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'All or nothing' mindset poisons the argument


Panti Bliss, AKA Rory O'Neill

Panti Bliss, AKA Rory O'Neill

Panti Bliss, AKA Rory O'Neill

On a list of Things Everyone Thinks Are True But Actually Aren't, the proposition that it isn't possible to have a debate on homophobia in Ireland following RTE's legal settlement with John Waters and certain members of Catholic think-tank the Iona Institute would be right up there at the top. So surreal has the situation become that politicians and commentators can now be heard saying that they can't have a robust debate about homophobia . . . whilst having a robust debate about homophobia.

We may, in fact, be in the midst of the noisiest, most robust debate about homophobia heard in Ireland since the decriminalisation of homosexuality. Pantigate has been covered extensively by every national newspaper and radio station; the apology and payout by RTE even made headlines around the world, from the Huffington Post to BBC World; whilst the video of Rory O'Neill, aka Panti, talking at the Abbey Theatre last Sunday was watched by 200,000 people on YouTube in days.

Even if official media had been silent, social media would have filled the gap as hashtags and Facebook pages sprung up overnight like dandelions, and celebrities from Madonna to Graham Norton rushed to send warm messages of support. If, as Amnesty Ireland director Colm O'Gorman said on Twitter last week, "a precedent has been set, and debate and public discourse will pay the price", then public discourse seems stubbornly determined not to pay it, but to carry on regardless.

That much became gratifyingly clear on last weekend's Saturday Night Show debate on homophobia featuring Colm O'Gorman, Senator Averil Power, Susan Philips, and political analyst Noel Whelan.

This had all the potential to be car-crash television – either a slanging match which made a fraught situation worse, or a vicar's tea party which, by tiptoeing around the controversy, reinforced the view that RTE lacked the cojones to tackle the serious issues raised. Complaints were already being made in advance that the terms of reference of the debate were too narrow, too cautious, too this, too that. And John Waters had predicted that there could be no fair debate because the station was infested by people with "certain ideological mentalities" who sought to stage debates so that "the 'correct' position always wins". Clearly he was wrong.

The show was no sooner under way than those determined to look for offence – surprise, surprise – found it. That it didn't fall into any of the pits which were being dug for it. was largely down to the Saturday Night Show producers and research team who put together a debate and a line up that betrayed no agendas and could certainly not be accused of pandering to any ideology. Waters suggestion of ideological infestation would have seemed ridiculous to anyone watching. Indeed the item was as nuanced and multilayered as the broader debate and was a credit to a team that were presumably under the microscope for balance and also for making sure no one compounded any previous legal complaints.

The Saturday Night Show presenter Brendan O'Connor, can take credit for this outcome too. He presided over the proceedings with admirable dexterity and sensitivity.

Yes, he's a colleague. If anyone wants to believe that's why I'm praising him, so be it. Life's too short. All I know is that he is pugnacious, mischievous and willing to embrace unpopularity if needs be. At the same time, he brings no personal baggage to a debate like this, because he has entirely relaxed views on how people should conduct their private lives.

There was nothing stopping RTE's critics from adopting the same approach as the Saturday Night Show. Instead they preferred to gripe and moan about the limitations of the debate, rather than celebrate the fact that an important social debate had come through the crossfire with minimal damage.

Even if legal action by Iona and Waters had indeed been "intended to close down debate", in the words of O'Gorman, or to "shut down and stifle debate", in the words of Ivana Bacik on Newstalk – and that still strikes me as too Machiavellian an interpretation of what happened – that was no reason to respond as if they had actually achieved such a victory against free speech, when all that was needed was to find new and better ways of saying what you want to say.

Gay rights activists seemed confused. On the one hand, they wanted to present their opponents as a tiny, unrepresentative minority. On the other hand, they kept talking them up as if they were everywhere, so uniquely powerful that the normal weapons of political discourse were insufficient to stop them and they needed a whole new arsenal, including a change in Irish defamation laws to allow the naming and shaming of opponents.

Few journalists would object to a loosening of the rules. There are many things which cannot be said that should be said. But the idea that this would be a straightforward utopian improvement, with no downside, is naïve at best. If the law on defamation is relaxed, then the gloves will come off for everyone.

We don't need to wonder how this would look. We can see it in action already. It's called Twitter. This is where gay men who oppose same-sex marriage, such as Paddy Manning of Preserve Marriage, are routinely called "self-hating gays" and mocked for their manner and demeanour by playground bullies masquerading as liberals.

But it's all okay, apparently, because Manning is Not Gay Enough, or possibly The Wrong Sort Of Gay. How this spiteful cod analysis of conservative gay men's motivation is part of any battle against homophobia defeats me.

It wasn't only opponents of same-sex marriage who were caught in the blast, either. Noel Whelan spoke quietly and measuredly last weekend about the need for a rational debate based on ideas, not labels.

Despite being unequivocally in favour of same-sex marriage, he was subjected afterwards to a torrent of abuse from those who chose to see his nuanced call for social conservatives to be allowed speak without demonisation – not to mention his refusal to join in the mob condemnation of RTE for not gambling hundreds of thousands of euro on what might eventually come down to which set of well-paid lawyers makes the best case for their competing definitions of homophobia – as proof that he was insufficiently tough on discrimination.

Such is the all or nothing/for us or against us mentality which has poisoned this debate, and which could, if left unchecked, change an evidence-based debate on "marriage equality" into a much more emotive and divisive spat over who gets to control how others should think and feel. The referendum on same-sex marriage can be won, by a comfortable margin, on the arguments, and we'll all be in a much better place afterwards if that's how we fight. Saturday Night Show-style, not by Twitter rules.

Irish Independent