WHY is hysteria now our default setting?
Is it the Liveline effect whereby everything on Joe Duffy’s RTÉ show is a ‘disgrace’? Is it the internet and Facebook and Twitter where not having an opinion is not an option and where the opinion better be an extreme one? Is it because every news bulletin has to now be accompanied by input from unknown members of the public?
I ask because this hysteria seems to have long affected Irish politics. From Mary O’Rourke accusing people of economic treason because, rightly as it turned out, they were saying the economy was in a bad way, to Enda Kenny claiming Joan Burton being stuck in her car was ‘kidnapping’, politicians seem to be some of the worst offenders. It is as if public life is now a never-ending tabloid front page.
Leo Varadkar was the latest to play this game when he described people shouting at the President Michael D Higgins in protests over water charges as ‘an attack on the Constitution’. Now what was shouted at the President — remarks over his height and shouts of traitor — were offensive and ludicrous in themselves but for politicians to then respond by upping the ante serves no one well. It merely becomes meaningless.
What words of outrage are then left when something truly befitting the words does happen? What can be said when an air pilot is killed by petrol and a trail of fire when the appropriate words have already been used for things far, far less awful? What would today’s politicians have to say to the Omagh explosion, to the Birmingham Pub Bombings, to Bloody Sunday?
Bertie Ahern infamously said, about those suggesting the economy was in trouble, that he didn’t know why they just didn’t go away and commit suicide. Now Bertie was never going to be outdone in the crass stakes but it just shows where this extreme of opinion and language leads us.
We all say things in the heat of the moment, say things in an argument that we wish we hadn’t said but if the tone of public discourse is set at such a high pitch, true meaning will go missing. The Taoiseach of a country will condemn his critics to suicide because anything else will not be heard above the clamour.
Not so long ago this kind of discourse was the preserve of late-night radio phone-ins, which had a good entertainment value for incoherent and outrageous comment but was not to be taken seriously. Now everything from the day’s weather, code orange alert or code red, to the sports headlines scream at us. Coverage of the Dáil reveals a set of individuals who are perpetually outraged by something or other whilst in effect saying nothing.
The genius of Father Ted’s Down With This Sort of Thing placard now seems to be the set tone for Irish society. So what is stupidly and crudely shouted at the President becomes the news rather than the continuing and principled objection to water charges.
In this way what ends up being debated is the exaggeration, debated in an exaggerated way, rather than the issue itself. So politicians do the round of radio and TV stations either condemning or being asked to condemn what some yahoo bellowed out rather than being asked where they stand and what they think about a fundamental change to the running of Irish society.
The Irish Examiner runs a headline not about the issue, not even about the protests, but about a TD’s response to the words used in the protest and in that way today’s exaggerated headline is a response to yesterday’s exaggerated headline and so it goes on. And as I write this Kerry TD Michael Healy Rae has just said he ‘does not feel sorry for criminals who go home in boxes’ thereby making a headline by upping the outrage ante yet again by saying something that essentially makes no sense whatsoever.
It might be, if you’ll excuse me, something of an exaggeration to make so much of this but it really does seem as if the level of discourse in Irish life is now dictated by those who scream loudest and most bizarrely.
The danger of that then becomes that behind all the noise we miss what is really going on, that we lose sight of what we should have been talking about in the first place. AND THAT IS AN OUTRAGE.