Emer O'Kelly: Abuse, written or spoken, both corrodes and destroys
Published 30/12/2012 | 05:00
Leaving aside the genuine grief that his death seemed to engender almost universally, what stunned people about Shane McEntee's death by suicide was his mature age.
We have become tragically accustomed to the suicide of middle-aged men when they have financial problems, and find themselves unable to cope with their loss of status and self-esteem as breadwinners. But when a popular, highly-regarded government minister with status in his profession and his community, and a respected family background is driven to the ultimate terrible step, and that step is attributed at least in part to vicious abuse and insults delivered through social media, we are forced to face up to the fragility that lies within us all.
Abuse, whether written or spoken, is a true darkness of the soul. It corrodes and destroys. That it usually damages the person who indulges in it as much as it does the recipient is ironic but of no comfort. But it is not a new phenomenon; it existed long before the arrival of the internet and its concomitant possibilities for anonymous viciousness. And certainly everybody in what is loosely called 'public life' is and always has been subject to it.
Our political system is still structured in memory of the civil war, and the bitterness still imbues it across the generations. Our commentators who undermine the old certainties of received (and perceived) morality, are seen whether consciously or unconsciously as agents of Satan, and have invective showered upon them.
Most people can cope, knowing that to raise your head above the parapet is to invite the invective. It comes with the territory. But very few of us who receive hate mail are completely indifferent to it.
We may bin it if it comes through the post; we may delete it from our database. But it leaves an unpleasant sense of having been defiled, as if the excrement which may have been enclosed in the envelope had actually been smeared on you. (Yes,
journalists have been known to receive copies of their work through the post which has seen service as lavatory paper.)
The first poison pen letter I received was in my very early days as a journalist; so early that I was not even a commentator. It began: "You black-eyed spawn of a Galway Spanish whore" which I have to say I thought quite lyrical, despite not having black eyes, nor having a mother from Galway. But it descended fairly quickly into what lawyers term "vulgar abuse" (that which does not amount to slander or libel).
Much of what I have received has been semi-literate, only its general tone being evident: frenzied hatred and promises/threats of a vile fate for unspecified crimes against what the writer holds dear. Indeed, in my trade such letter-writers are generically referred to as "Green Ink Man" as they are not infrequently written in that colour.
I have been called every unpleasant female sobriquet, including the word which begins with "c" and which very few women don't find offensive. But the letters which are at least literate and capable of full comprehension are the most disturbing. It is fairly stomach-churning to think of another human being filled with enough bile not merely to write them, but to stamp them, and carry them to the post, maintaining their level of poisonous energy through the process.
Admittedly, some of the writers, whether by letter or nowadays online, are quite clearly disturbed or merely the possessors of a uniquely sordid attitude towards sex.
When I worked in RTE as a newscaster, I was able to witness such types at first hand.
There was the pathetic pervert who sent me poems (I think some of my colleagues were also his victims) which made garbled references to Margaret Thatcher in tarty underwear (I know, the mind boggles at the idea) and were usually accompanied by a request for a pair of my knickers.
There was also the individual who persistently wrote to me in terms of pornographic desire, and made the fairly basic mistake of signing the letters.
Far more serious were the letters which threatened. I received graphic threats of what would be done to my reproductive organs with a razor blade when the writer "caught up with me". That was in response to his having "heard" that I was an atheist; I had no right to pollute the airwaves of a good Catholic country, I was told.
Indeed, on every occasion that my wellbeing or my life has been threatened, it has been in defence of a united Ireland or the Roman Catholic faith. Very recently, I was told that I would get what I deserved after an implied admiration in something I wrote concerning Queen Elizabeth and her visit to Ireland. (I may merely have implied admiration at that time; I am now putting on record my long-term and unbounded admiration for the Queen, her dignity, her beauty, and her sense of duty. And let who will put that in their bigoted pipes and smoke it.)
On another occasion, I was standing in the hall at home when a letter dropped on the mat. It was mid-afternoon, and I opened the door to see who had delivered it. The only person in sight was a boy of about 12 on a bike. The letter told me that unless I appeared at the local Catholic church at Mass the following Sunday, the writer would use his contacts in the IRA to see that I was burned alive in my house.
That was one that I did take to the gardai, who took it seriously. But what really sickened me was that the pervert who wrote it had used a child for delivery.
They're merely samples. We all get them, if we're the kind of people employed to express strong, sometimes unpopular views. When the light is bright and we are surrounded by loving friends and supportive colleagues, we shrug. We know that the writers are sick, perverted failures, probably in need of psychiatric treatment. Or maybe just filthy-minded, blackhearted begrudgers. Either way, they're not worth a thought. But in support of those who in low moments have succumbed to their poison, whatever their age, we must shout it in unison, repeatedly and loudly: they're not worth the filth in what passes as a mind in their twisted world. They're impotent, in more ways than one.