We were supposed to be discussing the gender pay gap

The gender pay gap was in the news in these past few weeks, after details released by both RTE and the BBC showed that the top-paid television and radio presenters were overwhelmingly male.

Most of the commentary and analysis that followed was largely as one might expect – several female presenters were chased down for quotable comments, as was the Taoiseach, and a series of progressive columnists penned articles that framed the pay-gaps at RTE and the Beeb as illustrative of a broader problem of pay-discrimination across society.

Just as predictably, several of the conservative voices in the media offered a variety of counterpoints. (A special mention must go to the almost-always-loathsome David Quinn. For once, Quinn set aside his usual complaints about how awful it is that poor, oppressed Catholics are being denied the right to oppress others and wrote a piece that did a reasonable job of pointing out that resolving the gender pay gap may be more complicated than simply brow-beating people about discrimination[1].)

And then, Kevin Myers happened.

Myers wrote a piece in the Irish edition of the Sunday Times (30/07/2017) that can be quickly summarised as follows – “Men are better than women at just about anything that anyone gets paid for. Also, Jews are really obsessed with money”.

Myers comments about Jews kicked off a shit-storm of outrage from those who were genuinely (and understandably) offended and others who were simply horrified to see such a crude ethnic stereotype trotted out decades after it should have been consigned to history.

Before proceeding, let me just acknowledge that I am clearly paraphrasing Myers here and that his comments about Jews comprised perhaps two lines of a much larger piece. I also note that the Jewish Representative Council of Ireland, while condemning the article, have acknowledged Myers’ previous efforts towards educating the Irish public about the Holocaust and stated that they do not believe he is an anti-Semite.

I should also point out that a quick scan of the comments sections under any online report of the fallout from Myers’ article would find a significant proportion of people unwilling to condemn Myers’ comments which, they argue, should be interpreted more charitably. Indeed, fully one third of those who contacted the Press Ombudsman on this issue did so to complain that the Sunday Times had fired Myers[2] (as they did on the morning the offending piece was published).

However, I would suggest any readers (as if I have readers!) who might find themselves inclined towards defending Myers’ comments should take their cue from Myers himself and from his repeated and apparently sincere apologies for comments about Jews which he conceded should not have been made and could not be defended.

Myers column and the subsequent outrage was extensively covered from a variety of angles. Former editors wrote about what he had been like to work with and representatives of the Jewish community wrote about the stereotyping they have faced and continue to experience.

However, the coverage which I found most interesting was contained in articles by Ciara Kelly[3], Kathy Sheridan[4] and Fintan O’Toole (twice[5] [6]) who asked why, when Myers’ descriptions of women in the workplace had also been highly derogatory, it was only his comments about Jews that got him fired.

Kelly observed that there appears to be a “hierarchy of hate speech [in which] anti-Semitism is top of the tree in terms of what you cannot say, probably followed by racism, with homophobia and lastly misogyny being almost an afterthought”. O’Toole asserts that Myers would still be in a job “if he had stuck with straight misogyny”.

I agree that differing standards of tolerance are applied to offensive language depending on who happens to be the offended group. However, where I suspect I depart from our columnists is in saying that this ought to be the case.

Specifically, I would argue that in a fair and free society any limits we place on an individual’s rights to free speech must be proportionate to the harm that speech can cause. If we are to constrain freedom of expression, it cannot just be because people are offended because anyone can be offended by anything.

Imagine if any offence felt by Catholics or straight white men was considered sufficient reason to stifle criticism of those groups? For a start, the opinion pages of the Irish Times would begin to look a little bare and social science departments in universities across the U.S. would need to be shut down. In fact, those groups can and frequently do find themselves subjected to unfair attacks that would never be acceptable if directed at other, less powerful, groups. But this is and ought to be tolerated because, aside from the offence caused, neither group is harmed by such attacks in any material and practical way.

Similarly, society is and ought to be more tolerant of misogyny than anti-Semitism for the simple reason that women (who make up more than half the population) are less vulnerable than Jews and other ethnic minorities. Perhaps some might challenge this but the fact remains that, whatever level of oppression women have endured, it is the Holocaust that stands alone as history’s greatest crime and most singular horror.

No doubt there are those who would argue that misogynistic articles like Myers’ perpetuate stereotypes that undermine womens’ advancement in the workplace and that it is this harm that justifies the suppression of such articles in the future. If those people are sensible they would acknowledge that a “lack of career advancement” is not the same as systematic, state-sponsored murder but might point out that the harm to women is immediate rather than something that is feared to be at the far end of a slippery slope.

But, if this is the argument, then let it be argued and let it be supported with evidence (because there is plenty of evidence to suggest that the gender pay gap occurs for reasons that are far more complicated than direct-discrimination alone). The relentless focus of many journalists on the offence (rather than harm) Myers caused to women, simply serves to reinforce the stereotype of women as oversensitive and emotional types who can’t handle the rough and tumble that comes with a high-powered career.

Progressives have a long history of telling people what they can and cannot say. It doesn’t work. Instead it gives us Brexit and it gives us Trump. People don’t suddenly stop thinking the things they’re not allowed to say. Misogyny has to be allowed reveal itself so that it can be identified and challenged.

And if we are to argue that there is sexism in the workplace, then surely the rabid, red-faced, bulging-eye nonsense spewed forth by Myers and his ilk only adds credibility to that claim. What better reason to tolerate misogyny in the future?

[1]Sexist employers not to blame for gender pay gap – children are”; Irish Independent 28/07/2017

[2]Third of complainants wanted Myers to keep ‘Sunday Times’ job”; Irish Times, 05/08 /2017

[3]Sacked ‘pay gap’ columnist insulted all women”; Sunday Independent 06/08/2017

[4]Kevin Myers’ fall is a long time coming”; Irish Times, 02/08/2017

[5]Kevin Myers broke the only rule that matters”; Irish Times, 01/08/2017

[6]There will always be a market for misogyny”; Irish Times 05/08/2017

One thought on “And then Kevin Myers happened

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