Freedom of speech: Irish Travellers, trolls and Trump

‘The surge of racist/xenophobic attacks and comments following Britain’s Brexit referendum demonstrated what happens when people feel they have permission to vent their bigotry’

About 600 people in 120 caravans arrived in  the town of Ginsheim-Gustavsburg (above), southwest of Frankfurt,  and camped on a site beside the Rhine. File photograph: Wikimedia Commons

About 600 people in 120 caravans arrived in the town of Ginsheim-Gustavsburg (above), southwest of Frankfurt, and camped on a site beside the Rhine. File photograph: Wikimedia Commons

 

Following an Irish Times report about some Irish Travellers’ uncivil behaviour on a summer pilgrimage through Germany, a Co Wexford letter writer wonders why the media has no problem reporting such occurrences elsewhere but “we in Ireland are not afforded the same freedom of speech” as our German counterparts.

Have a look again at Derek Scally’s report. It is just that: a report. It is not an opinion piece. It tells a sorry story about 600 Travellers, accused of causing chaos on an illegal encampment beside the Rhine, shocking the town denizens with daylight brawls, blaring music, public urination, shoplifting and high-speed car races, then leaving behind them “rubbish, faeces and overturned chemical toilets ...and what one local described as ‘a biting whiff of urine’ in the air”. They provided a field day for the local media, with such vignettes as the young Irish man in a BMW who told an evening news camera: “We’re here to have sex with German women and drink a lot of beer.” Or the 43 year old who was arrested for making the stiff-armed Hitler salute, which is a crime in Germany. The town mayor spoke plainly: “We don’t want them back.”

Positive comments

Jorg Steimer

That’s the difference between a report and an opinion piece. Read in its entirety, Scally’s report distils the truth about any group of people, ethnic or otherwise. Some are awful and some are decent; in between are the many who sway one way or the other, depending on the substances ingested, the group culture, the sensitivities of the leading members. Have a look around Temple Bar on an average weekend – where you won’t see many Travellers but much to make your spine shrivel – or attend a sitting of a busy Dublin District Court to see how many “good” boys and girls “fell in with the wrong crowd” and ended up on the wrong side of decency and the law (according to their solicitors, at any rate).

There are many, many problems within the Travelling community: from illiteracy and isolation to extreme violence and murderous feuds. How do we know this? Because they are well-documented and reported. Because they are facts, not opinions. How would “freedom of speech” help to solve those profoundly challenging problems? By “telling it like it is”? But what is “it”? And does “it” apply equally to every person in the Traveller community ?

If 600 sports fans, marchers or festival-goers descend on an Irish town this weekend and cause chaos, will those reports be deemed to be true of all sports fans, marchers or festival-goers ? That would depend partly on the quality of the reporting but crucially, no one is predisposed to believe that all sports fans, marchers and festival-goers are terrible people.

In civilised societies and responsible media in particular, there are good reasons why it is deemed undesirable – at least – to paint an entire, distinct group as lawless, socially intolerable or not like us. The surge of racist/xenophobic attacks and comments following Britain’s Brexit referendum demonstrated what happens when people feel they have permission to vent their bigotry, to tell it like it is – as they see it.

Be not afraid, all you who fear for freedom of speech. It manifested itself in some style in recent days when Michelle Marie, an Oxford-born woman living in Ireland, took over the @ireland Twitter account for a week. She wasn’t the first British-born incumbent of the four-year-old account; James Hendicott for example, ran it without troll or incident. But Hendicott is white. What he saw emerge in Marie’s case was “clearly racism”. Example: “You’re an African with an IQ in the 80s representing a northern European island nation that has nothing to do with you”. And: “It is insulting for you, who genetically will never be Irish, to think you can represent Ireland. Return to your ancestral lands”. The latter account describes itself as “working to create safe spaces for politically incorrect thought” and retweets such gems as “At least I’m not a n****r” .

Anonymous bravehearts

Interestingly, it also retweets approvingly that towering monument to “authenticity” and telling-it-like-it-is: Donald Trump.

Where is our Trump when we need him?

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