Unsuitable matter for Christmas

 

Mary Ellen Synon got a chance to answer her prosecutors this week with a fiercely fought column on political correctness. It was about time, too. The Irish media took her apart for her words around the Paralympics. Not since Catherine Nevin has a woman attracted such universal bile.

Synon stuck to her apology but she stuck to her guns, too. Had she been given the chance, she would have come out fighting, but she wasn't, so she couldn't. "Alas, the Sunday Independent would let me write none of it," she complained in the Sunday Times. "Instead, I had to sit and listen to the personal abuse and the shouting and indeed, in some cases, the lies told about me, and write nothing."

The wonder is she was surprised. Synon's own philosophy promotes the idea that what makes you valuable is what you do, not what you are. If you don't score, you ought not be picked for the team. Which, as I understand it, is precisely why she had a problem with the Paralympics in the first place.

If there is a karma, and of course we don't believe that, then Synon has found what goes round sometimes comes round faster than you think. She devoted one theme of her career to campaigns that targeted the powerless and the marginalised. Now, she finds herself in exactly that position.

What interests me as a reader is how it feels. There is after all a parable of Victorian proportions in the tale: Synon as Scrooge, suddenly being haunted by the ghosts of her past journalism; Synon as Grand Dame Felled By Spiteful Enemies, who acted from no more than pique; Synon as a born-again Mother Teresa, who goes on to become a campaigner for minority rights.

And there are many minorities she found fault with. They were easy targets, since few of them had the power to fight back in an organised or public way. It took people with disabilities and their supporters to give the comeuppance.

But instead of giving us a suitably Christmassy tale of self-deception and redemption, Synon is now playing Joan of Arc martyred in the cause of free speech. She has a limited point. With editors like hers, who needed enemies? Those editors may now be experiencing a Pauline conversion but, if so, they're keeping mum about the reasons for it.

Synon's position in her paper was simultaneously as both a hate figure and a proponent of what I read as hate speech. Ultimately, she was a commercial product. If she didn't realise she was being used as the court jester of the old right, her e naivety is touching.

Almost.

Hoist with her own petard, she is hoist with her own persona, too. Did she really think people loved her for herself? On her terms, as I read them, that's the refuge of the so-called politically correct where you respect people for themselves, even when you hate their actions. Now, she's discovering in the hardest of ways that she failed a crucial quality-control test, even if the quality-control systems so patently let her down.

There seems to be a fundamental fudge about the difference between what Synon calls politically correct and the kind of rights-based culture many of those she criticises want to build. Equal doesn't mean the same. Haven't we learned that by now?

This is what Synon wrote: "Do you really believe that all philosophies are worthy of equal respect? Then you believe that the totalitarian beliefs of Stalinism were really no worse, no less worthy of admiration and `embrace' than, say, the philosophy that guides the lives of your Methodist neighbours.

"It is obvious to me that some philosophies, like some cultures, are more virtuous than others. What surprises and alarms me is that so many people want to make you believe otherwise, and are succeeding.

"Such people have developed a whole political religion based on just that notion . . . Political correctness is the new secular orthodoxy that has replaced the old Catholic orthodoxy. And the new is just as intolerant as the old . . ."

Synon may now be discovering painfully that if individual rights and respect don't come first within a shared consensus, people who are different or want to dissent can't be treated fairly by the rest of their society. That's the old orthodoxy.

Teasing out the tensions between group beliefs and individual rights is going to occupy this society for the next few years at least. Free speech means challenging cultural practices that damage individual rights, just as it means challenging individual practices that abuse unnecessarily community beliefs.

But that is not what Synon did when she used the Paralympics as a bridge into her attack on what she admits is the inadequate phrase politically correct. Debate is a contact sport. You don't swallow mindlessly the entire attitude of a culture or philosophy just because you're afraid to challenge their group beliefs. But there's a difference between attacking a belief and attacking a person. Synon simply got that difference wrong.

If we are to turn this sorry saga into a suitably Christmassy tale, then Synon needs the benefit of the politics she still wants to attack. So Happy Christmas, Mary Ellen: respect you, hate your beliefs.

mruane@irish-times.ie