In Defence of the Indefensible


The Irish Times carried a report yesterday, written by Ronan McGreevy, with the headline ‘President defends decision of wife to visit jailed activist‘.

The article begins as follows: ‘President Michael D Higgins has defended his wife Sabina’s decision to visit the activist Margaretta D’Arcy in jail.’

However, there are no indications within the body of the text as to what he is defending her against.

Is he defending her against criticism? We don’t know.

Who has criticised her? We don’t know, because we don’t even know if she has been criticised.

What are the grounds for the criticism? Well, bearing in mind that we don’t even know if she has been criticised and, if so, who it is that has made the criticism, we can’t elaborate a series of potential reasons.

However, most of us are not morons. So when we read articles like this, we don’t scratch our heads in utter confusion at the absence of relevant detail. Rather, we use our imagination and intuition to fill in the gaps and flesh out what is suggested by what is there in the text.

We might use our intuition and conclude something like this: Michael D Higgins might have his own ideas on the relation between spouses, but as Head of State, it’s natural for these ideas to be subordinate to the demands of office. Therefore, it goes without saying that some people -whose views need no question- will demand that he exercises proprietary control over his wife, and accounts for her behaviour, as proper order demands. And, if he’s not prepared to do so on his own behalf, he should at least do on behalf of the State he is supposed to represent.

Thus what informs the views of such people are particular convictions about the function of marriage as a social institution.

Or, we might use our intuition and also conclude something like this: visiting people in prison is a questionable activity. It’s natural that some people -whose views need no question- are of the belief it is wrong to visit people in prison. It’s natural that some people believe it especially wrong to visit people in prison when these people have done something that might call the legitimacy of the State into question. (At the risk of turning into a serial quoter of the New Testament, Jesus thought people who do not visit those in prison will be sent to hell).

In the frame established by this news report, these are just views that are natural for certain people to hold, and hence it’s self-evident that such views should need no introduction when it comes to the question of the conduct of the wife of the President.

The thing is, there are some views that get treated as having an imagined natural constituency, and others that do not.

So, as demonstrated by this report, there is a natural constituency of people who think women are the property of their husbands, and that it is a priori wrong to visit people in prison. Their views then shape the focus of newspaper reports.

So rather than Michael D Higgins having to defend himself and his wife from such a constituency  -which is what is really happening- the constituency is presented by the news report as though it were a democratic public opinion.

By contrast, within the frames habitually established by mainstream media, there is no such natural constituency of people who think bombing the world to pieces is wrong, or that the use of Irish airports for this purpose is wrong, or, for that matter, that the imprisonment of 79 year old women with cancer protesting to defend human rights is wrong.

So, for example, Alan Shatter, in last night’s Irish Times report, was not described as ‘defending’ the court decision to incarcerate Margaretta D’Arcy. However, if you do a Google search for ‘Margaretta D’Arcy defend’ what you get is a host of news reports referring to Michael D Higgins ‘defending‘ his wife’s decision. To the credit of the Irish Examiner, it carries the accurate headline ‘Shatter defends jailing of Margaretta D’Arcy ‘ with the equally accurate standfirst ‘Justice Minister Alan Shatter has roundly defended the imprisonment of an elderly and ill anti-war activist’, reporting on Shatter’s response to questions in the Dáil.

This all casts some light, I think, on how the preservation of the institution of marriage between a man and a woman can also serve an important political function. It is not simply a matter of religious conviction or bigotry, though it is that too. Similarly, the preservation of draconian abortion laws that treat women’s bodies as the property of the State. These are mechanisms of social control that shape how we perceive the public interest. Failing to keep a tight rein on your wife is a dereliction of duty, but the aerial bombing of civilians is no concern of the public.

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