Monday 21 October 2019

Brendan O'Connor: 'Where's the beef? We don't know. But we're outraged'

Politics is now following the general culture in relying on regular waves of outrage to keep people engaged, writes Brendan O'Connor

Simone Burns: 'The whole world had a view on this woman, and this view was based on a four-minute video clip'
Simone Burns: 'The whole world had a view on this woman, and this view was based on a four-minute video clip'

So that's how the story of Simone Burns from Belfast ended. Found dead at the bottom of Beachy Head on the first day of summer.

Simone Burns had led a varied and interesting-sounding life. Called to the bar at 23, she would, as a human rights lawyer, represent refugees from all over the world. A decade later she would contract skin cancer. She had survived it, undergoing numerous surgeries. Indeed shortly before her death, she had apparently been waiting for a prosthetic nose. Some or all of these facts were noted in the newspaper stories about her death last week. But the main thrust of all the stories, and the reason Simone Burns's death was carried in the newspapers in the first place, was one four-minute incident that happened in the last year of her life.

Last November, Simone Burns, who also went by Simone O'Broin, was on a flight from Mumbai to London. She was travelling business class and in the early part of the flight she had three small bottles of red wine. When the crew refused to give her a fourth bottle, Simone engaged in a racist tirade against the crew, spat at them, and also smoked in the toilet. We know all this because a fellow passenger helpfully videoed it and the video clip would eventually go viral around the world. So people all over the world watched this woman at her worst, and probably felt a little bit better about themselves.

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It's not that Simone's behaviour on that occasion wasn't appalling, and indeed maybe she behaved badly regularly, but would any of us want to be filmed at our very worst, and then have that moment define us in the eyes of the world? But that's what happened to Simone Burns. And then her life was destroyed. It wasn't just the fact that she went to prison for the act, an act she possibly didn't even remember. It was the fact that the whole world now had a view on this woman, and this view was based on four minutes where she was at her worst, impaired, as her lawyer said by alcohol, altitude and anxiety.

So while the six-month prison sentence contributed to what an unnamed friend referred to as Simone's life falling apart, so too did internet trolls, because obviously, many, many people had an opinion on what an awful person Simone Burns was, and what better people they were. Simone Burns, to some people, became some kind of embodiment of privilege, nastiness, racism and entitlement. A wave of outrage whooshed up against her.

And all of this conspired, presumably with some other things, to evidently make Simone Burns decide, just two weeks after her release from Bronzefield prison for women, to agree with the trolls that she was worthless and that her life was not worth living.

We will probably think again now about Simone Burns. There might even be a certain amount of sympathy for her. Some of those who trolled her and smugly watched that video might think again. They might wonder why Simone saw no possibility of redemption. They might think that maybe they were a bit harsh in how they judged her at the time. They might think that possibly it was unfair for the whole world to shame a woman, based on what might have been the most ill-judged four minutes of her life.

But that's how it is these days, isn't it? Things come along, get put on the agenda, we all gather a certain amount of information about the issue, and then we make judgments, judgments that can become very definite and deeply held in the heat of the moment.

That is life now. Everyone is an expert on everything and has very vehement opinions about it. And anyone who has a different vehement opinion is your enemy. Right now the whole country is up in arms about a bunch of mostly not very bright people, who want to be famous for nothing in particular, are in a house where the desired end result, though not explicitly stated, is that they will have sex on TV. This is either the end of civilisation as we know it or, according to others, it is the greatest exposition of the truth about human beings and relationships since Shakespeare. Maura Higgins is either the most important feminist since Emmeline Pankhurst, or else she is a disgrace to womanhood.

It's infected politics too. Offence was running high this week. Leo made his clumsy remark about priests, and the priests got in on taking offence and demanding apologies. Obviously this was a nice position for the poor pilloried priests to find themselves in. The church, paradoxically, doesn't get to occupy the moral high ground much these days. Then Leo got all snowflakey in his apology, saying he said the offending thing in the heat of a debate that was bitter and personalised. Micheal Martin, who had, in fairness, called Leo's answers petty, silly and idiotic in that debate, took umbrage then at Leo describing the debate as bitter and personal, and pointed out he was just asking him about a roundabout in Cork. High dudgeon all around.

We pride ourselves these days on having a much more civil discourse than our near neighbours but you'd wonder sometimes if our crowd aren't taking a sneaky look across the water and thinking there might be nothing wrong with a bit of childish argy bargy to keep people interested in politics. Because people demand their dopamine hits of rows and rage and outrage these days. Everything has to be high octane to keep us interested.

Look at Boris Johnson in the Tory hustings. Boris generally electrifies the room in these things, and then poor old Jeremy Hunt comes on and you want to change channels after 30 seconds. It's not up to us to decide who gets to be PM, but we can empathise with those who do.

On some level, many of them probably know that Jeremy Hunt is the more sensible choice for PM, but Boris is, quite simply, more exciting. He makes stuff happen, even if it's sometimes the wrong stuff. There's a buzz about him. And that's what people want these days. Any bit of a buzz, even about ostensibly serious issues.

In the absence of anything better to get up in arms about this past week, it's been about beef. We took beef farmer outrage and ran with it. People who know little or nothing about farmers or farming were joining in on predictions of the end of the world. Even Sinn Fein, never generally regarded as the farmers' friends, were up in arms. Big Phil had to go. Free trade should be cancelled. The country would be decimated. We needed to go back to protectionism. We'd been sold out. This deal was going to destroy the environment. And on and on. It was occasionally mentioned quietly that the amount of beef that would eventually come here at favourable tariffs would add a little over 1pc to the EU beef market, and that it represented less than 1pc of Brazil's beef production, and was spread over the four Mercosur countries. So maybe the world wouldn't end. But then, that's not a very exciting or entertaining spin on it all. A bit boring frankly.

We will probably calm down about this over the coming years, as the deal grinds, boring through the layers of EU bureaucracy. Indeed, a time may come when it might not seem to matter that much to most people at all. Just like poor Simone Burns and her sad end will be largely forgotten too.

But of course, by then, we will be up in arms about something else.

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