George Orwell’s classic novel 1984 paints a dystopian picture where society is tyrannised by means of public mind control. Individuality and independent-thinking are prosecuted as thoughtcrimes.
We haven’t quite reached 1984 proportions in Ireland, but the current debate around whether to permit abortion or not has a certain Orwellian feel to it. Views which differ from the prevailing political wisdom are considered unspeakable. People who dare to dissent from the conventional wisdom of 2013 Ireland are variously considered mad, bad or stupid.
In political discourse in Ireland in 2013, behaviour that would be considered boorish and ungallant in other mature democracies is lauded and envied. Take Senator John Crown, for example, who spent the Oireachtas hearings on abortion posting smart-alecky remarks on Twitter. When Caroline Simons from the Pro-Life Campaign (PLC) mentioned the fact that Senator Crown was engaging in this rather than paying attention to the submissions being made to the committee, he simply took to his feet and walked out of the Seanad chamber.
Similarly, Senator Crown had earlier posted a message during the evidence of Bishop Christopher Jones stating “Every time they speak, I lapse a little more”. This behaviour was noted on the RTÉ News by David Davin-Power as a sign of how things have changed in modern Ireland. In what parallel universe is a parliamentarian making derogatory remarks about someone invited to address a parliamentary committee considered progress? Basic manners dictate better behaviour from a child never mind a senator and eminent medical consultant.
The hearings on abortion were also praised for the calmness of the debate. And it’s true that Fine Gael’s Jerry Buttimer did a good job of chairing the proceedings. However, it’s also true that – in a largely unreported outburst – Senator Ivana Bacik indulged in what could only be described as an anti-clerical rant in which she accused Church leaders of hating women. For Ms Bacik, the Church’s teaching on the value of all human life is based on nothing more than hatred of women. Calm? Hardly.
Ms Bacik clearly disagrees with the Catholic view that all human life is sacred and that in pregnancy mothers and their unborn child should have an equal right to life. Can’t she disagree politely, however? A gentleman is one, the old saying goes, who can disagree without being disagreeable. The same surely applies for ladies. Shrill caricatures have no place in mature debates.
It is becoming increasingly difficult in modern Ireland to have a calm and rational debate about things people disagree about. Many Irish people passionately believe that gay couples ought to be allowed to get married, many others believe that marriage should be a unique institution between a man and a woman. This should be a point that people of good faith can legitimately disagree about. It should be something that people can debate passionately about. Sadly, however, it usually descends into name-calling and charges of homophobia. Ironically, it’s usually the people calling for a calm debate that are first to descend into name-calling and vitriol.
The debate around abortion in Ireland has frequently been marked by criticism of what are called ‘pro-life extremists’ without any mention of the fact that there are extremes on both sides. The vile abuse hurled at people willing to speak up in defence of the unborn is evidence of this.
If Ireland in the past was a cold place for people with secular views, Ireland in 2013 is fast-becoming the 1950s-in-reverse. What do I mean by this? Well, it’s often the self-described progressives who are shouting down those who dissent from the conventional wisdom or from what Orwell might have described as the “acceptable” view. Debate is closed down immediately: people with a contrary view don’t have a right to be heard. This is magnified if the person holding that view happens to be religious or, Heaven forbid, an ordained member of the Catholic Church. Bishops, we are told, ought not to dictate to politicians. But who is talking about dictating? The Church seeks nothing more than the same liberty as every other group in society: to propose what it believes to be in the interests of the common good. How is it that when the Church offers a view it is ‘dictating’ but trade unions and employer organisations regularly tell the Government what to do and everyone accepts it as a normal part of the democratic decision-making process?
Of course, Church leaders are right to speak out about such a foundational value and they deserve credit. Irish bishops have been heavily criticised in recent decades – including by myself – for their very public failings. When they speak with courage and clarity on an issue they deserve our encouragement and affirmation.
Too often in our political discourse reasonable voices are shouted down by shrill opponents. It’s not a sign of maturity when some voices are silenced or bullied out of the public sphere. It’s a sign of true maturity when our commentariat and political class can manage and encourage a diversity of voices and the necessary – healthy even – tension this causes.