Presidential candidate Peter Casey became the talking-point of media pundits and ordinary citizens alike across the country when he depicted Irish travellers as people “camping on someone else’s land,” criticized a particular travelling community for refusing publicly-funded housing, and suggested that travellers benefited from state support without paying their fair share of taxes.
Apparently Casey’s remarks about travellers struck a chord with many voters, winning him an extraordinary electoral surge in the closing weeks of the campaign. From a starting position of 2%, he eventually secured the endorsement of nearly one in four voters. This is an extraordinary electoral surge by any reckoning, and surely demands an explanation.
One interpretation is that Casey tapped into the latent racism of Irish voters, bringing out their deep-seated prejudices against minority groups. But this interpretation seems just as problematic as Casey’s own generalisations about travellers. We should not be quick to assume the worst of voters, whose motives are usually more complex than analysts would like to think.
Though it is theoretically possible that all of Casey’s voters harboured arbitrary prejudices against members of the travelling community, it is likely that many voted for Casey out of a sense of relief that someone had finally brought into the open, albeit crudely, an issue that liberal politically correct Ireland just didn’t want to talk about in public: the longstanding grievances of settled people against travelling communities.
It may well be that Casey’s ‘straight talk’ about travellers proved cathartic for voters who had had quite enough of a PC culture that converts negative discourse about minority groups into a mortal sin, effectively exempting such groups from the heat of public criticism.
Now, advocates of travellers’ rights might argue that the powerful taboo surrounding criticism of travellers is necessary to overcome deep-seated prejudices. There is indeed some truth to this. Political correctness may, at least for a while, shame people into cleansing their language of knee-jerk prejudices against minority communities. However, in the long run, cross-community tensions are unlikely to be resolved by dressing up our language in its Sunday best.
Discourse surrounding relations between travellers and settled people is a case in point. If there was a time when the public airing of grievances against travellers was par for the course, the pendulum has now swung the other way, and it is difficult to air honest criticisms of travelling communities without being pegged as backward and intolerant.
The dominant narrative suggests that travellers are the victims of age-old prejudices, and that any criticism of them must be a product of racism, and can thus be safely dismissed out of hand.
Now, few would deny that travellers have suffered from some arbitrary prejudices and discrimination in Irish society. But it seems like more than a stretch to automatically equate criticism of the behaviour of travellers with the perpetuation of those prejudices.
Let me be clear: I am not suggesting that we should all stay quiet while someone mouths off ignorant and offensive statements about minority groups. However, there is a problem when the values of tolerance and non-discrimination are used to shut down frank and robust debate just because the behaviour of certain groups comes in for criticism.
The old meaning of tolerance – refraining from actively persecuting or proscribing persons and groups whose lifestyle or attitudes one disapproves of – has morphed into a new idea of tolerance – refraining from publicly criticizing the lifestyle, choices, or beliefs of the members of this or that religious, ethnic, or cultural group.
According to the old idea of tolerance, living and letting live was considered a virtue and necessity of a functional social order. According to the new idea of tolerance, living and letting live is not enough: any verbal criticism of a particular social group – except, perhaps, those that are “fair game” for public criticism, such as the Catholic Church – is deemed discriminatory and oppressive.
This new conception of tolerance, currently in vogue among those who consider themselves liberal and progressive, creates a society in which members of different social, cultural, and religious groups are constantly walking on eggshells and unwilling to publicly discuss inter-group tensions, even if those tensions are privately acknowledged by all parties involved. Thus, ironically, progressive tolerance as currently understood is the enemy of rational social progress.
Peter Casey is no model of sophisticated cross-community dialogue. His crude characterisation of the travelling community as “basically people camping on someone else’s land,” is unlikely to improve relations between travellers and settled people. Furthermore, his controversial statements, however well-intentioned, may well reinforce some people’s arbitrary prejudices against travellers.
Nonetheless, I am willing to bet that many of his voters were simply relieved that somebody had finally broken the public silence surrounding tensions between travellers and settled folk, and openly confronted a social problem that others were just as happy to skirt around with bland, politically correct appeals to tolerance and non-discrimination.
David Thunder is a researcher and lecturer at the University of Navarra’s Institute for Culture and Society in Pamplona, Spain. He is author of Citizenship and the Pursuit of the Worthy Life (Cambridge University Press, 2014). Twitter: @davidjthunder