Kathy Sheridan: FF senator Lorraine Clifford-Lee a fool twice over
'Fact-free nonsense': Why would an educated young woman believe such things, never mind tweet them?
Lorraine Clifford-Lee canvassing in Portmanock, Dublin, last week. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw
In July 2009, I had been signed up to Twitter for all of 20 minutes when a piece of world news pinged into my timeline. Margaret Thatcher is dead, it said, under a Downing Street username. Well, RIP Maggie and all that but this was clearly urgent news for my 65-strong following. I urgently pressed retweet.
Within seconds, my nice new followers had piled on to gloat that I’d been duped. Fake news of Thatcher’s demise was a regular feature on Twitter, as were fake usernames and fake real names and everyone knew that except me.
Lessons were absorbed.
People concocted blatant lies about real people on vast public platforms and could repeat them with impunity. The immediacy, reach and collective knowledge of Twitter was powerful. Far too many people live to parade their rapier wit online at others’ expense in a way they wouldn’t do in the flesh.
But the over-riding lesson was to accept no social media at face value and to post no ill-considered tweet, or at least none so egregiously offensive that it would constitute a firing offence, pre- or post-electoral. Twitter would find you out. You might even find yourself out first if you were lucky.
This is the mystery of Lorraine Clifford-Lee and everyone whose social media history has come back to bite them. If this old boomer had her head dunked in painful basic lessons all of 10 years ago, how have others managed to evade them so comprehensively?
You should probably examine who precisely is peddling the “facts” and why you personally are so receptive to them
It’s not hard to stay out of trouble. Never knowingly telling a lie. Never insult an entire group of people because of their ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, colour or religion. Never condemn an entire group for the sins of some. Never savage an individual (exceptions include Donald Trump, Boris Johnson and Priti Patel) simply because your amazing wit works best in negative mode; all writers know that it’s always easier to be negative.
Aside from the blindingly obvious reasons why none of the above is acceptable, why do it ?
Time spent conducting online onslaughts on people you do not know probably signifies any or all of the following: too much time on your hands; oversized wine glasses; a self-esteem deficiency; you live in a bubble and/or something is seriously awry with your world view. It could also be the case that you are an actual bigot, or to put it kindly, just someone who entertains fact-free nonsense about whole groups of people, in which case you should probably examine who precisely is peddling the “facts” and why you personally are so receptive to them.
Put something out there on a public platform and it sits there ad infinitum, creating an image that you alone are responsible for feeding and framing until some evil-wisher with a niggling memory manages to fish it out of the vast Twitter sea (easily done if the trawler has retained certain trigger words).
Many examples of political iniquity – including senior politicians’ use of the word “n****r” and “knacker” – have been recalled to prove that Clifford-Lee is far from being the first offender. But maybe, unfairly or not, we expect better from younger generations. Many millennials grew up in a far more privileged, liberal, educated environment than their parents and are widely travelled. Many were taught from birth that as individuals they were entitled to certain rights, to respect, to equal opportunities and a more enlightened public discourse around them.
Running for the local elections in 2014, Clifford-Lee tweeted about an email she had received calling her “dirty lowlife scum” and citing the timing of her pregnancy as “typical Fianna Fáil corruption”, an attitude she attributed to “vile” “sexist” abuse. But only three years before – then a 30-year-old solicitor and a long-serving member of Fianna Fáil’s national executive – she had been tweeting about Kim Kardashian’s “fat arse”, a nightclub as a “sluts venue” and a female singer’s “pikey” hair. Someone’s clothes looked like they were from a “traveller wedding”, she tweeted, and she blamed the theft of her car on “some knacker”. There was more but it was the latter three references that brought her to heel. Had she been a man, the first two would doubtless have provoked another kind of outcry.
This is not just about Lorraine Clifford-Lee. She was found out, that’s all
The word “pikey” was not in common usage where I grew up but “knacker” is long ingrained in the language. In recent years I’ve heard secondary school children hurl it as a bullying slur at classmates they considered ill-kempt or “smelly” and by affluent 20- and 30-somethings to disparage people from evidently non-privileged backgrounds.
There was something poignant about the grace and willingness of Martin Collins, co-director of Pavee Point, to “wholeheartedly” accept Clifford-Lee’s apology after their meeting. But for the sake of the many who sincerely see nothing wrong with her words, it also represented a major missed opportunity. What precisely induced such a radical change of mindset in just a few years? Why was she still comfortable using such terms in her 30s and why does she now wholeheartedly reject them as simply racist?
This is not just about Lorraine Clifford-Lee. She was found out, that’s all, but she is also standing for public office. She may have missed her opportunity to do it while in the limelight last week but she can still put her contrition to use, loud and proud.