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Taboo is both a product and cause of oppression

On a week in which satire has come to the fore in such a serious way, this piece attempts to address some of the challenges raised by this current discourse.


There was much talk in Ireland over the weekend about a proposed sitcom on the Great Famine, to be launched by Channel 4 this year. The young Irish scriptwriter, Hugh Travers has been in discussion with the British network about the concept for Hungry amid widespread negative reaction back home. More than 30,000 have signed a petition on to have the show pulled, with historian Tim Pat Coogan comparing the idea to mocking the Holocaust. Others referenced the impropriety of a British network broadcasting such a programme given the pernicious role British officials played in exacerbating conditions in 1840s Ireland.

Let’s look at the cultural legacy of the Great Hunger for a minute. Undoubtedly, the British application of laissez-faire economics in seeking profit from Irish foodstuffs when the population couldn’t sustain itself should never be forgotten. It is perhaps the most shameful chapter of British history and appears to be taught insufficiently in schools there (as an aside, a TV programme – even a sitcom – on this subject will undoubtedly facilitate greater understanding of Irish history among Britons). Within Ireland, the societal shock was unprecedented. The loss of over a third of the population (at a conservative estimate) to death and emigration has left many lasting legacies from a constant narrative of exile and victimisation to a lower population density that has persisted to this day.

One significant legacy was the consolidation of the powerful position of the Catholic Church in post-Famine Ireland. The British government had allowed Church involvement in education since the 1830s but after the Famine this was widely expanded. In parallel with highly conservative mores of Victorian Britain, the Church set about deepening institutional religious devotion in Ireland in a mould of Victorian (dare I say, Puritan?) respectability. There was a subtext to this that the Famine had been a societal punishment for sins of the past, for promiscuity, drunkenness and an indulgence of quasi-pagan ‘folk religion’ among Irish Catholics. Consolidation would continue until independence, when the Church could expand its influence further, exerting phenomenal influence on the new State.

During this time, a culture of taboo developed wherein clergy became very adept at telling people what not to do. You can’t have sex outside marriage. Women can’t have bodily autonomy. The State can’t build secular schools or healthcare systems. You can’t read Nineteen Eighty-Four or watch Dr Zhivago. The culture of taboo entered secular discourse too as it became almost impossible to question the orthodoxies of the founders of the State. This led Edna Longley – another occasionally banned author – to write “Sanctified histories are Ireland’s version of Marxist-Leninism, all the more insidious because their roots go deeper.”

So coming back to satire, we can see that a pernicious colonial legacy has led Irish people to oppress one another in espousing a culture of taboo. This must be part of the thinking of those who called for Hungry to be banned but we’ve been here before. As pointed out in student website, people were baying for blood at the thought of lampooning three Catholic priests on an island but it turned out to be arguably Ireland’s greatest ridiculous comic masterpiece. There was an element of “what will the neighbours think” to this as people didn’t like the idea of indulging British stereotypes of the Irish. However, as Blind Boy Boat Club pointed out when the Rubber Bandits were under attack from boring killjoys over their song “Horse Outside”, Father Ted revolutionised British attitudes towards Irish people precisely because it made those stereotypes so laughable. Indeed, it showed a growing maturity in Ireland as a society that learned to laugh at itself.

But it’s been a tragic week for satire. Yesterday saw a vicious attack on press freedom as the forces of reaction launched an attack on the staff of Charlie Hebdo. This magazine is not to my personal tastes as I see satire at its finest when directed upwards towards positions of power and not towards minorities from the former colonies of a powerful country. Still, France has a robust satirical tradition and the point has been made that Charlie Hebdo does not discriminate when it comes to targets and that it has lampooned the French Establishment in greater measure. Even if one takes offence to a particular article or cartoon, or finds them irresponsible, there can be no rational reason for such cold, calculated murder other than to impose taboos and strictures anathema to a free society and to foment divisions within that society. The maintenance of that free society will also be contingent on France upholding its Enlightenment values and not sinking into an Islamophobic mess led by Marine Le Pen and her ilk. The Norwegian reaction to the terrorist attack by white supremacist Anders Behring Breivik was an example for all free thinking democrats to follow.

Still many will ask where should we draw the line in a liberal democracy that respects pluralism and rejects hate speech. If the French suppress Charlie Hebdo or the Irish suppress Hungry on the basis of those who take easy offence what comes next? Was the Russian government justified in jailing Pussy Riot for causing offence to the Orthodox Church? Was it fair enough for the Ayatollah Khomeini to issue a fatwa against Salman Rushdie over his book The Satanic Verses? Ultimately, a taboo moves from being a reaction to alienation among the ridiculed to an instrument of oppression and hubris when power changes hands. At risk of sounding like a slippery slope argument, yesterday’s censorship boards are today’s attempts to prevent a young writer from releasing his work. Yesterday’s sanctified history is today’s attempt to reassert a theocratic and authoritarian worldview. It’s hard to have it both ways. Most want to identify both with free expression and the responsibility to use free speech in a spirit of common decency and responsibility.  Yet if you think that suppressing a sitcom like Hungry will come to any good or if you propose a nasty, elitist and aggressive reaction to those horrific attacks in Paris, t’es pas Charlie.


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