What not to say – The anti-anti-Pope campaign of Brendan O’Neil
For a self-proclaimed radical defender of free speech and a sceptic of hysterical reactions, Brendan O’Neil spends an awful lot of time telling others what not to say, in an hysterical tone – says Vicky Simister
Yesterday (16th September) I met editor of Spiked Online and self-proclaimed “radical humanist” Brendan O’Neill. We were both on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour, debating street harassment of women and my campaign against it – which Brendan feels impinges upon men’s free speech. (HumanistLife readers may already be aware of Brendan’s article “The weird fashion for bashing faith schools”, prompting a response from BHA ‘faith’ schools officer James Gray. New Humanist magazine have described O’Neil’s criticisms as “self-serving hot air”).
In preparation for the debate, I googled O’Neill. According to his website, he’s a “passionate defender of free speech” who thinks “free speech should be awarded to anyone who says anything anywhere on any subject for any reason with any effect”. And he certainly seems to have been directing a lot of his free speech in the direction of provoking other atheists and humanists. In March this year he wrote an article entitled “Why humanists shouldn’t join in this Catholic-bashing”, with the subheading “The reaction to the paedophile priest scandal is as guilty of scaremongering, illiberalism and elitism as the Catholic Church has ever been”. Earlier this month he wrote an article called “Turning the pope into an Antichrist for atheists” and this week he wrote “How the New Atheists are abusing the truth”, his main point being that Johann Hari had stated in The Independent that “over 10,000 people have come forward to say they were raped” and how this was technically inaccurate as it “lumped sex talk and fondling and actual penile penetration together” (seems a rather pedantic point to make, to me). Yesterday Brendan published an article in the Big Issue Scotland where he accused “active atheists, those in the Richard Dawkins mould” of “feverishly politicising the visit too. They see it as an opportunity to spread their own gospel of anti-religious faith or anti-religious prejudice, as some people see it.”
Never fear, it’s not just humanists that meet with O’Neil’s skepticism. Greenpeace, western liberals and “moralistic” coffee shops also get a piece of his mind in his back catalogue of published articles. This article is a humanist (and feminist!) response to O’Neill’s particular brand of free speech and what appears to have become his anti-Anti-Pope campaign.
The Trivialisation of Abuse
In his efforts to criticise the “Catholic bashers”, O’Neill seems to have gone to great lengths to trivialise the sexual abuse that went on in the catholic church. In “Why humanists shouldn’t join in this Catholic-bashing”, he states:
Someone has to point out that for all the problems with the Catholic Church’s doctrines and style of organisation – and I experienced some of those problems, having been raised a Catholic before becoming an atheist at 17 – the fact is that sexual abuse by priests is a relatively rare phenomenon.
The next two paragraphs state statistics of reported abuse in Ireland which is where O’Neill points out that the majority of these cases did not go to trial (which, I must point out, could have a lot to do with the treatment of these cases by the police as well as the social stigma involved with abuse), and that 35% of the claims pertained to lay staff, care workers and fellow pupils. It is around this point that, for the first and only time in his 1,885 word article, he concedes “Of course, one incident of child sexual abuse by a priest is one too many”, but he quickly goes on to say that whilst “very, very few” were abused, “very, very many” received a “decent education”.
Staggeringly, O’Neill suggests that abusees somehow cashed in on their misery by reporting the abuse to the Commission to Inquire Into Child Abuse (or is he suggesting that they simply made it up?). He believes that the reason reported abuse in the Irish catholic church was so high for the sixties is “because the people who attended the institutions during that period were in many ways the main targets of the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse”. According to O’Neill, “when the commission began in 1999 many of them had suffered long-term unemployment, health problems, and other disappointments. Reporting their misfortunes to the commission offered them the chance, not only of getting financial compensation, but also of validating their difficult life experiences as a consequence of their having been abused.”
The Commission has, according to him, allowed Ireland to seize the abuse scandal as an opportunity to dismiss “unemployment, poverty, drug abuse and heavy drinking” as “products of Ireland’s earlier era of abuse rather than as failings of the contemporary social system.” Being Irish born and raised myself, I can’t say I recall any headlines reading Catholic abuse cause of Unemployment or Recession comes early due to child rape, but I’m certainly not surprised if victims of abuse do suffer from emotional, physical and/or mental challenges later in life, making them vulnerable to unemployment, heavy drinking and the like. But then O’Neill seems to have no sympathy for those who “define themselves by those misfortunes”, who are encouraged “to look upon themselves as the end-products of having being emotionally, physically or sexually abused”.
The Great Catholic Education
In the same article, O’Neill criticizes Richard Dawkins, who received a letter from an abusee reading “Being fondled by the priest simply left the impression (from the mind of a 7 year old) as ‘yuchy’ while the memory of my friend going to hell was one of cold, immeasurable fear. I never lost sleep because of the priest ? but I spent many a night being terrified that the people I loved would go to Hell. It gave me nightmares.” In this article, Dawkins examines mental abuse vs physical abuse in the Catholic church: “The threat of eternal hell is an extreme example of mental abuse, just as violent sodomy is an extreme example of physical abuse.” However, O’Neill doesn’t mention this, instead quoting Dawkins out of context “Only a minority of priests abuse the bodies of the children in their care. But how many priests abuse their minds?”. O’Neill reacts: “In this spectacularly crude critique of religion, no moral distinction is made between being educated by a priest and raped by one.” Hang on, surely the real crudity here is scaring little children into obedience by threatening them with hellfire, devils and torture?
It seems, however, that you’ve got to be a lot more aggressive than that to bother O’Neill. In “The weird fashion for bashing faith schools”, O’Neill defends ‘faith’ schools, despite having attended a Catholic school which was “administered by Dominican sisters who saw it as their duty to beat – sometimes literally – us Catholic boys and girls into shape”. Apparently unfazed by the beatings, O’Neill says Catholicism failed to brainwash or scare him and to demonstrate describes how he and a friend “beheaded a statue of St Vincent de Paul” and rebelled against the Catholic admonition that masturbation is a sin. He says it’s “a myth that faith schools are factories for producing unquestioning, God-fearing drones”. In a nutshell, he went to a faith school, he was physically abused, but hey, he turned out ok and isn’t a Catholic anymore, so what are you all moaning about?
I too went to a Catholic school and I certainly wouldn’t send my kids to one. If they kept their dogma out of science class and sex ed, if they let gay and non-Catholic teachers work there, then I might consider it, but I wouldn’t send my kid to a school that taught them they’d burn in hell for masturbating (where do you think all that “Catholic Guilt” people talk about comes from…) and certainly not one where the “sisters” get heavy handed with their discipline. Even if I were a died-in-the-wool Catholic, why should Catholic schools have the right to teach children scientific fallacies, like Creationism? O’Neill says it’s “illiberal” to bring faith schools to an end. I say it’s irresponsible not too.
The Hysterical New Atheists
In ”Turning the pope into an Antichrist for atheists”, O’Neill criticizes the “zealous moralism, the irrational demonization” of “the current baiting of all things popish”. When Nick Doody jokes that he wouldn’t say anything to the pope – he’d simply put a condom over the pontiff’s head until he goes blue and dies, O’Neill fails to see the humour and instead calls it “a glimpse into the emotionally troubled mindsets of the anti-pope lobby”. Hang on, I thought O’Neill was the one campaigning against hysterical talk? He criticizes some humanists for “scaremongering” and for using extreme language, yet his articles are peppered with phrases describing Pope-protesters as “hysterical”, “Inquisitorial”, “Torquemada-ish”, “alarmingly intolerant”, driven “by doubt and disarray” running a “fear-driven campaign of demonisation”, “hellbent on using the politics of fear to invent a fantastical rape-happy ogre”, which has acquired “a powerfully pathological, obsessive and deafeningly shrill character”. The point is that O’Neill is generating plenty of his own hysteria, and not about a corrupt institution or perverted criminals, but about the very people who criticise those people!
In one of his closing paragraphs, O’Neill says:
No doubt some will accuse me of ‘defending paedophile priests’ in contrast to the New Atheist campaign on behalf of ‘powerless victims’. In truth, my only concern, as an atheistic libertarian, is with analysing the emergence of a new form of hysterical and repressive atheism.
Brendan, you seemed like a nice-enough guy when I met you, certainly a sincere one. But your campaign to promote free speech and “liberty” comes at the expense of everything else. It’s not hysterical or repressive to do exactly as you campaign: to exercise free speech in criticism of others. From our debate on Woman’s Hour, where you told me that you did not believe in making racist hate speech or sexual harassment either illegal nor even socially unacceptable, to your abuse-trivialising criticisms of “New Atheists”, you have lost your sense of perspective. I’m with you on advocating freedom of speech, including self-criticism between atheists and humanists and anyone else. But if you think a reaction to a crime deserves more flak than the crime itself, then you’re in danger of becoming less a “radical humanist” and more a religious apologist.
Vicky Simister is a writer, activist and… finance analyst. She’s a member of the BHA, Treasurer of feminist group UK Feminista, and founder of the London Anti Street Harassment Campaign. Her blog can be found at www.vickysimister.com.