Is si­lenc­ing Hook re­ally the an­swer?

The New­stalk pre­sen­ter’s com­ments on rape were wrong, but they should spark de­bate not ban­ish­ment, says Bren­dan O’Con­nor

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - - News -

I’M not go­ing to de­fend what Ge­orge Hook said, and I’m cer­tainly not go­ing to ar­gue that words don’t mat­ter. His com­ments about an al­leged rape vic­tim tak­ing some blame for her at­tack were wrong and they clearly caused a lot of hurt. Hook is aware of this him­self. He has ac­cepted he was wrong. He has apol­o­gised. The ques­tion now is whether he should be si­lenced. Ac­cord­ing to re­ports this week­end, it is likely he will be.

There is an ap­petite for this these days. Those who like to see peo­ple who have wrong opin­ions ban­ished might feel they are on a roll. John Wa­ters has dis­ap­peared from the na­tional scene. Kevin My­ers was fired by lunchtime for stupid and wrong com­ments about Jews and women. Could Hook be next? And who will be next then?

Some are say­ing there was a valid ar­gu­ment hid­den in what Hook was say­ing — that it’s OK to tell women to be care­ful. The whole ‘per­sonal re­spon­si­bil­ity’ thing. But that is not what Hook said. There is a dif­fer­ence between gen­eral ad­vice and spe­cific blame af­ter the fact.

If Hook had just said in gen­eral that in his opin­ion women should be care­ful, but that rape is rape and is done by a rapist, he would still have found many to ar­gue fu­ri­ously with him. But he prob­a­bly would not be sus­pended right now.

The per­sonal re­spon­si­bil­ity ar­gu­ment is a tricky one. Ob­vi­ously the only one to blame for rape is the rapist. But hands up, will I urge my daugh­ters to be care­ful? Prob­a­bly.

In terms of polic­ing speech, we have to ac­cept that words are pow­er­ful, and they can hurt. Words mat­ter, and they can set a tone, and le­git­imise a way of think­ing. But in­sti­tu­tion­alised dis­crim­i­na­tion is far worse.

Say you do ac­tu­ally have the courage to re­port a rape, and say your case does ac­tu­ally make it to court in this, the coun­try with the low­est con­vic­tion rate for rape cases fol­low­ing al­le­ga­tion in Europe. Did you know that there is a one-in-three chance that you will be quizzed on your sex­ual his­tory?

And I don’t mean the cir­cum­stances that led to your at­tack and your ac­tions around your rape. That will prob­a­bly come into it no mat­ter what. I mean that in 30pc of rape cases in Ire­land the pros­e­cu­tion will make a suc­cess­ful ap­pli­ca­tion to the judge to bring the vic­tim’s pre­vi­ous sex­ual be­hav­iour into the case.

Tech­ni­cally the idea is that it may be rel­e­vant in terms of the vic­tim’s cred­i­bil­ity. In prac­tice, a Sec­tion 3 ap­pli­ca­tion, as it is known, is of­ten used to es­tab­lish promis­cu­ity, and even, in some cases, to es­tab­lish whether women use birth con­trol.

Here’s one ex­am­ple from a re­cent ar­ti­cle in the Ir­ish Times. A girl who was raped in a field when she was 14, by 26-year-old Martin Stokes, was cross-ex­am­ined for two and half days dur­ing Stokes’s trial. Stokes claimed she was a will­ing part­ner. The vic­tim was quizzed on text mes­sages she sent to friends and Face­book posts.

Last year Faisal El­lahi was con­victed of rap­ing a young woman with Down syn­drome. El­lahi sought per­mis­sion to ques­tion the vic­tim about whether she had kissed any boys. Thank­fully in that case the judge re­fused. El­lahi had also ini­tially claimed his vic­tim was a will­ing par­tic­i­pant.

A 76-year-old man on the ra­dio has a cer­tain amount of power. But the le­gal sys­tem has far, far more power in un­der­pin­ning what you might call the rape cul­ture and in lit­er­ally le­git­imis­ing cer­tain modes of think­ing.

If Hook was found to be dis­crim­i­nat­ing or mis­treat­ing women in his work­place, it would be a dif­fer­ent mat­ter en­tirely. But right now peo­ple want him to be fired for ex­press­ing an opin­ion, how­ever wrong.

There are two strange as­pects of the Hook case. One is that there was a rush to con­nect Hook’s com­ments to a wider malaise in New­stalk. It is, we are told, a cold house for women. And some­how the sug­ges­tion is that be­cause it is a boys’ club, com­ments like Hook’s would be viewed as more ac­cept­able.

Toxic mas­culin­ity unchecked in other words. Which is to sug­gest that Shane Cole­man, Paul Wil­liams, Pat Kenny, Sean Mon­crieff, Ivan Yates, Chris Donoghue and others are all com­plicit in some kind of echo cham­ber where it’s OK to blame women for rape. This is sim­ply not true. And it smacks of peo­ple tak­ing a dif­fer­ent gripe they have about New­stalk and at­tach­ing it to the light­ning rod that is Hook.

Sec­ondly, we are told that Hook must be si­lenced be­cause the opin­ion that he ex­pressed is shared by too many other men out there. But it’s hard to see how si­lenc­ing Hook helps to deal with that. If we want to deal with this view, which Hook served to le­git­imise, then we need to pub­licly re-ed­u­cate Hook, and hope­fully more with him. He needs to be chal­lenged and con­fronted on his views. We need to have an ar­gu­ment, as old-fash­ioned as that sounds. I’m with Kitty Hol­land on this. Mak­ing a mar­tyr of Hook is not go­ing to help any­one’s cause here.

Let me make it clear again. None of this is in any way to sup­port Hook’s com­ments.

‘Some­times it’s painful to talk. But it’s al­ways good to talk’

But si­lence is not the an­swer. Surely we have learned that by now in this coun­try. Si­lence is never the an­swer.

Another as­pect of this dis­cus­sion has been the tar­ring of all dis­sent­ing voices as be­ing de­lib­er­ate con­tro­ver­sial­ists who por­tray them­selves as vic­tims and spew nasty bile. Dis­sent­ing voices may of­ten be sim­ply wrong. But si­lenc­ing dis­sent, si­lenc­ing those who pro­voke us to think twice, is a sin­is­ter road to go down. And many of us could fall foul of it at some stage, de­pend­ing on who de­cides what opin­ions merit ban­ish­ment.

In some ways, this last week has been use­ful. It has caused some­what of a con- ver­sa­tion about some peo­ple’s at­ti­tudes. It has caused men to think a bit more, to ex­am­ine our un­con­scious bi­ases, to ask women a bit more about their feel­ings on this, to be more aware not just of the hurt we can cause when we dis­cuss sex­ual vi­o­lence.

It has also prob­a­bly made many of us more aware of the preva­lence of sex­ual vi­o­lence here.

I ac­tu­ally think there is a lit­tle more em­pa­thy around the coun­try af­ter last week. I’m with Louise O’Neill on this: “I think the furore is a good thing in one way as it’s a sign that cul­tural val­ues are shift­ing. Hope­fully?” In fact this last week has prob­a­bly helped cul­tural val­ues to shift a bit more.

Some­times it’s painful to talk. But it’s al­ways good to talk. Si­lence is never the an­swer.

And maybe if Hook sur­vives, he should do a few shows on how the le­gal sys­tem treats vic­tims of sex­ual vi­o­lence.

‘We need to re-ed­u­cate Hook pub­licly, and hope­fully more with him’

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