In Ireland, we are legendary for our ability to strike up conversations, from the mundane to the profound. So a ‘national conversation’ sounds like just our kind of thing. But has it a more sinister undertone?
Lately, the term ‘national conversation’ has emerged in our social and political discourse, but without any real definition or detail of what this is, or how it might work. We have been told that we need to have a ‘national conversation’ about a variety of social issues and concerns including; research and science, domestic abuse, food production, and obesity.
On Tuesday, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar raised the issue of violence in society and suggested that “we have to have a national conversation about what is driving this anger and this violence.” He brought up recent attacks that have had media coverage; attacks on members of An Garda Síochana, migrants, healthcare workers and members of the LGBT+ community, saying he feels “there has been an increase just in general violence in society and consequently believes there is now a “normalisation of violence in society.”
On the surface, a ‘national conversation’ about violence in society seems like a reasonable assessment and one that most people would agree with. What most of us understand by ‘conversation’ is an attempt to understand another’s point of view and clearly communicate our own. We know that good communication is as much about listening as talking, if not more so. So would this ‘national conversation’ adhere to these basic rules of communication, with a view to mutual understanding and respect for the other’s point of view?
But the framing of the issue by An Taoiseach and the media suggests not. The image accompanying Varadkar’s interview is of teenage boys on scramblers in what could be any area of working-class Dublin. Are these teenagers (and their communities) to be involved in the conversation, or be talked about instead? Will the conversation include discussion of the long-term harm to communities caused by austerity-era funding cuts to youth services and community drug supports? Will the conversation include the communities most affected by almost daily violence? Will it include the voices of people held in our prisons and direct provision centres?
Maybe serious channels for dialogue, listening and understanding are being developed by the Office of An Taoiseach and other departments. But if, as I suspect, the real intention is not for understanding but a focus on building consensus about the issue of societal violence, we may be asked to travel a different path. One of punishment rather than understanding.
In their book Moral Panics: The Social Constuction of Deviance, Erich Goode and Nachman Ben-Yehuda may help us to diagnose what is likely to be coming next. They propose that a moral panic has five stages; concern, hostility, consensus, disporportionality, and volatility. Is our call to a ‘national conversation’ a transparent attempt to link consensus and disproportionality?
Before action can be taken on groups perceived to be involved with wrongdoing, a “certain minimal level of consensus” must be established across society. It is not sufficient that the target’s groups are linked with an issue like violence – they must be cast by the media and establishment as an immediate threat.
This immediacy is key to the next stage, disporportionality, in two ways. Firstly, the perceived threat by the public must be disporportionate to the actual threat posed by the target group. Once this foundation of consensus has been laid, then the action taken by policymakers can be disporportionate – more punitive discourse, harsher sanctions and increased policing and surveillance of particular communities.
This ‘national conversation’ about violence has all of the signs of going in the same direction. Violence is a societal harm, and an interpersonal harm, we are not seeking to minimise this fact. It would benefit us all if we could find a way to reduce or eliminate it from our society. But punitive measures have been shown time and again to be ineffective. To deal with increasing levels of violence requires that we as a society recognise that there are structural and societal harms that need to be addressed, and that scapegoating young, working-class youths instead of owning up to the failures of our successive Governments (of which Varadkar was part) is an attempt to win votes rather than improve society.