Friday 30 September 2016

Sending Enda menstrual cycle tweets won't work. Period

Published 12/11/2015 | 02:30

Enda Kenny has no power to repeal the Eighth Amendment
Enda Kenny has no power to repeal the Eighth Amendment

Ireland has a fine tradition of satire. As a comedian, Gráinne Maguire would doubtless be aware of this, and eager to continue it.

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Satire should, I suppose, do two things: make us laugh, and effect change for the better. Unfortunately, I'm not sure Maguire's series of tweets about her menstrual cycle, sent directly to Enda Kenny, will be successful in either goal.

The joke isn't that funny. I get it, and the purpose of it - essentially, that Irish politicians interfere in women's bodies by refusing to legalise abortion, so why not give them every intimate detail? I just don't think it's very good.

To some people, moreover, the gag will come across as distasteful. I'm not one of those - there's always a place for bracingly rude humour - but it does strike me as pretty childish, lame and crass.

This is a minor issue, though. Ultimately, I fear, the Meath woman's stunt will be unproductive in achieving her stated aim: legal abortion.

I speak from a long-held pro-choice position, by the way, so fully support the aims of Maguire, other women who've joined in on Twitter and the broader Repeal the Eighth Amendment campaign.

I'm just doubtful that this is the way to go about it.

Sure, making cracks like "@Enda KennyTD just so you know, I got my period two days ago. Pretty heavy flow at first but now just occasional spotting" will get a reaction.

The whole concept of tweeting periods quickly went viral.

Maguire has become something of an international sensation. Celebs including Mia Farrow and Sharon Horgan weighed in with their support.

But is that the reaction that matters? In other words, will it help change Irish laws on abortion? This is the key question - the only question.

Enda Kenny has no power to repeal the Eighth Amendment. All he, or any politician, can do is bring forward a referendum.

Then the people will decide yea or nay. So the people must be convinced that, for whatever reason, abortion should be legalised. It's that straightforward - and that difficult.

Social media can be a powerful force for change. We saw that during the so-called Arab Spring and, closer to home, the same-sex marriage referendum.

There, people organised, campaigned and made their arguments online as well as "on the doorsteps".

It was, to use that modish term, a new paradigm in Irish political life, and it certainly helped sway opinions to some extent.

Two important points, though. One, the impact of social media is grossly exaggerated: many, many people have no engagement with it whatsoever, despite what we media-obsessed media types assume.

And two, the SSM campaign was defined by an inclusive, reasonable, almost gentle approach. As the saying goes, "You catch more flies with honey than vinegar".

This newspaper's Dearbhail McDonald described it as "a masterclass on how to win friends and influence people … setting a reassuring tone (to) engage with voters' doubts … maintaining a positive, soft tone".

Eoghan Harris correctly predicted that an intrinsic "reflex of decency" in Irish people would carry that Yes vote.

I think the same decency should be applied to here: folks might not like abortion, or agree with it, but they can be persuaded to allow it, out of sympathy for others' difficult situations.

However, stunts like these menstruation tweets - and similar online trends such as Shout Your Abortion - are less likely to win hearts and minds.

They're likely to upset, antagonise or reinforce (often wrong) prejudices.

I mean, they annoy me quite a lot, and I'm on their side of the argument. (Maguire's broadside against "middle-aged, middle-class white men" was annoying too - the reflexive calling cry of the Social Justice Warrior, and totally non-germane to the issue.)

Now multiply that effect on the thousands strongly opposed to abortion: how likely does it seem that a referendum will carry?

Of course there are counter-arguments.

Maguire has every right to tweet whatever she chooses: free speech and all that.

Personal stories - as we saw in the SSM campaign - are crucial in changing voters' minds.

And mores change over the ages. Many campaigns of the past would have seemed vulgar, shocking or outré: the 1970s Contraceptive Train, early Gay Pride marches.

Besides, it's healthy for society that people, especially young artistic sorts, "épater la bourgeoisie" - shakes us all out of our complacency.

But the fundamental question remains.

Which is more important: to cause a stir on social media, or to actually win a referendum campaign?

The public must be persuaded to vote the amendment out of existence; everything else is sound and fury, signifying (and probably achieving) nothing.

Irish Independent

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