Wednesday 24 July 2019

Slagging is so much part of what we do, that we find it odd when someone objects

Anton Savage

In America, positive reinforcement comes in clearly marked packages. Parents are told to tell their kids they are special and unique. Bosses are told to tell their staff how valuable they are and what a great contribution they make to the company.

In Ireland, we've always tended to gift-wrap our positives somewhat differently. We do it by insult. The closeness of Irish friendships -- particularly Irish male friendships -- can often be measured by how egregiously the friends insult each other. Incompetence, ineptitude with the opposite sex, shortness, tallness, fatness, skinniness, hairiness and baldness are all highlighted to tighten the bonds of mutual affection.

Few other cultures do that. In Ireland a salesman can tell his team he's finally landed a big client and the team will say, 'glad to see you've finally pulled your thumb out, Mick'. But Mick will know what's meant is, 'we're proud of you'. We undermine each other to reinforce each other.

At least we used to.

The one area that we've never really been sure how to handle is race. You can slag your pal for being short, but slagging him for being black, or Asian or Hispanic tends to be off-limits. There are exceptions; a documentary a number of years ago featured an Irishman of Asian extraction who told a story of being in a pub where a guy at the bar kept glancing at him. Eventually the Asian/Irishman walked over and asked what the guy was looking at.

'You're a quare-lookin' excuse for an Irish man,' was the response. 'Fancy a pint?' It was told as a story of how welcoming the Irish can be, not how racist we can be.

A case this week highlighted that we haven't quite found the line where insult as compliment becomes insult as insult. A pipe-fitter from the UK was awarded €20,000 because his Irish colleagues abused him. They read out negative football results about the English team in the World Cup, sang rebel songs and whenever a dangerous job came up said 'send the Brit in'.

The man took it all as personal assault. The people doing it probably believed their actions to be nationally acceptable: we take pride in beating the English. Ray Houghton is still a national hero because of his goal against England in Euro '88. Christy Moore even wrote a song calling Houghton's goal 'revenge for Skibbereen'. Sure it's only a bit of craic. We don't really mean any harm.

The problem is that what turns craic into insult is reaction, not intent. What matters, is how the communication is received, not how it was intended. Many of us regularly cross the line of racism and insult deliberately and with good intentions, and find ourselves in a position where we depend on the reaction of the potential victim to define whether it's acceptable or not.

I have friends who regularly ask their gay friends if they 'were out picking curtains recently'; Catholic friends who keep telling their Protestant pals that they 'kick with the wrong foot'; I even once worked with a group from a disability organisation who referred to each other as 'cripples'. In each case, terms that are -- on the face of it -- brutally insulting were used to show affection, not rejection.

In other words, behaviour or terminology that one person may accept and even regard as positive can be another's abuse. In a workplace where rolling abuse is a big (and positive) part of the corporate culture, the presence of someone who finds it offensive means either they must be treated differently (and thereby excluded, which in itself is not acceptable) or the entire culture must change. Changing a culture is difficult. And can create its own set of resentments against the perceived catalyst of the change.

That's why judgments such as the one this week may cause more trouble than they solve. The ideal result would be that people would feel sorry for the person who was abused. In reality it's more likely that they'll blame the victim. They'll probably attribute intent. They'll think, 'I bet they were only messing with him. Sure I get called a Jackeen by my friends from Cork and I call them langers. It was only messing. They didn't mean any harm;'

Oddly, intent is irrelevant. It doesn't matter whether an insult is intended to be malicious or affectionate; if it's perceived as hurtful, then it is.

Because insulting each other is so much a part of what we do, we find it odd that someone could object. But lots of people find offensive what we find normal; a colleague of mine was recently at a two-day meeting in New York. Early on, he realised that one of the Americans in attendance was an obnoxious, distant, dislikeable pain in the arse. But, because he had to get the best out of him, he spent the first coffee break trying to establish what was wrong.

Turned out to be simple. One word: 'Jaysus'. Every time my colleague said it, the American flinched because he regarded it as blasphemy. In a situation like that there's no point trying to explain that 'Jaysus' is used by the Irish in a way that has shag all to do with the man upstairs. No point explaining that even Irish priests use 'Jaysus' willy-nilly. No amount of argument would change the American's mind about what he saw to be blasphemy.

And no amount of argument will make someone who has been insulted or victimised think that it's just a bit of craic.

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