Friday 23 August 2019

Brendan O'Connor: Toxic chat on internet is starting to affect real life

Some things in life are too important to be decided by the rules of internet debate, writes Brendan O'Connor

Dossier: Kate O’Connell highlighted offensive statements by Barry Walsh.
Dossier: Kate O’Connell highlighted offensive statements by Barry Walsh.
Brendan O'Connor

Brendan O'Connor

The Late Debate on RTE Radio One is somewhat of an overlooked gem, at its best anarchic and brilliant. The sometimes confrontational, always righteous and rigorous nature of host Cormac O hEadhra, along with the fact that it is tucked away at 10pm on Tuesday to Thursdays, seems to create a safe space for people to be a bit more authentic than they might be elsewhere - a bit crankier, a bit more direct. It also forces people who disagree about things to sit down and face each other and listen.

I was half dozing off with it on Wednesday night when I was brought back to full consciousness by Aodhan O Riordain saying this during a discussion of homelessness: "I want to talk about the entire rhetoric which I think is poisonous… There's a nastiness to Leo Varadkar's politics. There is a nastiness to his politics. This comes from his campaign in order to become Fine Gael leader which, you know, denigrated social welfare recipients. We all know what the dog whistle of getting up early in the morning was all about and then this week, compounded last week by, you know, little innuendoes about housing agencies and what they do and what they don't do, we have this issue of, this idea at the Fine Gael Ard Fheis from the doorstep, saying homelessness is low compared to European countries so therefore everyone should really cop on."

O Riordain went on to suggest that this kind of talk was setting a certain tone, that then legitimises other such talk. So that, for example, in relation to Eileen Gleeson's comments about homeless people and bad behaviour, "the head of an agency from the State, I'm quite sure, now feels that she has licence to use, really, really, I feel, very, very damaging language".

It was strong stuff - the Taoiseach is at heart nasty and he is sending out dog-whistle stuff that is legitimising other people to say nasty things so is essentially setting a tone of nastiness in our discourse.

You'd have to say O Riordain himself is setting a certain tone in his language here. O Riordain is vaguely obsessed, as we know, with Trump and American politics right now, and it seems that he has brought a little bit of that perspective here. Nasty is one of Trump's favourite words. Right now 'dog whistle' is associated in people's minds with racism, and specifically with Trump's racism. You could infer that O Riordain was putting Leo in the same space as Trump. It was a bit nasty actually.

But then, O Riordan might have had a point. Indeed there was a lot of nastiness in the air in Ireland last week.

Barry Walsh, a Fine Gael activist, was the latest national villain after Kate O'Connell distributed a dossier of offensive statements he has made on Twitter. Walsh referred to political opponents as bitches in a number of tweets and also made offensive comments about Tara Flynn, an abortion activist, and her decision to have an abortion, saying "she was pregnant and couldn't be bothered having a baby so she had it killed". While O'Connell is well able for the odd dig at opponents herself, and while Walsh had been getting away with this for a couple of years, until he crossed O'Connell there was general agreement that Walsh's comments were nasty and not befitting someone who is active in the main party of government. Tara Flynn's own piece in The Irish Times will give you an idea of what it's like to be the human being at the end of that kind of thing.

All of this has again caused us all to think a bit about the level of public discourse in Ireland. Is it becoming toxic? Does it come from the top down? And what hope have we of the civilised debate we all hope for around abortion if this is the level we are at?

We are mindful, too, that we have seen public discourse hit newly toxic levels in the US and the UK, and that this has managed to infect the body politic and create chaos in the real world and not just on Twitter. This notion that the toxicity that goes on online can jump species is summed up in Donald Trump. It was noted at the time of his election that it was like "the comments section became president", and Trump has often seemed to be conducting his presidency through the medium of online trolling. New politics if you will, where World War III could be started on Twitter.

The problem with online discourse becoming real-life discourse is obvious. There have always been different rules online. Empathy can be lacking when people are not face to face and they will say things they might not otherwise say. You'd have to wonder if Barry Walsh would really say the things he said if he were looking Tara Flynn, or any of the other women he insulted, in the eye. The anonymity of some online discourse and comments sections doesn't help either. Anonymity emboldens people to say all kinds of things. And somehow, there is a sense, when they are typing these things into their phone, that they are not really saying them, that these words matter less than words they would use to real people in real life. When in fact they can matter more.

There is a sense sometimes that technology gave everyone a voice, but that it turned out that what a lot of people wanted to use that voice for was to abuse other people, people who had committed the cardinal sin of disagreeing with them. And disagreement can tend to be a cardinal sin these days.

I seem to remember that in normal conversation we used to disagree with each other, we'd listen to the other side, and sometimes we might even agree a compromise, or agree to differ. Indeed we often, in real life, enjoy a good row, picking holes in each other's arguments and refusing to give an inch.

But all too often the structure of online argument can be that people set out their position, and perhaps because they have written it down, and perhaps because it's a more public space, they never want to back down on anything. So things tend to calcify into polar opposites and if no one is going to give an inch on either side, then the only place, sometimes, for the conversation to go, can be into personal abuse. So that's where you start calling people bitches, and worse. And equally it's where you start saying that the Taoiseach is a nasty man who is dog whistling out his nasty stuff to legitimise other people to say nasty things. And of course the rest of us are all complicit in it because we enjoy these spats, as blood sports and gossip.

There's an interesting conversation to be had around the various different reasons why people are homeless. There's an interesting conversation to be had about why we should perhaps delineate between different types of homeless people and use different strategies with them. There is an interesting conversation to be had around what agencies can do to help different strata of homeless people, in the short, medium and long term, and how these agencies should be set up, how many of them there should be, and whether they should focus on different strategic areas. There is an interesting conversation to be had around whether there should be charities or well-meaning volunteers working in this area at all. But it's a conversation we will never have under the current rules of engagement.

We will, however, have to have a conversation about abortion soon, and it will need to be a very nuanced, complex conversation, because abortion is an even more complex area than homelessness and there are probably as many shades of opinion about it as there are people in the country.

We will need to learn to listen to each other. And we will need to be willing to move from our fixed positions if people show us we are wrong. And we need to not demonise those who disagree with us. And we can't just keep demanding that everyone who says something wrong or uses the wrong language needs to be banished. The big things in life are too important to be decided by the rules of the internet.

Sunday Independent

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