01 June 2015

Why the Vatican threw Ireland under the bus.

What just happened? The Vatican's response to last month's events in Dublin seems tone deaf, a slap in the face from an institution that has lost touch with reality. But it may be a move in a much bigger game.

Everyone who watched the results coming in Ireland's marriage equality referendum must have noticed: this was not just a vote. This was, as Catholic Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin admitted, a social revolution. It wasn't just a majority; it was a landslide. Rural and urban, young and old, across all classes, people voted in favour. Ironically, given the No campaign's focus on family values - 'Mothers and Fathers matter' - it was the families that made the difference. The Mums and Dads of Ireland joined their children in voting for equality; for their gay sons and daughters, family members, friends and colleagues. This was the voice of middle Ireland. And the message was clear, emphatic and proud: Yes.

For some commentators, it seemed like a rejection of the Church. But that misses the tone - of positivity, of enthusiasm. The Church was not being rejected, simply bypassed. In the previous decade, the Irish public endured a sequence of grim revelations about the Church's past failures. Unlike the financial crisis, they never had a chance to express their feelings at the ballot box - until now.

When the Ryan report described the culture of endemic brutality of the Church's former residential schools, Archbishop Martin accepted there would be a price to pay for its failures: 'The church will have to pay that price in terms of its credibility'.

On 23 May, the invoice arrived in the post.

Reality check

There are of course some in the church who recognize the cliff it had just gone over. It was down to Archbishop Martin, once again, to put it plainly: the church needed a 'reality check'. Despite having most young people for 12 years in the educational system, he admitted, the church had failed to get its message across. Even here, the reality - that young people had rejected the message - was too painful to admit.

But a different kind of reality check came a few days later, from higher up in the hierarchy. Cardinal Pietro Parolin, described as the Vatican equivalent of prime minister, called the Irish vote a 'defeat for humanity'.

It was a breathtakingly arrogant comment, especially in view of the outpouring of positive sentiment in Dublin when the result of the vote was announced: here was a sign of the nation's maturity, a message to the world of Irish decency and toleration.

And here, now, was the Vatican, delivering an astonishing dismissal. A slap in the face; a public put-down.

Perhaps a score was being settled. In 2011 Taoiseach Enda Kenny described the 'dysfunction, disconnection, elitism' and 'narcissism' of the Vatican culture. Was this payback? If so, it suggested that nothing had changed. Perhaps this is what it seems - a dramatic own goal.

But it's just as likely a move in a different, wider game: what chess players call a pawn sacrifice.

The great game

In the global picture, Ireland is still small potatoes. There are one and a quarter billion Catholics on the planet. Ireland's adherents amount to less than a third of one percent of that total. Not only that: they're the wrong kind of Catholics.

In the past century, there has been a huge demographic shift in our world. Religion has gone south.

In the developing world, a vast movement of populations is taking place. Young people move to the cities in search of work, just as their predecessors did in the Roman Empire. Like them, they go from living in traditional communities, held together by close kinship networks, to being a face in the crowd, alone in an uncaring multitude. And like them, they find support in religion.

Yong people in the global South - in Africa, Asia and Latin America - can't get enough religion. Unlike the fading faithful of the North, the followers of the big international religions are booming. A century ago, Europe was home to two out of three of the world's Catholics. Today, it's one in four.

The wrong kind of faith

On a head count, developed countries still represent a sizable proportion of the faithful. But measured by what the experts call religiosity - how important their religion is to them - they're not.

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31 May 2015

Tom of Finland's Gender Game: this weird trick will help you learn languages.

If you're a native English speaker, you're at a disadvantage when it comes to learning other languages: you're not used to having to remember the gender of words. Here's a trick that will help.

Most English words don't have gender, so we're not used to having to think about it when speaking. But if you want to speak another language properly, you need to learn not only the words for things but their gender as well. Most European languages have two or three. And while you can make yourself understood without getting the gender of words right, you're always going to sound like a tourist.  If you want to speak properly you need to remember the gender of every noun.

That's a major task, though. It means remembering twice as much information as you would need in English. With Spanish or Italian it's not so difficult, because the word endings usually give it away: -o for masculine,  -a for feminine. But German, for example, has three genders and there is no such rule. (Actually there is, but we'll come back to that.)

Students of German are told,  "you just have to remember the gender when you learn each noun." That's easier said than done.

Why are some words masculine and some feminine? It often seems as if there is some obvious rule.  But there is not. In French the moon is feminine and the Sun is masculine; in German it's the other way round.

When it comes to learning the words for things, there is a simple widely used technique: word association and imagery. This is based on the idea that vivid images are easy to recall.

For example,  one book suggests remembering the word Teller, for plate,  by imagining going into a bank and finding the tellers all have plates in front of them. Thinking of the image will associate these words in your mind. But you also have to remember that Teller is masculine. How? The experts say, remember it's Der [masculine] Teller. How do you fix that in your mind?

There actually is a simple rule for German genders. There's only one problem with it: it's often wrong.

In fact, there are three rules.

1. Every word in German is masculine.

2. Except when it ends in'e'. Then it's feminine.

3. Except when it's not.

Now this rule will actually get you the right answer well over half the time. That might not seem very helpful but it really is. It just means you have to remember the exceptions: the masculine words which end in 'e', the feminine ones which don't, and all the neuter ones.

The trick is what I call Tom of Finland's Gender Game.  It works like this. When faced with one of the exceptions,  you have to think up an explanation as to why that word is that gender. It doesn't have to make sense. In fact, the more ridiculous the better.

Why is Reh, a deer, neuter?  Because when you're writing to someone, you begin "Dear Sir or Madam." Why is Kartoffel, potato, feminine? Because Germans like their women to look like potatoes.

These are not good examples. I'm sure you can do better.  The more fun you have, the more it works. See if you can make yourself laugh out loud. That's one that will stick in your mind.

And why is it named after celebrated homoerotic artist Tom of Finland? I can't think of a better example to remind you: be as outrageous as possible!

25 April 2015

Playing Twister with the facts

You know Twister ("The game that ties you up in knots!"), where you have to twist your body into weird unnatural positions so you can touch two points far apart? I expect the wonderful people behind "Mothers and Fathers Matter", the anti-Marriage Equality campaign, are very fond of that. It's what they base their reasoning on.

As part of their campaign to keep discrimination in marriage, they've produced a glossy leaflet called "7 Great Reasons to Keep Marriage as is". With a title like that it's clearly not aimed at floating voters - it does not engage with any of the arguments of the Yes side. The purpose is plainly to provide No voters with socially acceptable reasons to deny gay people the right to marry.

And it's full of the kind of arguments that you'd expect. Red herring speculation ("The courts could decide that the right to marry grants same-sex couples a constitutional right to procreate"), dog whistles (a yes vote makes the rights of children "secondary to the desires of adults"), Back-of-The-Bus pleading ("Civil Partnership Already Gives Legal Rights") and an assertion that "protecting difference is not discrimination".

But for those averse to change, there's more. Say hello to same sex marriage, and you may as well say goodbye to your mother.

Okay, not your mother, but Mother's Day:

"In North America where c.1.6 percent of adults self-identify as gay some schools have been asked to stop celebrating Mother's Day on the basis that it discriminates against children brought up in a same-sex household."
And just to make sure we don't think they're making stuff up, they even include footnotes. Which are web links, so if you wanted to check them - just in case - you would of course have to type them into a web browser.

So - not that we doubt them (perish the thought) let's do that, shall we?

The first link is to a paper from the US National Center for Health Statistics.

Does it say that 1.6 percent of North American adults self-identify as gay?

Yes, it does! Well played, Mothers and Fathers Matter! Actually, these figures only relate to the United States, not North America, but obviously that's not important.

Um ... sadly, it is.

The second footnote supports the statment that

Some schools [in North America] have been asked to stop celebrating Mother's Day on the basis that it discriminates against children brought up in a same-sex household.

 Here it is. Check it for yourself. Go ahead, we can wait.

It refers to a news story about a school in Canada. Which, of course, is in North America. It's almost as if the citation to the US document was a red herring, because 'schools in North America' sounds more impressive than 'one school in Canada'. But I don't believe that. Not for one moment. No siree.

And what happened in this school? They decided to celebrate the International Day of Families instead of Mother's and Father's Day, to 'celebrate diversity and inclusivity while avoiding making children who are part of non-traditional families feel left out'.

So what the footnote actually supports is that

A school in Canada celebrates the International Day of Families instead of Mother's and Fathers Day, so all of their children feel included.

You would think that an organisation that cares so much for the feelings of children would be able to get behind a initiative to make kids who don't have a traditional family set up (much more likely to be kids of single parents rather than gays, who, don't let's forget, only make up 1.6% of the population) feel more secure.

Apparently not. Much more important is playing Twister with the facts so you can keep discriminating against gays.

Mothers and Fathers matter, it seems. Facts, not so much.

01 February 2014

When you're suing, you're losing

They came in at the weekend, when they knew nobody would be around. They entered the Student's Union building and headed straight for the shop. It did not take the two men long to unscrew the vending maching from the wall. They left without taking anything else: this was all they had come for. It is unlikely anyone would have noticed them: just a couple of middle aged men walking across campus. And even if they had been seen, nobody would have dared to stop them. Because these men were the President and Bursar of the University.

In 1979, it was against the law to sell condoms in Ireland. The only legal way was for students to make a donation to the Students' Union, and receive, by way of a thank you, a packet of condoms. It was a convenient fiction in which the Union and the Administration colluded. An Irish solution to an Irish problem.

But the Union shop closed at 5 on a Friday, just when the weekend was getting into full swing. By the time students realised that they needed contraception, it was too late. The Union responded by installing a condom machine. But this was stretching the fiction of a 'donation' a little too far for the comfort of the Adminstration, who decided to take the law - and the machine - in their own hands.

Moral courage is rarely a requirement for management positions, especially in Ireland. For many it is a positive disadvantage. The University President and Bursar, no doubt, were acting on legal advice. I remember the shock of the news at the time. But, looking back, it's hard to think of the two distinguished gentlemen, striding across the campus with a stolen condom machine, without laughing out loud.

I was reminded of this when I read about the case of entertainer Rory O'Neill, who performs as drag queen Panti Bliss. Interviewed on RTE's Saturday Night Show, he commented that, although Ireland is in many ways a conservative country, being small it can change quickly: 'every single person in this audience has a cousin or a neighbour or the guy that you work with who is a flaming queen'. Only on the internet and in newspaper articles is it now acceptable to be 'really horrible and mean about gays'.

When pressed as to who these people might be, he mentioned a couple, including some connected to the Iona Institute, a tiny pressure group of conservative Catholics. He went on:
Feck Off! Get the hell out of my life.
It was a heartfelt comment, which got an enthusiastic clap from the audience.When the presenter raised the issue of homophobia, he went on to say that 'if you’re going to argue that gay people need to be treated in any way differently than everybody else or should be in anyway less, or their relationships should be in anyway less then I’m sorry, yes you are a homophobe'.

It was clearly an expression of honest opinion, and you would think - I am not a lawyer, I can't tell - defensible as such. But certain commentators, upset at being described as homophobic, got their lawyers on the case. Letters were sent; RTE folded, broadcasting a grovelling apology and paying a substantial sum to a number of individuals who felt that the word 'homophobic' was questioning their motives. There has not been a court case; the interesting question of what exactly constitutes 'homophobia' has not, so far, been explored with the aid of a jury.

Many people are angered by this. License payer money has been handed over to people who object to being described in terms many people would agree with. Rory O'Neill, understandably, is annoyed at having his words apologised for without having an opportunity to defend them.

Why reach for your lawyers because you don't like someone's opinion of you? It's hard to avoid the suspicion that what troubled the Ionaites was not what Rory said but that people clapped it. Because he's absolutely right - public opinion really has shifted, to the point where most Irish people are okay with gays and marriage equality. The younger you are, the more likely you are to agree.

That's not difficult to understand. The only argument against same sex marriage that ever really worked was that it had not been done before. Now it's been adopted in many countries. The world has not fallen apart. There's no other rational argument: is any straight person going to avoid marriage because the gays have ruined it? That's just silly. And, like Rory said, people relate instinctively to real people: they want people who love each other to get married. When common sense and common decency converge on a question, the argument is over.

For supporters of the Iona Institute (which is not an 'institute' - they don't do proper research, they just misrepresent that of other people) it must be very upsetting to be reminded of this. Having RTE pay them money to compensate for their sense of hurt is a bit like Mammy putting her arm around you and saying "don't you mind what those boys and girls are saying to you".

'Iona', I assume, is intended to call to mind the survival of Christianity,  in the Dark Ages, on the Celtic fringe of Europe. But Iona, now, is a tiny island, on the fringes of society, where very few people live. Some day - I hope not too far in the future - as we explain to our children that, yes, there was a time when two men, or two women, could not get married to each other, we will think about the posturing of the Iona group, and laugh out loud. I can't wait.