Sunday 17 November 2019

Mary Kenny: 'Life isn't black and white. There are many ambiguities behind statements of certainty'

 

Mary Kenny, writer and author. Photo: Tony Gavin
Mary Kenny, writer and author. Photo: Tony Gavin
Mary Kenny

Mary Kenny

Does the border between the Republic and Northern Ireland really exist? The entire Brexit process has been focused around this question.

The problematic answer is that it does - and it doesn't. You can drive across the border without being aware you have crossed a frontier. That is the positive experience that suggests it doesn't exist. Then suddenly a red letter-box replaces a green one, road signage is in miles, not kilometres, and you're using the pound sterling. So, in fact, it does exist: but in a state of ambiguity.

Politics, the law, contractual agreements and moral certainties are all based on black-and-white rules that can be written down. But in real life, we often live within ambiguities.

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We all affirm our belief in equality between the sexes. But we seldom expect women to take up oil rig engineering in equal numbers with men. And it's awfully nice, too, if a man picks up the tab on a date. The words "Don't worry, I'll take care of everything" can be welcome to women who have never known a protective male presence.

Dublin buses these days carry uplifting messages about the unacceptability of racism: few would dissent from that. But the process of integrating newcomers has always taken time, and immigrants have always had to earn their passage into the host culture, as many a Brooklyn narrative attests.

Similarly, it's a Christian duty to embrace the stranger - if I've heard one sermon in church on this theme, I've heard a dozen. Yet many a Christian feels ambivalent about welcoming refugees into their small towns.

We all treasure the Irish language, but the protocol that it is the "first language" of the Irish State is, surely, a statement of ambiguity. Urgent messages are usually issued in English, such as "Car drivers - leave bus lanes clear". Irish is a spiritual attachment, but for most, not really the first language.

It's an entrenched feminist principle that "No means No" in the matter of sexual (or even flirtatious) approaches. But are there never any ambiguities in the interchanges of glances, gestures, smiles, body language, conduct? Has nobody ever had "come hither" eyes? Has nobody ever been seduced from "No" to "Maybe" to "Yes" by charm, personality, likeability, jokes, persuasion, or - perhaps to later regrets - liquor?

Two-thirds of the Irish electorate voted to repeal the 8th Amendment and make abortion legal in this state. But what percentage of that electorate feels ambiguous about the termination of pregnancy? Affirming that something should be legally permitted is not the same as believing it is desirable. When Bill Clinton said that "Abortion should be safe, legal - and rare", he admitted his sense of ambiguity about treating it as commonplace.

Helen Mirren said recently that most people are "on a spectrum" of sexual identity. Quite probable. There are masculine women and feminine men. There are also masculine men who are gay, and feminine men who are straight. There are feminine women who are gay, and masculine women who are straight. Biologically, in the majority, there are two sexes, but characteristics can slide all along a surprisingly ambiguous spectrum.

The Medieval Irish, according to the historian Jonathan Bardon, didn't worry too much about clerical celibacy. In 14th-century Ireland, celibacy was accepted as a rule, but "was everywhere ignored". Cathal MacManus, Archdeacon of Clogher, recorded in the Annals of Ulster the names of over a dozen children he had fathered. His obituary described him as "a gem of purity and a turtle-dove of chastity". Some ambiguity!

The French, who never cease proclaiming that they are republicans, produce more magazine copy about Europe's royal families than anyone else. They underline their official secularism, yet former president Jacques Chirac was given a religious funeral by the state, with bell, book and candle.

Ambiguity is part of real life. We can hate someone as well as loving them. We can want to be at home while itching to travel. We can long to be noticed, while simultaneously shrinking from the limelight. Statements of certainty are sometimes a cover for private ambiguity.

But you can't run a political campaign on ambiguity: Barack Obama wouldn't have got to the White House with the slogan "Maybe we can". You can't win a referendum by urging voters to express their mixed feelings at the polling booth: "Take back control" was stunningly unambiguous. Leaders have to lead - and yet they have to be aware of the ambiguities behind the stark affirmations.

The status of Northern Ireland, within the context of Brexit, has been a template of ambiguity. There aren't clear-cut lines. In some ways, Northern Ireland is British, but in some ways it's Irish. Some Irish Nationalists in Northern Ireland are content to be British and some Ulster Unionists are taking out Irish passports.

The Good Friday Agreement was built on "constructive ambiguity". It was the understanding of ambiguity that got to peace.

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