Sunday 25 September 2016

Time for Middle Ireland to stand up for real values

We need to stop wasting time online and start talking to real people again

Eilis O'Hanlon

Published 29/11/2015 | 02:30

'The Irish may be among the world's biggest users of social media, but don't be fooled. Still only a quarter have signed up to Twitter and the time they spend on it is shrinking'
'The Irish may be among the world's biggest users of social media, but don't be fooled. Still only a quarter have signed up to Twitter and the time they spend on it is shrinking'

Imagine that the Celtic Tiger had started just a few years later and was still going strong. We would now be heading into 2016 in the same spirit that prevailed in the country during that all-too-brief period of prosperity and promise. We'd be self-confident, happy, on top of the world. Instead the recession left us unsettled, dissatisfied.

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It's tempting to say that the centenary of the Easter Rising couldn't have come at a worse time, but things are undoubtedly getting better. Had the Rising happened in 1910, the centenary 100 years later would have found us in an even more fractious mood. Ireland does still feel at times like a country in the grip of a midlife crisis, as if embodying on a national scale the opening lines of 13th-century Italian poet Dante's Inferno: "In the middle of the journey of my life, I found myself in a dark wood where the straight way was lost."

We're not a young country any more, but a mature democracy with a settled place in the world; we surely should not be so lacking in self-belief when we're slowly but surely coming out of that dark wood.

Perhaps it's Ireland's misfortune to be marking the centenary of the Rising at the end of a period of hellish economic punishment. All countries coming to the first centenary of events that shaped national destiny are bound to ponder questions of identity. Having made its sacrifices, Ireland, too, is asking what it all means, hence the masochistic appetite in certain circles for hand-wringing over how we've either lived up to the promise of the men and women of 1916 or else betrayed their ideals.

The question is absurd. It doesn't matter what they'd think of us, any more than it matters what we might think of the men and women of 2116 if we could see far into the future. The country then will be their business, not ours.

All that counts is what we think of ourselves; but to sabotage that along comes an old tendency to self-flagellation.

It was evident in the same-sex marriage referendum. It should have been a time of satisfaction as we became the first country to pass it by popular vote - and it was. For a while. Then euphoria dissolved into rancour, recrimination, a settling of scores. That has now leaked through into the campaign to abolish the Eight Amendment on abortion. In one fell swoop, Ireland went from being hailed as an pluralistic haven of tolerance to being castigated hysterically from within once more as a repressive Catholic theocracy.

This dysfunctional need to veer wildly between extremes is a classic symptom of mania, and finds its shrillest expression among Ireland's small army of humourless grievance junkies, who spend every day eagerly looking for offence and invariably finding it. Their aggressive, liberal orthodoxy is every bit as stifling as the conservative Catholicism it replaced.

These people are powerful, but feel powerless; they're victors who think like victims.

It's a toxic mix, and feminism has fallen to the same forces. Irish women are among the most equal in the world. Why not celebrate that? Instead of optimism, feminism has putrefied into a round of perpetual complaint, unable to make a distinction between what's important, like campaigning for equal pay or greater political representation, and what's trivial, by taking exaggerated umbrage at every slight or dismissing all criticism as misogyny.

Throw some kneejerk nationalism into the mix and the cultural climate soon sours. It's no coincidence that it is exactly these forces - political correctness, feminism, and extreme nationalism - which are dominant on Irish social media, particularly Twitter.

To be fair, the problem isn't social media itself, however negative its tone, so much as the way Twitter has been allowed to exert a disproportionate influence on the national conversation. It echoes the dominance over political discourse now being exercised by a hard left which represents only a minority of opinion. They get away with it partly because of an admirable desire among most Irish people for a quiet life. When others shout loudly, less domineering folk have an understandable inclination to let them get on with it.

That doesn't mean we're listening, much less agreeing. Unfortunately the Tweeters and the Trots take silence for acquiescence, and respond by further upping the volume levels in the mistaken belief that they are voices of mainstream Ireland rather than mouthpieces for paranoid obsession.

The Irish may be among the world's biggest users of social media, but don't be fooled. Still only a quarter have signed up to Twitter and the time they spend on it is shrinking. The trend seems to be for a smaller number of angry people to spend more and more time spitting venom online, and for everyone else to ignore them.

Those who use it most are also overwhelmingly young. Only 12pc of Twitter users are over the age of 35; a mere 3pc are over the age of 50.

In short, Middle Ireland is nowhere to be found on social media proportionate to its actual standing. If there's one thing those people could do in 2016 to stop feeling that their country is being taken away from them by hostile elements, it would be to reassert their values rather than allowing themselves to be shouted down and disparaged.

Ireland is nowhere near as bad as the malcontents on social media would have us believe. It's not even close to being recognisable from the hostile stereotype, but they'll insidiously start to make us believe that it is if we keep giving them the negative attention that they crave.

The worst threats to a country always come from within rather than without, which is why excess shame is arguably more corrosive than excess pride. It eats away at one's confidence as a nation.

We need to stop listening to imaginary friends and foes living phantom lives on Twitter and start talking again to real people living real lives in real places, like Trim and Tubber and Thomastown, because, to be blunt, the first lot are going to spoil 2016 for the second if they're allowed to keep playing their poisonous games.

Sunday Independent

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