Belfast Telegraph

Eilis O'Hanlon: Jude Collins' remarks about Naomi Long the by-product of internet's fissuring of thought and speech

Ahead of International Women's Day tomorrow, Eilis O'Hanlon welcomes society's increasing refusal to accept the misogyny of old as if it were part of the natural order

Naomi Long at last week’s Alliance Party conference
Naomi Long at last week’s Alliance Party conference
Blogger Jude Collins

It could be that getting an apology out of Jude Collins for his disparaging remarks about her weight will turn out to be Alliance leader Naomi Long's greatest achievement in politics.

The reliably obnoxious rent-a-quote merchant has been making offensive remarks about anyone who doesn't sign up 100% to his happy-clappy, pro-united Ireland cult for years, causing more outbreaks of collective nausea along the way than a batch of undercooked chicken.

Few - not even those tired of Alliance's relentless attempt to portray itself as the one true voice of reason in Northern Ireland, soaring high above all the petty sectarian squabbles - would begrudge Long her victory.

Collins just picked on the wrong woman at the wrong time. Right now there is unprecedented focus on the personal abuse that women in public life routinely face for speaking out about what matters to them.

Commenting on Long's weight - and, worse, speculating on possible medical causes, as if that is any of his business - is not the worst example of this phenomenon, but it is sadly typical of it.

Any woman who's ever dared to have an opinion will have heard the remarks and thought: "Been there, done that, got the (oversized probably, according to Collins) T-shirt." DUP leader Arlene Foster is another regular target (even if she gets much less sympathy).

It's not exclusively directed at women either. Those who applaud People Before Profit's Gerry Carroll for saying that "nobody should be subjected to comments about their weight/look/appearance when it comes to politics" might well want to consider how Tory Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg is a target of vitriolic mockery on the Left for his speech and dress and mannerisms too.

That's considered a hoot. Just because he doesn't complain about it doesn't mean it's not equally below the belt.

It would be pig-headed for its own sake, though, to deny that women are disproportionately the target of such abuse. It's a cruel game played out daily on social media.

That's confirmed by a new study that found over half of young women on Facebook have been subject to harassment, including being stalked.

Blogger Jude Collins
Blogger Jude Collins

Admittedly, "including" covers a multitude of sins, as does the word "harassment". It's important to define precisely what we mean when using these loaded terms, because they can easily be exploited by politicians with an agenda to control what others may say and think and do.

It's also wise to tread carefully when looking at this sort of self-generated research, which always seems to find exactly what those behind the research want to find. In this case, it's an organisation called Level Up, whose stated objective is to "end sexism in the UK".

A feminist group funded research which concluded that sexism is alive and well? Fancy that!

Quibbles aside, it's still impossible not to be disturbed by the responses of some of the women who took part in the survey. Over 1,000 were asked to describe their experiences and 38% said they had received messages that made them afraid for their safety.

A quarter had been sent unsolicited explicit images. Half of those who reported the abuse to Facebook say no action was taken.

This all comes at a time when, in Westminster, there are scores of women currently on the receiving end of terrifying torrents of abuse for criticising Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn's handling of anti-Semitism allegations in the party.

Shadow education secretary Angela Rayner has even had panic buttons installed at her home following online rape and death threats after she praised a recent TV interview by former leader Tony Blair.

Telling these women that they should just shut up and take it as the price for participation in political life would be outrageous - not least after the 2016 murder of campaigning MP Jo Cox by a far-Right extremist.

The one common factor in the abuse, however serious or relatively minor, is the role played by the internet in stretching the boundaries of what is considered acceptable speech.

What would have been regarded as beyond the pale not so long ago is seen these days as fair game and that can't be unrelated to the fact that there's no filter online between thought and speech.

Collins is an example of that too. For years the former schoolteacher held down a respectable job, writing for newspapers without causing much of a ripple. Since launching himself online, freed of editorial control, he has repeatedly put his foot in his mouth in increasingly offensive ways.

If a man of his age, who ought to know better, can fall into the trap of thinking he can say what he likes without consequences, what hope for young people who have never known a world outside this online Wild West?

Of course, there are people who will say that the fuss over Collins' remarks about Long's weight is another example of that old staple - political correctness gone mad - and that the complaints by young women about harassment on Facebook is evidence that we've reared a generation of so-called snowflakes, who can't face any challenge to their worldview without falling apart. It really isn't. It's just a sign that the centre of power is shifting and, while that may be painful for those whose traditional power is under threat, it's long overdue.

Recently, I happened across a video on YouTube of a 1990s show by the late comic and EastEnders star Mike Reid.

The Cockney comedian was a master storyteller; his technique still stands up, no pun intended, brilliantly.

The material is another matter. It's uncomfortably sexist, racist, homophobic, you name it, and one doesn't need to be a quivering milksop to be taken aback at the language.

The right to offend is inviolable and no subject should be off-limits, but it's still awkward to watch audiences falling about at this stuff like it was the funniest thing imaginable.

Times change, in good ways and bad, but while misogyny and personal abuse are nothing new, the internet has undoubtedly enabled them to flourish in ever-evolving forms, which means the response to the damage they can do needs to adapt as well in order to keep up.

Tomorrow is International Women's Day. For a long time, it has been tempting to dismiss this annual carnival of cliches as nothing but an ego trip for self-pitying, self-satisfied, middle-class women.

But if decades of pushing a simplistic message of female empowerment has resulted in a wider social refusal to accept the misogyny of old as if it were part of the natural order, then maybe it was worth putting up with all the slogans.

Belfast Telegraph

Daily News Headlines Newsletter

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox.

Popular

From Belfast Telegraph