By Eithne Hogan
One of the best quotes I read that has remained with me over time is the following by Toni Morrison:
“Definitions belong to the definers, not the defined”.
Over the last few months, I have read many personal stories of people in society and particularly in Ireland, living with some form of stigma or stereotypical judgement of them by the powers that be and also by voices in collusion that have been inculcated and nurtured by these misinformed beliefs and at times skewed perceptions of reality.
Some examples of ill-used and abused blanket statement definitions and misinformation I have seen are:
Lone or Single Parents defined as ‘promiscuous sycophants, sucking the state dry of hard-earned tax-payer’s money’ among other cruel and denigrating stereotypical insults of these parents, their motives for becoming parents and their parenting abilities and competences.
Homeless people defined and portrayed as criminals, impossibly behaved runaways, winos, drug-addicts, self-created no-hopers and alcoholics.
People evicted from their homes presented as ‘not being on top of things’, poor managers, naïve risk-takers, responsibility shirkers, social over-reachers and essentially being the creators of their own inevitable demise.
Water Protesters defined as criminals, thugs, fascists, free-loaders, lazy, loud, beer-guzzling cigarette smokers, potentially murderous and altogether dangerous or sinister.
And the list goes mercilessly and judgmentally on…
But who owns the definitions in our country or society?
EXAMPLE: THE WATER PROTEST MOVEMENT AND THE BATTLE FOR DEFINITIONS.
All of the people cited above are targets of this misinformation and abuse but in order to focus a discussion, I will select just one grouping and some actions of this grouping over the last year. Obviously this is not to reduce the horrific nature or abuse of anyone cited in the above listing. But some of those aggrieved will also be participants in the protest movement I am sampling so they could be doubly or trebly classified.
It is not so long ago that Leo Varadker’s condemnation of a small few protesters became enshrined in the minds of the entire populace [Nov 2014]:
“I worry from a society point of view and from being a citizen of this country about the motives of a very very very small quantity of those people. I believe there is a fringe out there who are using genuine people, genuine protesters for other political ambitions and it is sinister…and that would be the feeling of people inside and outside politics.”
This very very very small quantity of people, Varadker would believe infiltrate authentic protest and albeit a marginal number, they behave aggressively and in a counter-productive manner to real protest. His definition and description of thuggishness is directed toward the few disingenuous but perceived sinister fringe in the protest movement. The protesters response to this condemnation varied from humour to outrage and ridicule in further statements and in further local and national marches, as they held banners with ‘fringes’ and conveyed fringe comments and spoke to each other discussing counter claims against this sinister fringe accusation. At the time of Varadker’s pronouncements, his statements were counteracted by AAA Councillor Michael O’Brien as “a desperate attempt by the Minister to try to discredit the anti-water charge movement and to cover up for the thuggish behaviour of the Gardaí”. That was back in early November 2014.
Since then, the power struggle over the actions and the language of protest has been vociferously contested. And since then, we have heard Ms Burton add in the phrase ‘malicious thuggery’ and completely upping the ante condemn 1 July’s protest at the Dáil as a “disgrace” and an attack on democratic freedom. Now there is the ultimate use of sophistry and inversion, whereby the fight for democratic freedom turns in on itself and becomes an attack on exactly what it purports to challenge and struggle for. The context of this fallacious denunciation occurred back in July when “Former Justice Minister Alan Shatter’s car was surrounded by a number of protesters and another member of parliament was unable to leave to attend a prior arranged medical appointment.”
In the aftermath of a sit-down protest and blockade and outbursts of disruption, Burton added: “Let’s be very clear, in this country we value the right to protest, and it’s something that we cherish – and that is people’s right. But, to be honest, it has to be balanced by concern for other people who also have rights.” Counter arguments directed at the behaviour of the police were pooh-poohed as nonsense and sensationalism across main-stream media and were exemplified when Alan Shatter in an interview on Newstalk dismissed this claim of garda provocation and abuse additionally raising the bar of verbal onslaught to indict some protesters as demonstrators of ‘fascist thuggery’. And here we meet it, condemnation and indictment on a rising scale.
The countervailing force: Social media videos blur this easy and simplistic indictment. Moreover, and I’m sure you’d agree if you’ve watched or witnessed protests outside of Ireland; on a scale of explicit violence and viciousness where protests of heightened tension and emotion can lead to indisputable and brutal clashes between citizenry and state forces, thankfully Ireland is very low down if non-existent on the brutality scale. That view of course, depending upon the focal point at which your camera lens is pointing. But the portrayal of descent from our state’s tailored definition and envisagement of chaotic brutality and criminality of protesters is disproportionately ambiguous in comparison with protests of other countries. In all the coverage I’ve seen in the Irish instances, I have always heard calls to peace and back down from most if not all protesters and tension has quickly dissipated and voices quietened. In fact, some of our national protest marches have been positively compared to the feeling of celebration in the festivities of the St Patrick’s Day parade. With the chanting, festive atmosphere and yearning optimism directed to a different cause of course than current celebration of national glory or reason for patriotic praise.
This by some may be judged to be blasphemous activity and an insulting comparison. In gatherings of anything up to and over 100,000 people, there have been very few arrests and these of minor incident. Arrests have happened however at water-meter protests and other rallies. Extra security has been put in place at these protests and garda presence has also grown. Water meters have been magically removed by fairies, lost, misplaced or redirected to new homes. Humour and ‘mischief’ is mingled and mixed with injunctions, heavy-handedness, loud and contentious debate and the physical removal and detainment of protestors – one whom I recall had even asked her friendly neighbour to put out her washing as she’d be back in half an hour. Not exactly a scene from Armageddon. I shall come back to this meter installation procedure later. Let’s leave the box ticking…
A blogger on Quora expressed his interpretation of protest in this way: “Nonviolent protests on the other hand are slow to achieve their goals, but are far more constructive and dead effective. People can continue with their daily chores, and still be part of the movement in their individual capacities as unlike any violent protest, they don’t have to throw themselves in completely. The government of the day has no other option but to listen to the people – as they can’t resort to violence. Even if they do, it will disenchant more and more people in the society; making the movement stronger. The people have no animosity and anger as their fighting is for a cause – and not against anybody. Struggles make the generations of society stronger and with fire in their hearts for change.
End never justifies means. For any society, fighting for a cause – nonviolent protests are much more beneficial. We have numerous examples in front of us- whether the protest against the British colonization in India, or the struggles of MLK, or the protests against apartheid in South Africa. Most cases lead to sympathy for the cause, and rather permanent solutions to the issues.”
As the blogger asserts, even if the government themselves resort to violence or encourage it in their policing arm; the only achievement is to make the movement stronger. And where the government doesn’t listen to the people, that is, effectively listen and take action on what they hear, the state-created descent into tension becomes potentially greater as this is viewed as the ultimate denial of democratic freedom and betrayal of governmental responsibility and duty. Emotions will rise. Anger toward the current system will become more justifiable as corruption after corruption and deception after deception is revealed – with little or no signs of accountability or consequence. And ministers and representatives of this corruption will receive the backlash of this frustrated anger and grievance, especially and most pertinently if the protesters are constantly ignored or dismissed as irrelevant hindrance and obstruction like a fly on the nose of the government’s proceedings. Added to this feeling are the harsh realities of a system and economy where inequality with all of its ugly attributes are embedded and engrained in the lives of the Irish people, especially since the recession with its austerity. Insult is added to injury, where the fate and impact of this reality is largely dismissed, diluted or downright ignored.
Using the above example of the water protest movement now is a good time to repeat my quote: “Definitions belong to the definers, not the defined”. And in the very act and ownership of these definitions, fuelled and pushed by the weighted force of state-guided or biased media as incontestable and given facts; if you were asked for your selection in this ‘battle’, who would you place on the side of the offensive and who would you position on the defence? Just a question…
With a second question: Even if this contest of will, push for change, or display of grievance is more complex and sophisticated than the outcome of such a straightforward divide as I have presented; and positions shift and slide between offence and defence; who is it that owns the power to define the on-going state of game with an armoury of supports, think tanks, strategists and even propagandist machinery? Is it the state? Is it the people/citizens?
In our current form of representative democracy, regular people in society hold limited resource to channels of power and are excluded from real forums for enacting change or voicing concerns in society. In this new paradigm, when people fully recognise the make-up of a party with the power of the party whip, or the structure of a governmental agency or institution with its pyramidal rise to significance of voice and power or its hand-selected people and opinions pushing the desired agenda; the government need to wake up and smell the coffee. Ireland is not in the backward arse of nowhere. And people acutely identify the system and its structures and know with their intuition and intellect, the balance of power is rigged. This is not a mystery. There isn’t even an attempt to hide it anymore.
So who owns the definitions in our country and in our society?
THE CURIOUS CASE OF THE JOBSTOWN 23
The revisiting of what is now known as “The Jobstown 23” incident has brought the definition of protest and more so the question and definition of acceptable protest into frame. And we have moved deeper into our indictment of protest in its totality. In the intervening months, since early November 2014, no longer is it implied that the problem solely lies in the motives of a very very very small quantity of those people involved in Varadker’s definition of unwanted and dangerous protest. The definition of this malpractice is now encompassing the entire set of people involved in the protest movement. The definition has broadened and escalated. Is this entire practice of protest now an unwanted stain and blemish on the pristine world of the bleached white sheet of Irish political activity? Or has the government, and state organs, including the legal system, dug us – its citizenry – into the trenches of what is regarded as acceptable and unacceptable protest in society – in our very thoughts and in our actions.
The state is generating this entrenchment by utilising the fear of arrest, imprisonment and more moderately fuelling the disparaging and repulsed remarks of the state-defined respectable and dignified elements of our society toward their neighbours and friends participation in protest. How? Because an act of severed non-communication and non-committal to the people’s voice and will has been committed. How? Because there is disconnect between the state and its citizens. How? Because combined with disconnection there are serious attempts of division and fragmentation between the populace at large around the definition of protest. Can this directed and intended act of severance and fracture be defined as an act of psychological and even physical violence on behalf of the state? Is this what we’ve come to regard as modern day structural violence? Has Ireland’s current political system become just one more system embedded in the global neo-liberal construct of both behavioural and structural violence?
“Structural violence is one way of describing social arrangements that put individuals and populations in harm’s way… The arrangements are structural because they are embedded in the political and economic organization of our social world; they are violent because they cause injury to people … neither culture nor pure individual will is at fault; rather, historically given (and often economically driven) processes and forces conspire to constrain individual agency. Structural violence is visited upon all those whose social status denies them access to the fruits of scientific and social progress.” [Adam Burtle]
Structural violence can almost seem invisible. But it is there. And even though there are theoretical and legal debates discussing the correct accounting of culpability, whether it lies with the individual will or is a symptom and outcome of the structure; it can at least be stated that the economic and monetary arrangement of our social world has inculcated and given birth to degenerate human action. Subjectively speaking, I cannot say I have reached a definitive agreement to this specific worldview yet. Since the placement of culpability is where I’m currently mired and mentally logically processing. But questions and methods of understanding the world and society still need addressing and sure you could be working through these processes throughout your lifetime without ever reaching a fixed conclusion. Who knows?
So in relation to protest as a manifestation of this structural or behavioural violence, the overarching questions are:
For how much longer will we blur the definitions of protest and will this blurring detract and distract our rulers from the truer vision of what is actually happening in Ireland? Will the government eventually admit to these protests as an effective symptom of a flagrant structural flaw in Ireland’s political process and system?
Consider this: This is where people are left in 2015, in a somewhat advanced and developed democratic nation, with no other recourse but to stand on a little circle of space with the petty but enormously significant word WATER engraved beneath their feet and this ‘indefensible’ act is deemed as a malicious defiance of the democracy in which they participate. Consider this: Where standing on this very very very tiny space has been deemed illegal, maliciously criminal, warrants immediate and humiliating arrest, has produced bizarre injunctions and given rise to false imprisonment and where the tiniest most insignificant area of land permissible that ever existed pre 2014 symbolises and has become the battleground of corporate rule and privatisation versus democratic freedom and human rights. Seriously? Has a so called democracy and battles of liberation within this democracy evolved to this?
Think about it!
“The general aim of social protest and civil disobedience is to express ones political and social thoughts and opinions and effect positive change in our society. These rights, quite simply must be protected by the state. There are occasions when breaking the law may be the only method available to the protester to adequately express his or her conscience. This issue arose in the Australian case of New South Wales District Court, Regina v Kirkwood et al 15th May 2002. In this case, 46 Greenpeace activists had deliberately broken the law, by invading a nuclear power plant, with the intention of highlighting the inadequate security at the plant. It was accepted by the presiding judge, that the objectives and motives of the protesters could not be achieved by demonstrating at the front gate. Their actions were necessary to demonstrate in graphic terms the woeful security at the plant, despite committing the crime of trespass. Thus, in the arena of civil disobedience, the end may in certain circumstances, legally justify the means.” [John O’ Shea. Human Rights in Ireland.]
There are many other more recent examples. But I’ve specifically chosen this. Although Smart meters are not akin to nuclear power and the example appears grossly imbalanced and irrational; I would advise anyone reading this to research in exactitude the scientific discovery of what the technology used in smart meters is capable of and permits. Analyse the harmful and dangerous effects of these meters and reread the last sentence of the above quote again. These protesters have carried out their research. It is not exclusively the privatisation of water that they are battling against. It is for the health of themselves, their families, their children and their grandchildren. The issue of this technology and its use, especially in the countries that ban these meters, is met with convenient state silence in this struggle and in the Irish context and media. Obviously, there are two sides to every story. Make your mind up on that one. But make it up with objective research.
ONE OUTLINE OF THE AFTERMATH OF THE JOBSTOWN INCIDENT IS AS FOLLOWS:
“Ms Burton met with Gardai following the incident on 15 November, and provided them with her version of events in an hour-long interview. She previously said she saw Mr Murphy at the event, who was “ecstatic” and “grinning from ear to ear, like a child.”
Video footage emerged showing the Tánaiste being hit by a water balloon and being forced to sit in a car for nearly two hours as up to 100 protesters blocked the road.
She was eventually transferred to a different car by gardaí before she managed to leave the area.”
An aspect of Paul Murphy’s more recent response to the alleged leaking of the charges before he knew of them personally, included the words:
“It is absolutely farcical to suggest that false imprisonment took place. It stretches the definition of false imprisonment beyond all recognition. This is clearly an attack on the right to protest.”
So here we are back at the cutting edge of who owns the definitions in Irish society, and of what action defines criminality or expresses peaceful assembly. Here we watch the jagged edge of the knife, held by our definers, measuring and slicing the margins and boundaries between ownership and power and dividing out what remains to the masses – if anything – or fobbing us off by telling us what remains is really being held for us in trust… So we may never be given a generous helping of cake.
Because although what happened in Jobstown is clearly within the sphere of human action and firmly in the context of physical and psychological human interaction in society and among real live people in the now tentative frame of social and political unrest, heightened dissatisfaction and conflict; now and in the future we’ll condemn, classify, condone and testify through the channel and application of words, verbal constructs and linguistic definitions in this ‘legal’ case as we do with any other event that occurs within our worldly experience.
True. We must have our laws and our legal constructs. Since that is what our current society is built on and cemented with. And this discussion is not about the necessity of law or the need for eradication of crime. Our law, our Irish law is what we’re currently working with and are given to live with on this land and in this jurisdiction. [In theory that is- alongside international law.] True. I can see why there are checks and balances required. And true, I would hold that this particular balance should squarely stand on the scales of justice between the right to protest and constitutional right to peaceful assembly and freedom of speech with all that lies therein and the right to not be hit by a water balloon and be forced to sit in your car for an extended period of time without your granted permission and all that that entails therein.
All of this balancing and counter-balancing will be determined in probably more than one instance by ‘The Non-Fatal Offences Against the Person Act, 1997’ resident in the Irish Statute Book, produced by the Office of the Attorney General, and ultimately imprisoned in the Irish legal system for almost 30 years now. A system where the language of law, just as it is with any other vocabulary or language open to interpretation, is steeped in the simmering but sophisticated coddle of legal semantics. After all, we are not dealing with a linguistic phenomenon. It will be the job of a lawyer to propose a legal analysis for a set of facts, where he/she intend to account for those facts within the context of a general body of law. It sounds like a very straightforward process.
But from the specific scales that I outlined above, I’m getting increasingly fleeting images here of a tightrope walker walking the morality walk above the wonderful world of Disney on one side and ever-descending governmental shift into the portrayal of social protest as nothing short of treasonous and murderous annihilation of our democratic state on the other. That is, if we continue to leave these definitions of our words and actions in the mouths and hands of the definers.
In the aftermath of these analyses; we will meet judge and we will meet jury. But the question still remains:
Who OWNS these definitions in our society?
Who writes these laws?
Who presents this news?
Who constructs our social reality?
Who educates our children?
Who imposes our interpretations?
Who OWNS these definitions?
WHO owns these definitions?
Who owns these DEFINITIONS?
Well, up until the latter years, primarily those who held ownership of the media and radio and any active form of public communication system combined with those who hold ownership of the education system and select the syllabi and the textbooks in use therein. The quote I’m discussing about definitions is reminiscent of the saying that “History is written by the victors”. But this ownership is not black and white in the same way history is not ONLY written by the victors. No more than is the difference between black and white a clearly defined construct and polarity, when used in relation to reality and life. As well as this, we all know, pardon the formidable pun, that there are many shades of grey out there. Even if, we choose to ignore or deny many of them exist.
There are shades and subtleties and nuances in this heterogeneous and fluid world. And in the struggle for power and systems of rule and even in ownership and territoriality, there are a myriad of voices; some in discord, some contending, and some in unity and solid, immovable solidarity. These voices and words must not be underestimated since the manipulation of our reality is constantly being influenced by words, untrue principles, twisted policies and irrational logic. This so-called logic is overridden by the necessity of fear and the need to continually generate fear, presenting this fear as part of the natural world in which we live; taking for example the now accepted state and concept of anxiety and stress. The way we are living in this world of political corruption and destruction is by no account true to the concept and reality of what is natural. Nor can you call the problems or consequences produced by this state-sponsored myth ‘natural’ occurrences. Social and political constructs are man-made realities. If our reality changes so too do the outcomes. If our world is more fair and just and our social and political constructs and global systems just; well then the people living in them will be more well and healthy. Malicious dissent would be a worry of the past.
Overall, we are now identifying and seeing that reality is a force and changeable entity and it has been evidenced by people assertively standing up for themselves and speaking back in their struggle. “Be the change and the world around you will also change”. That message is being adhered to and I’ve heard so many people agree with it, especially across social media. People are now refusing to be influenced by the words that seek to sway and control them. They have listened to the language of ‘mystical’ spin and/or governmental alluring sound-bites; that they were previously seduced by or sucked into. People and families and communities, strengthening and growing in numbers and voices by the day are demanding just, fair, real and equal participation in the country and world they live in.
The words justice, fairness and equality are not and should never be a simple tool for manipulation or fodder for craftily carved out sound-bites.
The homeless, the ruthlessly evicted, the abandoned, the forgotten, the deprived and the ridiculed, the forced emigrants, the working poor, the huge numbers of over-burdened, the young and the old, frail and weak and elderly, cared for and caring, will all speak out. They are talking already. And their voices are loud. And they will not be quietened or soothed by the usual pacifiers from the perspective of the controllers, governmental and otherwise; and from the vocabulary of their think tanks or sophists. Because the dummy has fallen out of the pram and it cannot and will not be replaced.
The people have awoken. And they are effectively in control of their words.