Tuesday 20 March 2018

Brendan O'Connor: Is silencing Hook really the answer?

The Newstalk presenter's comments on rape were wrong, but they should spark debate not banishment, says Brendan O'Connor

George Hook. Photo: Mark Condren
George Hook. Photo: Mark Condren
Brendan O'Connor

Brendan O'Connor

I'm not going to defend what George Hook said, and I'm certainly not going to argue that words don't matter. His comments about an alleged rape victim taking some blame for her attack were wrong and they clearly caused a lot of hurt. Hook is aware of this himself. He has accepted he was wrong. He has apologised. The question now is whether he should be silenced. According to reports this weekend, it is likely he will be.

There is an appetite for this these days. Those who like to see people who have wrong opinions banished might feel they are on a roll. John Waters has disappeared from the national scene. Kevin Myers was fired by lunchtime for stupid and wrong comments about Jews and women. Could Hook be next? And who will be next then?

Some are saying there was a valid argument hidden in what Hook was saying - that it's OK to tell women to be careful. The whole 'personal responsibility' thing. But that is not what Hook said. There is a difference between general advice and specific blame after the fact.

If Hook had just said in general that in his opinion women should be careful, but that rape is rape and is done by a rapist, he would still have found many to argue furiously with him. But he probably would not be suspended right now.

The personal responsibility argument is a tricky one. Obviously the only one to blame for rape is the rapist. But hands up, will I urge my daughters to be careful? Probably.

In terms of policing speech, we have to accept that words are powerful, and they can hurt. Words matter, and they can set a tone, and legitimise a way of thinking. But institutionalised discrimination is far worse.

Say you do actually have the courage to report a rape, and say your case does actually make it to court in this, the country with the lowest conviction rate for rape cases following allegation in Europe. Did you know that there is a one-in-three chance that you will be quizzed on your sexual history?

And I don't mean the circumstances that led to your attack and your actions around your rape. That will probably come into it no matter what. I mean that in 30pc of rape cases in Ireland the prosecution will make a successful application to the judge to bring the victim's previous sexual behaviour into the case.

Technically the idea is that it may be relevant in terms of the victim's credibility. In practice, a Section 3 application, as it is known, is often used to establish promiscuity, and even, in some cases, to establish whether women use birth control.

Here's one example from a recent article in the Irish Times. A girl who was raped in a field when she was 14, by 26-year-old Martin Stokes, was cross-examined for two and half days during Stokes's trial. Stokes claimed she was a willing partner. The victim was quizzed on text messages she sent to friends and Facebook posts.

Last year Faisal Ellahi was convicted of raping a young woman with Down syndrome. Ellahi sought permission to question the victim about whether she had kissed any boys. Thankfully in that case the judge refused. Ellahi had also initially claimed his victim was a willing participant.

A 76-year-old man on the radio has a certain amount of power. But the legal system has far, far more power in underpinning what you might call the rape culture and in literally legitimising certain modes of thinking.

If Hook was found to be discriminating or mistreating women in his workplace, it would be a different matter entirely. But right now people want him to be fired for expressing an opinion, however wrong.

There are two strange aspects of the Hook case. One is that there was a rush to connect Hook's comments to a wider malaise in Newstalk. It is, we are told, a cold house for women. And somehow the suggestion is that because it is a boys' club, comments like Hook's would be viewed as more acceptable.

Toxic masculinity unchecked in other words. Which is to suggest that Shane Coleman, Paul Williams, Pat Kenny, Sean Moncrieff, Ivan Yates, Chris Donoghue and others are all complicit in some kind of echo chamber where it's OK to blame women for rape. This is simply not true. And it smacks of people taking a different gripe they have about Newstalk and attaching it to the lightning rod that is Hook.

Secondly, we are told that Hook must be silenced because the opinion that he expressed is shared by too many other men out there. But it's hard to see how silencing Hook helps to deal with that. If we want to deal with this view, which Hook served to legitimise, then we need to publicly re-educate Hook, and hopefully more with him. He needs to be challenged and confronted on his views. We need to have an argument, as old-fashioned as that sounds. I'm with Kitty Holland on this. Making a martyr of Hook is not going to help anyone's cause here.

Let me make it clear again. None of this is in any way to support Hook's comments. But silence is not the answer. Surely we have learned that by now in this country. Silence is never the answer.

Another aspect of this discussion has been the tarring of all dissenting voices as being deliberate controversialists who portray themselves as victims and spew nasty bile. Dissenting voices may often be simply wrong. But silencing dissent, silencing those who provoke us to think twice, is a sinister road to go down. And many of us could fall foul of it at some stage, depending on who decides what opinions merit banishment.

In some ways, this last week has been useful. It has caused somewhat of a conversation about some people's attitudes. It has caused men to think a bit more, to examine our unconscious biases, to ask women a bit more about their feelings on this, to be more aware not just of the hurt we can cause when we discuss sexual violence.

It has also probably made many of us more aware of the prevalence of sexual violence here.

I actually think there is a little more empathy around the country after last week. I'm with Louise O'Neill on this: "I think the furore is a good thing in one way as it's a sign that cultural values are shifting. Hopefully?" In fact this last week has probably helped cultural values to shift a bit more.

Sometimes it's painful to talk. But it's always good to talk. Silence is never the answer.

And maybe if Hook survives, he should do a few shows on how the legal system treats victims of sexual violence.

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