongers get it. They used it that riotous day to marshall a mob by spewing vitriol and lies. Fine Gael, too, appreciates the power of words. That’s why McEntee is pushing her hate speech bill.
Politicians’ disconnect from reality is their failure to see how their loose words enable the hatemongers. “You see,” the keyboard warriors will taunt, “you’re just scumbags to them.” Labelling is the verbal equivalent of building ghettos and there is no harder ghetto to deconstruct than the one in the mind.
Words can be dynamite. They can cause wars. They need to be handled with care. One of the most inane sayings ever is that “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me”. Words can destroy a person – their self-esteem, their optimism, their sense of dignity, their willingness to trust.
Fine Gael is not the sole culprit in Leinster House. Pádraig Mac Lochlainn of Sinn Féin, whose party brought this week’s grandstanding no-confidence motion against McEntee, was also on RTÉ Radio last Tuesday night. After an initial discussion about the high rate of suicide in the Traveller community, which he correlated to institutional racism, Mac Lochlainn proceeded to refer to those who surrounded gardaí on the night of the riots as “thugs”. You don’t have to be a conservative suburbanite with two cars in the driveway and a hot tub in the back garden to need to check your unconscious biases.
Parents often instruct their children that it is wrong to call other people bad names. The golden rule is to hate the sin but love the sinner. The blizzard of name-calling by politicians since the rioting has heralded a new slippery slope. As online targets of vicious insults themselves, politicians seem to have decided that, if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.
The name-calling is troubling, too, because it suggests the Government is bereft of solutions after the Dublin riot. The easiest way to explain the shocking assault on the capital is to depict those who perpetrated it as people beyond the reach of normal society. As if they are a different breed who can just be written off. That way, you don’t even have to try to understand the causes. Thus, the hatemongers are given more ammunition to manipulate the marginalised.
The celebrated newspaper editor Harold Evans said that “attempting to get at truth means rejecting stereotypes and cliches”. Politicians pay heed.
At the heart of the name-calling is an electoral gamble that “thugs” and “scumbags” don’t vote. Property owners, on the other hand, do. Playing to the constituencies is a dangerous political game.
Besides, calling people names is not a policy. It’s a cop-out. Perhaps, when the Dáil meets again on Tuesday, the Ceann Comhairle might announce an amendment to the Salient Rulings of the Chair. Instead of confining the ban on the use of words such as “scumbag” in reference to TDs, it could be extended to also disallow its use in reference to constituents, whom those TDs are there to represent.