Less about the world, more about me.

Year: 2021

Language and Empathy

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

I write to explain me, to me. The role of the reader is to keep me coherent and consistent as I explore my evolving values. And I’m prefacing this blog post because it was a struggle to write it. I am clear about the right and the wrong, but the act of writing about this subject is also an act of insertion. I am becoming part of the subject. That’s a little scary in this instance. Again, the right and wrong are clear, my level of hypocrisy in condemning the act, well that is less clear. Brian Leddin TD used sexist and misogynistic language in a WhatsApp group. My instinctive reaction was, what the hell was he doing letting his guard down in a WhatsApp group? You see my problem? 

Recently, Liverpool supporters targeted an opposition player by referencing rent boys. There was a time when I wouldn’t have thought that an issue. I might have joined in. What’s wrong with thousands of men baying at another man that he sells his body to other men for sex? It wouldn’t have occurred to me that in that stadium and watching on TV were members of the LGBTIA+ community, supporting my team, hearing their sexuality being used as a slur. How many supporters of my team, of the game itself, are being traumatised, driven away, lost from what I regard as the ultimate communal experience? 

I understand the cathartic joy in abusive language, the free use of invective, the headiness of unfettered expression. What possible reason could there be for constraint? Yes, this is about political correctness. And the problem with political correctness is that to be understood it requires of people who look like me, some empathy. Being an able-bodied, straight, white, cis man means I never feel denigrated. I’ve no idea what that is like. Even when a Brit says something wholly uninformed about Ireland, I feel nothing. I would need to encounter an Elf or a Vulcan to feel my place in the hierarchy threatened.

Never feeling denigrated is a bloody brilliant place to live. But it means I’ve had to learn empathy as one would learn Latin. I’ve had to try very hard to imagine what it might feel like to exist with worry and concern about how I’ll be treated by family, friends, strangers, society, the law and the state, for simply not being an able-bodied, straight, white, cis man. To imagine words and deeds, encountered daily designed to hurt me, must feel like. To experience systems that seek to keep me from fully participating in and benefiting from those systems. 

I fail that empathy test, a lot. I can imagine Elves and Vulcans easier than I can imagine feeling less than. If I come to write a memoir, the title would be, Opportunities Spurned. Even now, my tenuous grip on the concept was only made possible by a particularly brutal bout of depression I experienced fifteen years ago.

Brian Leddin, a politician I like and support, used words to describe women, which reflect very poorly on him. Yes, I’m being euphemistic. Remember my preface? In the queue of stone casters, I’d necessarily be near the end. But I am here to explore. Using the language of sexism and misogyny is a three-act play. There is the harm caused to the target, there are the values revealed in that unguarded language, and then there is the aftermath. And it is in the aftermath where most of my disappointment lies. There appears to be no understanding of why this was not mere invective, not mere unprofessionalism. There doesn’t seem to be any learning. No attempt at empathy.

There are few politicians in my county of Kerry that I have a good word for. But as I fancy myself a grown-up, a person with some political experience, I try to not lapse into invective. It’s unprofessional and it reflects badly on me. When I do indulge, the words have to pass one test and one test only; do they attack the person’s gender, ethnicity, religion or physical ability. This should not be a difficult bar to clear. But it requires an acceptance and an understanding that the game is rigged in favour of people who look like me. It demands empathy from a class of humans who haven’t had to practise empathy a lot. It means that we who would prefer our society become more equitable, doing or saying nothing to reinforce exclusion. Doing or saying nothing that denigrates those who are already disadvantaged by society.

I have the privilege of not needing to worry about words used about or against me. The only opinion, other than my own, that I choose to worry about is my wife’s. For a long time, I thought that was how everyone lived. I have had to learn that this is only the case for me and people who look like me. I have had to learn that my words matter. I’ve had to learn that anything I do or say that reinforces my privilege is an act of harm. 

Empathy is hard, but not bothering to learn it, is an unconscionable privilege.

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Workers United

Last night I witnessed a marvel. A group of women took on the State. I wish I could say they won. For they did not. They were never going to be allowed that. The forces arrayed against them were vast and implacable. The outcome was never in doubt, but these remarkable women showed up. For 379 nights and 380 days, they showed up. What began as a battle for their rights has become a struggle on behalf of all of us who work.

Just over a year ago, Debenhams declared bankruptcy in Ireland. In a perfectly legal sleight of hand, they continue to exist. One can find them still selling online. Don’t seek them out. They fired their Irish workforce giving the minimum amount of redundancy allowed in Irish law. In the years preceding this, the workers had agreed to reduced terms and conditions to help save the company and in exchange they were promised (and by promised, I mean contracts were signed) four weeks of redundancy payments, if the worst happened. This agreement was not met. The workers began to picket. They did not stop picketing.

KPMG were appointed as liquidators of Debenhams (in Ireland that is, did I mention they still continue to trade?) In a perfectly legal way, the Debenhams workers were to be ignored. Other creditors were given precedence. The stock was to be sold and the workers given nothing. The picket prevented that stock from being moved. For over a year. Regardless of weather and Covid, that stock was not moved. The Government and TDs were lobbied. The Government wrung its hands and bleated about precedents being set. These were mere retail workers and women after all. They posed no threat. KPMG sought and was granted a High Court injunction which compelled the State to put its resources into the hands of KPMG so they could get that stock out of the stores, shipped out of the country and sold.

Last night was the culmination of that unequal struggle. The trucks arrived in Tralee and the Debenhams workers were moved aside by the Gardaí. Lifted, every one of them.

There were tears. Women who had never given cause for Garda notice had hands put upon them. A single act that broke another contract. Told an entire story. You will be screwed by your employer. Abandoned by your Government. Nailed by the courts. And lifted by the Gardaí. Your only means of redress moved and sold elsewhere. A single act to sum up a long betrayal.

There were tears and laughter. A humour that has sustained them for so long. The only rage expressed was for the scabs who facilitated this betrayal. The Gardaí may seek the excuse of, only following orders. But people who pass a picket line for money? Yet those women last night were fighting for them as well. Precarious employment, meaningless contracts, week unions and legally protected greed impacts us all.

This could happen again. Everything done to the Debenhams workers was legal. In response to and inspired by the hundreds of women who put their lives on hold and their safety on the line, Mick Barry TD has moved the Companies (Employees’ Rights in Liquidation) Bill 2021. Follow this link to find the contact details of your TDs. Call, email, write a letter. Take five minutes to honour the sacrifices made on behalf of all us by the brave women in Tralee last night and in Dublin the night before. Turn this into a victory by ensuring this never happens again.

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