Wednesday 19 June 2019

Nobody's safe when free speech itself is under fire

George Hook being wrong does not automatically make those baying for his blood in retaliation right, writes Eilis O'Hanlon

Broadcaster George Hook. Photo: Mark Condren
Broadcaster George Hook. Photo: Mark Condren

Eilis O'Hanlon

Those who live by the sword die by the sword. George Hook will have known that as well, if not better, than anyone. If your appeal as a broadcaster is a willingness to shout out loud what others are afraid to whisper, there's always the risk of overstepping the mark and saying what you shouldn't have said at all.

His pronouncement two Fridays ago in which he ascribed partial "blame" (his word) to a young woman for her alleged rape in a hotel room, linking it directly to her earlier consensual sex with another man, very much fell into that category. I have a high tolerance for provocative opinions, but I was listening to the show at the time, and my jaw hit the floor. It was immediately obvious that there'd be uproar.

Even now, I struggle to understand why Hook wanted to say it, or thought that he could, or should, get away with it; but it's telling that not a single responsible person has defended what he said.

They've defended his character, as Pat Kenny generously did, and they've defended what they hoped was his true meaning, namely that young women need to be careful about potential danger; but none have defended what he actually did say, because they can't. It was awful.

That, though, is last week's news. This week's news is what happened afterwards, as George was suspended by Newstalk amid gathering turmoil.

To be absolutely clear, everyone who's objected to what Hook said was and is right to do so. If his defenders really believe in free speech, then they must defend his accusers too, because that's also free speech. Sponsors, likewise, can do what they like with their own money. All those calling for his resignation on social media are equally entitled to reject his public apology as inadequate and to call for his firing.

It's still important to reflect on what happened, because those who attacked Hook have not stopped there, but have been casting around greedily for other targets to destroy, invariably alighting on anyone who dares to have conservative values when it comes to sexual behaviour. That's where it gets messy.

Regarding casual sex as immoral or disgusting or dangerous, even thinking less highly of those who do it, however prudishly judgemental that may be, is not the same as condoning rape. Hook's mistake was clumsily conflating the two, and doing so was utterly wrong, as he acknowledged in his on-air apology. He's paying a heavy price in public vilification, and may yet pay a heavier one.

What's scary is that, far from diffusing the anger, the backlash actually increased it, particularly on social media. Getting George was not enough. The ugly mood was: who can we take down next?

There's a psychological experiment in which a group of people are deliberately provoked into anger by being, as they see it, personally criticised. One half of the group is then given a punch bag on which to take out their frustration. The other half just have to sit quietly. Both sets are then asked to play a particular game which tests their levels of aggression.

Conventional wisdom suggests that those who got to strike the punch bag should have released their anger and therefore feel calmer. In fact, the opposite happens. Those who punched the bag are more aggressive afterwards than those who didn't. The act encouraged them to express extreme emotion, and so they went on doing it.

In a sense that's what happens on social media. It's not simply a release for anger, it creates, increases and reinforces it. Nor does it ever really dissipate, it simply finds new targets. It was in full spate this week.

One reason why this phenomenon is becoming more common is that the left has no serious political power anywhere that matters, so political progressives have increasingly concentrated their efforts on a culture war against conservative thought, to a point where the media and universities are dominated by those who all think the same way.

This has intensified the left's intolerance for contrary opinions, which now finds a regular outlet in symbolic witch hunts. One of the few places where they haven't yet won total hegemony is talk radio, particularly in America, where the conservative right has created a foothold from which to challenge the dominance of political correctness. That makes it a prime target for attack. Newstalk isn't really in that vein, but it's all the Irish left have to rail against, so it bears the brunt.

Some on the liberal left finally seem to be fearing the monster they've unleashed. It's a wonder it took them so long to wise up, but one can only pray they keep up this new appetite for self-questioning before their lazy habit of stamping anyone with whom they disagree as "homophobes", "misogynists", "Tories", "Blueshirts" and "Trumpites", is the undoing of us all, themselves included. But best not get one's hopes up. Only a few weeks ago, many of these same people reacted with gleeful vindictiveness when Kevin Myers was fired for far less offensive comments.

What was originally liberating, when suddenly acquiring the power to "punch up" at those stronger and more privileged, is much less admirable when you're part of a powerful mob that is punching down on isolated individuals. How many times can you punch a bully before becoming the bully?

Newstalk is caught in a trap. If it retreats into safe, boring box ticking to avoid offending the terminally offended, then we might all as well just listen to RTE, God help us. On the other hand, if it goes full hog on controversy then it risks crashing and burning in a blaze of glory. There's no right answer, but, as the George Hook controversy steamrollers on into a second week, it feels much better to live in a world in which a radio presenter can say outrageous and hurtful things than it does to live in one where howling mobs hunt and devour recusants.

Sunday Independent

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