Wednesday 23 October 2019

Gene Kerrigan: The threat to kill me came from some eejit trying to sound like a Godfather character

It seems we need to point out there's a difference between an insulting joke and a gun, writes Gene Kerrigan

It's important to name things for what they are - and not to confuse one thing with another.
It's important to name things for what they are - and not to confuse one thing with another.
Gene Kerrigan

Gene Kerrigan

The threat to shoot me came in a phone call to my home from some eejit trying to sound like a character from The Godfather. This was back in the late 1980s, when I was working for the Sunday Tribune. It was chilling - for about 30 seconds. Then, common sense kicked in.

The people I wrote about were not gangsters or paramilitaries. Their hatred was real; and so was their wish to be able to swat anyone who disputed their exalted view of themselves. But, their threat wasn't real.

A threat is just words - to be a real threat, it has to have weight behind it. If it doesn't, it's just a pathetic grunt.

There were too many practical impediments between the grunter and his ability to swat a media irritant. Yes, these people wish they could kill those they dislike. They wish they could sleep with Beyonce. One is as likely as the other.

It's important to name things for what they are - and not to confuse one thing with another. That call wasn't a death threat, it was a nuisance call from an eejit.

If you have any kind of presence in the public arena, you may attract the attention of the odd eejit. You cannot take every antagonistic burp as an existential threat.

After the murders of Veronica Guerin and Martin O'Hagan, journalists were less casual about such things - but it really only affected those whose work brought them into direct contact with criminal gangs and paramilitaries.

The Haughey-era was fun. Some FF types specialised in scrawled notes telling me they knew all my family secrets, my drinking habits and my sexual perversions, all of which would be exposed if I wrote one more disrespectful word.

In the Bertie and Enda years, there have been fewer of those, but just as bitter. Every now and then, the empty words, "Death is coming" is sometimes accompanied by religious leaflets.

Those eejits had to find paper and pen (or at least a crayon), scrawl the abuse, find an envelope, go to the post office and buy a stamp, look up the newspaper's address and post the thing. These days, though, anyone with a keyboard can insult you instantly. In complete anonymity, they can abuse half a dozen people before breakfast and throw in the odd death threat.

Anonymity is a more powerful intoxicant than anything that comes out of a bottle. The ease and the anonymity ensure that online abuse is now a fact of life for anyone even remotely involved in the public arena.

There's a sub-category: misogyny. Women who become prominent and have an online presence are targets.

There's a type of male whose frustration and arrogance erupts in gushes of hate. This is apparently born of a feeling that too many women these days fail to observe a properly feminine level of meekness.

The internet is also used by the young to bully the young. Sometimes to the point of depression or suicide.

All of these are problems - the last, the abuse of the young and vulnerable, is most urgent because it can limit or even destroy life.

The abuse of women drives some away from social media. It's a deliberate suppression of the right to be heard.

Waves of abuse can intimidate anyone, male or female, and drive them away from the screen on which the abuse appears.

My instinct, whether the abuse is delivered by post or online, is to ignore that stuff. However, that's easy to say when you don't suffer the attentions of disturbed individuals who feed their own helplessness by obsessively dreaming up rape fantasies.

There's no doubt the corporations that make millions from online outlets dodge their responsibilities.

I have no solutions to offer. That isn't what this is about.

Again: it's important to name things for what they are - and not to confuse one thing with another.

In the wake of the murder of Jo Cox MP, everything was conflated. The grunting eejit, the woman haters with screaming psyches, the cynics, the sceptical, the defiant. Any form of aggression - no matter how justified - was declared to be mere steps away from gun violence. We were urged to hug our politicians.

Those who use anonymity to viciously abuse others were lumped in with those who put their names to their words. Those who react against political actions that have damaged them were grouped with those who wish to demonise anyone who questions the actions of the powerful.

And anyone whose political activism exceeds casting a vote every five years, is now deemed to be a few keystrokes away from the act of killing.

Jo Cox was a pro-emigrant politician. She was aware that we live in an era of global upheaval, where policies ordained by Western politicians have effects half a world away.

Those policies lead to death and disruption. They lead to flight from danger, from poverty, from starvation. Jo Cox believed we have responsibilities in these matters.

Her murder was a political assassination, by forces on the far right.

Across Europe, fascist parties are thriving on fear and austerity and dislike of change.

In the UK, those forces were being exploited by right-wing and centre-right politicians, squabbling over the leadership of the Tory party, and exercising their own petty nationalism.

It is dangerous to conflate such realities with the tender sensibilities of insulted politicians.

We are selective about our outrage.

When Minister Charlie Flanagan used what we coyly call "the C word" about other politicians, Fine Gael and the media thought that was fine. He suffered no consequences. When online racists cheered the deaths of children, there was no fuss.

Flanagan used the word about Sinn Fein politicians; the dead children were Travellers.

On the other hand, there was uproar about the "bullying" of a young Fianna Fail TD, Jack Chambers. Apparently, some people made jokes about Jack's hair. How awful for him.

Here's a sample of what passes for bullying these days. In a wave of Jack Chambers "jokes", stuff such as this was posted online: "Jack Chambers puts empty milk cartons back in the fridge". And, "Jack Chambers looks like he came from 1980s Reeling in the Years".

Now, I can't see how anyone would be truly offended by that. And I can't see why anyone would bother to think such empty thoughts, let alone post them online.

In a comment on a fundraising effort after the murder of Jo Cox, a Tory politician posted: "I've just donated the steam off my piss!"

Offensive, yes. Let his constituents do as they think right.

When insults escalate to swastikas and threats, there has to be sober consideration of whether this is substantial or mere bitter froth.

In 2014, Minister Alan Kelly made great political hay of a "death threat". Minister Aodhan O Riordain did likewise. The "threat" was immediately linked to the Irish Water protests.

Water protesters as a whole were smeared as violent people. Protesters were urged, via RTE, to "take a step back".

It turned out there was no death threat.

What happened was that a woman despaired of living in what a court noted were "sub-human conditions". She spent her nights in a sleeping bag on the ground floor of her home. She made a series of nuisance calls to politicians, including President Higgins. The calls seem to have been a howl of rage from a person in desperate circumstances.

Who was abusive? The water protesters or those who smeared them as the source of "death threats" on the basis of an anonymous phone call?

Abuse is offensive, it can be damaging, and politicians are as entitled as anyone else to protection from substantial threats. But every grunt of an eejit need not be a cause of alarm.

Anyway, a recent anonymous note cheered me greatly. The note began, "Hello Bastard", and ended with, "Kerrigan, would you now kindly fuck off?"

I will, indeed.

Sunday Independent

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