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Manufactured outrage over political swearing an obscenity

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Enda Kenny

Enda Kenny

Kate McGrew

Kate McGrew

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Enda Kenny

There's a lot to be said for an old-fashioned swearbox. In workplaces and public houses where one of these conversation-peace jars is deployed, anyone who utters a profanity can make instant amends by paying a nominal 'fine'.

The money goes to charity and people of a delicate disposition can reassure themselves that the war on vulgarity is at least being fought if not won. More importantly, however, no further discussion is required.

Right now, Irish political debate would be greatly enhanced by the application of swearbox rules. With disconcerting frequency of late, public argument about issues of importance has been sidetracked into squabbling about the whys, wherefores and WTFs of assorted swearwords. Some of our most esteemed politicians have delivered what amount to academic dissertations about the objectionable nature of the language emanating from their opponents.

The rise in avowed concern about the cleanliness of dialogue in the public square has been an unexpected spin-off from the growth of popular protest. A mass demo is an expression of public anger so it's hardly surprising that some of the sentiments articulated by demonstrators have a raw and angry edge. Inevitably, large-scale protests attract more than their fair share of hotheads with puny vocabularies so, sometimes, the effing and blinding goes over the top. But most of us would agree that the hurling of expletives is infinitely preferable to the flinging of bricks.

For those in the business of trying to discredit all protestors, however, different rules apply. The "obscenities" which have supposedly been used by participants in anti-water charges demos are repeatedly cited by some government representatives as evidence of the protest movement's fundamental wickedness. Where there is "bad language", it seems, there must be bad faith, bad intentions, bad people.

Government politicians are perfectly entitled to demand a "clean fight" on issues like water charges but they are naïve to expect a sanitised one. Overheated political concentration on the sweary-ness of protest chants or slogans is as counterproductive as it is daft. It has also led to some strange quarrels about who said what and how urgently they need to have their foul mouths washed out.

Enda Kenny and Gerry Adams spent much of last week arguing over whether or not Sinn Fein members were involved in a reportedly dirty-tongued protest in Limerick on Monday night. The focal point of the demo was a gathering of the local Fine Gael faithful at which the Taoiseach was the keynote speaker. Around 200 anti-water charges protestors gathered outside the hotel where the function was held. Kenny was heckled as he entered and, having made his speech, he left via a back exit.

Several days later, he was still fuming. Rather than engage with the substance of the protestors' message, however, Kenny complained about what he described as their "appalling" language. "Abusive, filthy language, the likes of which I've rarely heard before," he told the Dail.

Kenny is 63. He's a man of the world, a veteran combatant in the rough-and-tumble of constituency politicking. Only a few weeks ago, he was positively bragging about his ability to parry and thrust with his political rivals. "Where I come from," he insisted, "we're well able to look after ourselves." The notion, therefore, that his trip to Limerick exposed him to a hitherto unimagined lexicon of crudeness and rudeness seems more than a little implausible.

Kenny has repeatedly claimed that the most vociferous verbal abusers were associated with Sinn Fein. Adams rejects this assertion and says his party had no involvement in Monday night's protest. The Sinn Fein president appears highly sensitive to any suggestion that he or his fellow travellers have a fondness for the linguistic blunderbuss. Ironically, however, he shot himself squarely in the foot last week with an injudiciously public discharge of the B-word.

Speaking before a congregation of Sinn Fein supporters in Enniskillen, Adams described some elements of Unionism as "bastards". He subsequently issued a qualified apology, insisting that he was referring to bigots, racists and homophobes and not all unionists. As with all swearing-related political controversies, however, there was an unreality about this saga. Adams usually goes to extraordinary lengths to avoid backtracking but he could make an ostentatious mea culpa for saying 'bastards' because nobody was really that shocked or upset by his use of the term in the first place.

Many Irish people swear with an intensity and casualness that often astonishes outsiders. We shouldn't be proud of it but it's a fact of life. Some of our countryfolk may well be capable of restricting themselves to a genteel 'ouch!' or 'gosh-darn!' when they catch a finger in a slamming drawer but there aren't many of them. When conversation heats up, our language gets correspondingly fiery. Ideally, politicians and civilians who wish to mount political arguments should keep the invective in check. Would-be peacemakers should be especially mindful of what they're saying. But, when somebody does unleash a profanity, the rest of us should stop pretending they've dropped an atomic bomb.

Manufactured outrage about swearing is just one more dreary feature of the phoney-baloney posturing which characterises political disputation in this country. Objectionable language comes in many forms.

 

A DIPLOMATIC SILENCE

Megaphone diplomacy is presented as an affront to harmonious international relations.

However, mute-button diplomacy can be equally damaging. Last week, the United Arab Emirates ambassador was ordered to pay three former employees e80,000 each for breaches of working rights. The Employment Appeals Tribunal accepted evidence that the Filipina women were effectively enslaved and subjected to "horrific" conditions.

Employed at the ambassador's home and denied access to their passports, they were forced to work 15-hour days every day for e170 per month. The ambassador did not attend the hearing and has invoked diplomatic immunity.

The silence about this remarkable case from the diplomatic establishment has been deafening. Yet, according to the Migrant Rights Centre, the UAE ambassador's behaviour is not unique. Two months ago, following intensive lobbying by the migrants' group, the Department of Foreign Affairs published guidelines about pay and conditions for domestic staff employed by diplomats. The initiative was triggered by a succession of allegations about the mistreatment of workers at a small but significant number of Dublin-based embassies and diplomatic households.

Foreign affairs minister Charlie Flanagan launched the guidelines and seemed wholehearted in his support for the accompanying awareness campaign. We must assume, therefore, that he and his officials are taking action behind the scenes. Rogue ambassadors are a border-busting menace, a disgrace to their country and an insult to ours. Their delinquency also undermines the wider functioning and purpose of diplomacy.

Concern about human rights violations overseas becomes a nonsense if we ignore gross misconduct by representatives of so-called friendly nations on our own soil. Diplomatic privilege should not be a cover for domestic abuse.

 

AND FINALLY...

In TV terms, Kate McGrew is hot property. The 35-year-old Ohio native and aspiring artist has achieved celebrity through Connected, the RTE2 reality show chronicling the daily lives of six women.

The candour of McGrew's reflections on her life as a sex worker has impressed some and provoked debate.

However, she is now effectively homeless as the publicity has made it impossible for her to find accommodation. "It's worth not having a place to live if it raises awareness," she declares.

Not everyone would agree. There is nothing unreasonable about the refusal of landlords to rent premises to a sex worker.

Despite McGrew's rationalisations, prostitution is an unpleasant and dangerous business. In truth, she'd be better off if she followed the landlord's example and placed a higher value on her property.

Indo Review