Friday, 16 November 2012

The fear of protesting

An excellent article by Emer O'Toole in the Guardian about the Savita case finishes with this:

To her family, I want to say: I am ashamed, I am culpable, and I am sorry. For every letter to my local politician I didn't write, for every protest I didn't join, for keeping quiet about abortion rights in the company of conservative relations and friends, for becoming complacent, for thinking that Ireland was changing, for not working hard enough to secure that change, for failing to create a society in which your wife, your daughter, your sister was able to access the care that she needed: I am sorry. You must think that we are barbarians.

Anyone who is serious about social change in Ireland has met with the reverse of this honesty again and again: the implication that there is something wrong with "protest", "going on the streets", "rent-a-mob", "loud voices", "unrest" and so on. What these kinds of criticisms suggest is that publicly making your views known, challenging injustice, attempting to take action, actively participating in democracy are bad things. It is often not very clear what is felt to be good. 

Some people, no doubt, would prefer all power to rest with the government except at election time, so that we can exercise a very general choice (usually between near-identical alternatives) once every few years. Others, it seems, are happy with a world of "opinion" on chat-shows, opinion columns and boards so long as everyone remains quietly in their houses. Others again feel that people like them can exercise all the influence they need, in a telling phrase, "from inside the tent pissing out" (on the rest of us, presumably).

But what we have seen on this issue is how little any of this works in practice. The public argument over abortion was won twenty years ago, when the normal operation of the institutions placed a vulnerable young woman in an impossible situation (she, thankfully, survived the experience). The spontaneous popular response, then as now, was to go on the streets; and that public outrage turned into the 1992 referenda.

Having exercised our popular vote, successive governments have refused to act on that decision for the past twenty years (even while insisting, for example, that it was urgent to legislate against blasphemy a couple of years back for constitutional reasons). As this press release highlights, the mainstream political parties blocked an independent bill on the subject earlier this year. Meanwhile, policy has continued to be made in practice by the Irish Medical Organisation and the religiously-defined ethics boards of Irish hospitals (despite this disingenuous article). This is, as one of the people who condemned Savita to death reportedly said, "a Catholic country".

Emer O'Toole's article asks an important question: given the importance of "ethics" and "morality", what precisely are the ethics of failing to act in response to injustice, of defending the status quo no matter what the cost for vulnerable human beings, of being too afraid that your family or neighbours might notice you having a real principle or taking action to stand up for other human beings in need

What is the right word for talking about how concerned you are about something while not only failing to take action but letting institutional loyalties dictate what you actually do on the job - as a doctor "just applying rules", a TD "following the party whip", a guard "enforcing the law", or a bureaucrat "assessing your case"? And precisely what gives people whose lives are marked by moral cowardice and hypocrisy the right to judge those who actually attempt to make a difference?

Change for the better in this country has not come from keeping your head down, making the right noises, and following the rules. It has come from active democracy - people going on the streets, disrupting injustice, challenging and breaking unjust laws, supporting the vulnerable, speaking out, organising, publishing outside the mainstream, mobilising, dissenting, developing radical education projects, and developing mass popular action for real equality and a more decent, humane, adult society.