Kathy Sheridan: Plenty of regret, sorrow and surprise but no shame

Common thread of responses to recent revelations is to attempt to minimise them

Comedian and broadcaster Al Porter described his conduct as “in keeping with my flamboyant and outrageous public persona”.

Comedian and broadcaster Al Porter described his conduct as “in keeping with my flamboyant and outrageous public persona”.

 

This bears repeating. No one in this State is entitled to protection from being offended. A Claire Byrne Live survey this year suggested that nearly seven in 10 of us are fine with that.

So yes, you have the right to be offensive. The Constitution imposes a couple of conditions: you may not offend against public morals for instance, but since they are mainly framed in terms of women’s reproductive choices, fear not (unless you’re a woman).

The problem for morals is their heavy dependence on their even more obscure cousin, shame. If you are incapable of shame, well, the Earth and everything that’s on it is yours, Donald.

At minimum, how can this loathsome language be anything but counterproductive, whatever the cause?

You may regard the words “bitch” and “woman” as interchangeable, as Barry Walsh, the now-ex member of Fine Gael’s executive council, has revealed. As a fellow anti-choicer, you may consider it a noble and Christian act for Walsh to tweet that a well-known woman “just couldn’t be bothered having a baby. So she had it killed.” As a pro-choice supporter, you may deem it acceptable to publicly wish someone dead because you disagree with their anti-choice views, as one such activist has done.

Not in my name. At minimum, how can this loathsome language be anything but counterproductive, whatever the cause?

Shame

You will search in vain for the word “shame” in the growing pile of quasi-mea culpas issued by alleged harassers, abusers and vomitous Twitter posters. There is an evolving formula: to apologise for the offence/or any offence; then to express surprise that anyone actually took offence; that if they took offence, sure it was all in the rumbustious rough and tumble of the gig/workplace/meeting/stairwell; and really, isn’t the public reaction a bit over the top?

Abusiveness inevitably comes back to entitlement of some kind. And tolerance of abusers often comes back to a fear of seeming censorious or prudish or challenging someone in your own tribe

A striking line in comedian Al Porter’s statement, following allegations of inappropriate behaviour towards men, was the one describing his conduct as “in keeping with my flamboyant and outrageous public persona”. “Outrageous”, by one dictionary definition, means “going beyond all standards of what is right or decent”. For all his obvious pride in the self-description, it’s doubtful if the 24-year-old would have landed conventional entertainment shows with mainstream broadcasters if he had been in the habit of breaching all standards of decency, so clearly he was able to keep a lid on it when required.

But even though his “outrageous” conduct, “may be regarded as offensive and unacceptable by many people”, as he described it, he “at no time intended to upset anyone”.

Well, of course he intended to upset people if his public persona is to be knowingly outrageous and offensive. To which his fans would reply, stay well away from his gigs then, you’ve been warned. Fair enough. But this is about more than Porter.

A stand-up comedian who blogs as Sorobotic has described gigs she has to “prepare” for, “because they involve men who have proven themselves to be sexually dangerous and predatory . . . Even at ‘safe’ gigs, there’s a strong likelihood that an act will make a rape joke, or how he would like to violate her, a ‘joke’ that demeans women and objectifies them . . . It’s so normal to them now, it’s ripe for a laugh.” The fact that male accusers are coming forward in numbers may be rendering it all less ripe for a laugh.

Public personas

It’s notable that so many of the “I’m upset if I upset you but surprised” statements issued in recent weeks, have emanated from the media/entertainment/politics arena, where public personas blur into private behaviour, “the unseen problem of overlap between work and play”, as Michael Colgan put it.

Porter was careful to attach the “outrageous” label to his “public” persona only, but it’s hardly surprising that the relentless drive to be more outrageous, to be more shockingly politically incorrect on social media or at gigs where rank misogyny and abuse have been normalised, will inevitably filter into wider discourse and behaviour.

This is why Fine Gael’s Barry Walsh felt entitled to minimise his hateful posts as “political jousting. . . gone a step too far”.

Colgan’s statement made it clear that he “already knew” he was “not politically correct . . . and often sacrificed proper conduct for a punchline”.

The man who feels entitled enough to sacrifice proper conduct for a punchline will never stop out of shame. He will stop when someone more powerful delivers their own knockout punch. Abusiveness inevitably comes back to entitlement of some kind. And tolerance of abusers often comes back to a fear of seeming censorious or prudish or challenging someone in your own tribe.

On Monday, the American Nobel laureate Paul Krugman tweeted : “So, the harassment issue, while it hasn’t (yet?) become a problem for anyone I know well, is starting to hit men whose work I respect and whom I know a bit and liked. And that’s how it should be. There has to be a reckoning, and it will involve men with redeeming qualities.”

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