There’s always been a curious intersection between comedians and journalists. Comedians will tell you that their routines challenge social norms, unpack the hypocrisies of our politicians, and call to account the powerful amongst us who insist on imposing their view of life on us. George Carlin was a master of this with his famous Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television challenging the prevailing and puritan orthodoxy of the US in the 1970s. He’s an idol to many for all of the right reasons.
For their part most journalists will claim to be doing much of the same as their funnier brethren. With their articles, books, and broadcasts, they’ll argue that they also challenge the powerful and expose injustice. Their work is about speaking the truth regardless of the cost. It’s about ensuring that lies are revealed for what they are with the hope of creating a better and more informed society. Many consider Seymour Hersh as emblematic of this, with his revelations about US soldiers murdering civilians in My Lai in Vietnam to his uncovering of the US military’s torture of detainees at Abu Ghraib prison during the Iraq War. Here in Ireland we had the late Mary Raftery, who spent years uncovering and reporting on the Catholic Church’s crimes against women and children at a time when this was a risk, both personally and professionally.
Now, it’s not that there ever was a Golden Age of comedy or journalism. Courtiers and controversialists have always existed as long as there’s been somebody more powerful to cosy up to and minorities that can be attacked for laughs. But social media and the ability to create a record of essentially anything at any time has made all of this more apparent. So when comedians go out of their way to attack vulnerable minorities like trans people, and journalists insist that there must be a “debate” on the trans “issue”, they’re quickly met with pushback. And rightly so.
Instead of taking the time to reflect on valid criticisms their tactic is now to double down. They argue that they have a right to tell jokes about whomever they like, regardless of the consequences, or that the right to debate on any topic cannot ever be questioned. What they refuse to understand is that there’s no joking about the oppression a minority lives under. And there’s no so-called debate to be had about their basic human rights.
This is where we find ourselves though. We have a columnist in a major broadsheet, who in the past has criticised activists for daring to confront the far-right National Party on the streets of Dublin, jumping to the defence of a psychotherapist who promotes conversion therapy for trans people. The therapist in question literally wants to convert trans people out of existence and has aligned herself with a collection of bigots and extremists. Activists have rightly pointed out all of this. Yet this is apparently beyond the pale and justifies a newspaper column and subsequent radio appearance by the journalist in question lamenting the supposed toxicity of trans activists and their allies. When called out on his debating of people’s right to exist he brushed it off as “virtue signalling”.
Not funny or wanted
There’s a difference between can and should in all of this. Of course, he can debate whatever he wants. If he should is an entirely different matter, especially given the consequences that the people he insists on debating about face on a daily basis. Most people know that discussing what kinds of rights people should have leads to nothing good. We don’t discuss what kinds of rights Jewish people can or should have in Irish society. That’s because we know that such a questioning of their rights in the past resulted in the Holocaust. Most of us inherently know that, apart from being morally wrong, it’d also feed the antisemitic monster that conspiracy theorists and far-right extremists have unleashed. In short, it’d have very real effects on very real people.
But this is the kind of debate about trans people that he insists must take place. It’s rooted in the myth of journalistic neutrality; in not taking one side over the other with the belief that we’ll find the truth somewhere in the middle. Reality is much different though. Journalists deigning to not pick a side is picking a side. And objective truth does in fact exist, without the need for interpretations or justification.
The late Robert Fisk attacked this flawed notion of neutrality by noting that if you were speaking to concentration camp survivors after their liberation in 1945 you wouldn’t then run off to interview the Nazi commandant in charge of the camp in the name of balance. One is objectively good and the other not so much. As we’ve previously said the logic of supposed neutrality, as the media here apply it to trans people, is abhorrent. A conscious decision has been made to import a culture war from the UK. Ricky Gervais, with his transphobic comments, is doing his part on the other side of the Irish Sea. But like Gervais, this so-called debate is unfunny and unwanted. Some journalists should remember that.
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