In response to the comments raised by the Minister for the Diaspora and International Development regarding John Waters’ speech at the University of Notre Dame, Hugh Treacy takes to task the ever-increasing “feelings based” censorship.

John Waters has been through many a battle in the last few years, but even the veteran journalist could be forgiven for being taken aback at the latest attack against him. No less than a government minister, Ciarán Cannon, decided the world should know of his displeasure that Waters was about to speak his mind in public. Issuing a press release, the Minister for the Diaspora and International Development took Indiana’s world-famous University of Notre Dame to task for allowing John Waters to take part in a November panel discussion, with a contribution entitled: ‘When Evil Becomes Virtual: Cyberspace, Failing Media, and the Hoax of the Holocaust of Tuam.’

“I’m deeply disappointed that a seat of learning as respected as the University of Notre Dame would host such an event,” said Mr. Cannon.

And so the extraordinary situation transpired that a member of the Irish government was openly criticising a university in another country for allowing an Irish citizen the freedom to speak in public.

Needless to say, the catalyst for Cannon’s intervention was a controversy involving the Catholic Church and Ireland’s past – the so-called Tuam Babies’ story – where a local historian had painstakingly researched the death certificates of up to 700 children in the care of a nun-run children’s’ home who had died over a period of many decades, but had no marked place of burial. The suspicion being that the remains had been disposed in an inappropriate and disrespectful manner.

Cannon, as he later said, had no knowledge of the specific content of the address that Waters was to give at Notre Dame, but was reacting to its title, especially the word ‘hoax,’ which he saw as “hurtful” to the former residents of the home. In response, the university said that a moderator would be challenging Waters’ argument on the night and added: “We have every expectation that Mr. Waters’ session will be spirited and characterised by civil and thoughtful engagement.”

As it turned out, Waters’ main interest was in the hysterical reaction to the initial reports about the Tuam story and made no criticism of anyone else. But as far as the Irish establishment in the shape of a government minister was concerned, an opinion that did not comply with the dominant narrative on Tuam should automatically be ‘no-platformed,’ whether in this country or anywhere else.

It was an extraordinary turnaround for the last leader of the avowedly libertarian Progressive Democrats to be demanding censorship for views with which he disagreed, or to prevent even the possibility of such views being expressed, but this was the Minister’s position.

Cannon’s action raises the question of how much we can rely on our right to free speech, in a time where the feelings of other people are being given a de facto equality with the liberty to voice an opinion and even a veto on such expression.

This is a rather pressing matter, in that justified criticism of certain cultural practices seen as contrary to the values of this country could be suppressed if characterised as hurtful, or more chillingly, “hateful”. Indeed, from parliamentary debates to newspaper headlines, the term ‘hate speech’ is being used as if it were as self-evident as the days of the week, despite having no accepted legal definition and being spectacularly subjective as a term of accusation.

It is also, perhaps, no surprise that John Waters is so often in the sights of those who demand a grim, PC conformity in publicly expressed opinion, as he is one of the few Irish public figures still willing to question and defy the progressive consensus on social matters and the cultural revolution against Catholic Ireland.

It’s also legitimate to wonder how deep into society the ‘chilling’ effect of these public condemnations of free speech have gone. For what Ciaran Cannon was doing in his denunciation of Notre Dame’s hosting of Waters was an attempt to shame them into self-censorship – the preferred solution of those who are essentially powerless to act in any legal sense, but have the notoriety or position to have their views extensively reported in the media.

As with the many other examples of no-platforming around the Western World, the attempted silencing of Waters relied on the assumption of a shared revulsion at an unorthodox opinion, or a discussion, that might be distressing to a group that had been designated as vulnerable by influential opinion-leaders. That members of that group might object to being so patronised and robbed of agency is a possibility seldom considered.

Would there, for example, have been more public opposition to the introduction of gender-ideology into the school curriculum, if people were not aware that a backlash of repression towards any scepticism, in both mainstream and social media, was as good as certain? The inclination, surely, would be to remain silent and preserve one’s good name from being associated with the many slurs reserved for those of even the most moderately conservative views.

Yet perhaps the prospects for continued freedom of speech are not as dark as we might have feared. Notre Dame University, after all, did not disinvite John Waters from participating in their event, and his comments were duly delivered. There were still enough people dedicated to “civil and thoughtful engagement,” as Notre Dame put it, to prevail, in this case, against the politics of outrage and condemnation.

As for John Waters, he may feel like echoing the liberty-loving, 18th Century MP, John Wilkes, who, on being asked by a French lady how far liberty of the press extended in Britain, replied: “That, madam, is what I am trying to find out.”

Posted by Hugh Treacy