Thursday 17 October 2019

Gene Kerrigan: 'The trolls are singing the same old songs'

The 'political correctness' taunt is merely part of an age-old attempt to ridicule the need for change

Cartoon by Tom Halliday
Cartoon by Tom Halliday
Gene Kerrigan

Gene Kerrigan

Some people are upset because a favourite Christmas song is about to be banned. And they've been convinced that feminists and gays are grim people who want to take the fun out of life.

And others are upset because the HSE is hammering nurses for daring to call patients "love" and "dear".

Still more have been convinced that the United Nations is forcing us to open our borders to waves of Muslim refugees.

None of these things is true.

Nevertheless, the air is alive with people claiming that "political correctness has gone mad".

Here's a rule of modern life: a niche subsection of the media exists with no other purpose than to troll us.

Such trolls are part of the defence mechanism of the status quo. They exist to ridicule opponents of that status quo.

The trolls are usually people with real media talent and deeply conservative instincts. They usually come in the shape of a shock-jock, a contrarian columnist or a right-wing controversialist.

Here's how it works.

Our shock-jock friend adopts an incredulous tone.

Hey, folks, you won't believe this, but there's this radio station - I'm not sure exactly where, but it was on the internet yesterday. And you won't believe what they want to do - I'm not kidding - they want to ban the song 'White Christmas'!

Good God almighty!

Because, they say, the term 'White Christmas' is not inclusive!

They say 'White Christmas' by definition excludes all people of colour.

The poor snowflakes say the song makes them feel uncomfortable.

They say it's another example of oppression by the white male patriarchy.

Did you ever hear the like of it!

Political correctness gone mad!

Pretty soon, a whole lot of the troll's listeners ring up, and they give him examples they've heard of, on other troll shows, of how the gays and the feminists and the anti-racists and the lefty liberals are stamping out freedom.

And, inevitably, his targets respond, and get caught up in silly, contrived arguments.

The outcome of such arguments is invariably a conclusion that anyone radical is a fool and/or mentally disturbed.

And that radicals exaggerate oppression. And that feminists make up things to be upset about.

And that the "white male patriarchy" is a myth constructed by foolish women who just hate men.

As it happens, that White Christmas nonsense is untrue. I made it up. But there's always some little radio station somewhere with a cranky DJ who won't play some song. And that's excuse enough to create an impression that a whole point of view is ridiculous.

Facts don't matter.

Last week, Colette Browne from the Irish Independent turned up on Matt Cooper and Ivan Yates's TV show, for a discussion on UN policy on migration, which was her first mistake. She'd read the report the discussion was about, which was her second.

It was fascinating to watch someone with facts and logic being bombarded by claims based on precisely nothing.

Similarly, Colette Browne knew, because she'd sought out the facts, that in referring to ways of addressing patients the HSE was merely noting things patients felt about their hospital experience.

The HSE, and nurses, both believe in putting patients at ease in stressful circumstances. And that can mean using the patient's name, rather than "love".

Knowing the facts and stating them, again, didn't help. To the trollish types, the world must be portrayed as villains and angels, nuance is for fusspots.

To prosper at that end of the media spectrum, it helps to feed the more gullible among us an explanation of the world that plays to their fears.

And if someone questions this, your jaw drops. You are merely a poor, wee truth-teller who is being unfairly oppressed. "Am I barred from asking questions, now? I mean, has political correctness taken over completely?"

I'm just trying to start a national conversation, you plead. I mean, I'm just putting it out there, OK?

I'm just saying what everyone is thinking, yeah?

Sure, it's cartoonish, but it works. Feed people stories that confirm what they want to believe and you own them. And they feel grateful to you.

In the midst of all this, the old argument has arisen again about Baby, It's Cold Outside, the Frank Loesser song from 1944.

It's a date-rape anthem, some feminists say. Others point to feminist analysis of the song, which suggests it wittily depicts a woman of the time negotiating an alibi for spending the night with her lover.

As it happens, I've been a Loesser fan since way, way back. He has form. His musical How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying was a satire on the roles of men and women in corporate America.

Loesser wasn't a feminist, but he was knowing and sceptical about these things, in the same way Billy Wilder was in his movie The Apartment.

Such work reflected a current that was then small but growing and which later changed a lot of things. And that change is still being resisted.

Which makes it worth knowing how these things work.

By the time Tom Jones and Cerys Matthews recorded Cold Outside in 1999, the context of the song was lost and they understood it as date-rape, with the video showing Jones spiking Matthews's drink.

Twenty years ago, spiking a woman's drink was still seen in the mainstream as high jinks.

Today, the movement is strong, and if there are some whose antennae are too sensitive, so be it.

To anyone who respects Loesser's work, the date-rape label doesn't make sense. To today's feminists, who are still fighting an oppression that stretches from demeaning remarks to beatings, rape and murder, the subtleties of the 1940s don't seem terribly important.

Happily, unlike Loesser, Shane MacGowan is still around to explain his song Fairytale of New York.

It's recently been shamed for the lines, "an old slut on junk", and, "you cheap lousy faggot".

The song is one of the greats, a short story told economically, brimming with emotion, and you can sing it.

It's a song about dreams that didn't work out, disappointment and broken lives, and about the dreams that persist even in those broken lives. And how those feelings are sharpened at Christmas.

Neither character was going to throw an accusation that "you're a disreputable person". They used the insults of the day.

The use of the term faggot is controversial because it's been used to insult gay people, to curse them as they were beaten, and it's been spat at their broken bodies when they were murdered.

MacGowan's response is excellent.

"If people don't understand that I was trying to accurately portray the character as authentically as possible then I am absolutely fine with them bleeping the word but I don't want to get into an argument."

He wrote a song that's true to life as he knows it. And he stands by that, but he knows other people have another experience. He doesn't deny their experience, or his own. He's happy if they deal with the song on their own terms.

The response of a decent, caring man.

No, the feminists and the anti-racists and the rest of those working for change are not too touchy. None of us understand all the subtleties all the time. But that's a million miles removed from the world of professional trolls and their fans - which is another term for their victims.

Sunday Independent

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