One of the difficulties of writing about the cultural impact of the murder of Ashling Murphy is that all of us who talk about it should feel constrained by the boundaries of decency: Ashling Murphy was a person. Her family remains shattered by the unspeakable crime committed against her. Her boyfriend has suffered a loss that cannot be truly imagined. Her friends, and her pupils, and all who knew her, are picking up the pieces into which their lives were shattered last week. Talking about this horrible event in any way that does not include them, or re-iterate sympathy to and support for them, as we do here, would be callous.
But that has not stopped some. This weekend, the Irish establishment and media got into one of its “moods”. You know it is in one of those moods because they usually project it onto the country: Whenever you hear a journalist talking about “the mood in the country”, you know that no dissent will be tolerated, or brooked. It means journalists have decided that something must be done, and get out of the way, if you care about your reputation. And this time, not for the first time, the mood is that “men must change”. When Ryan Tubridy opens the Late Late Show with that trademarked serious face, and sombre tone, and slightly misty eyes, then anyone who dissents better hide, because the country is in the midst of a lecture from the great and the oh so very, very, good.
This weekend, Irish men were told (not asked, told) – on almost every media platform – to be quiet and listen. But we were not asked to listen to the family of Ashling Murphy. Aside from a brief, dignified outing at a vigil in Tullamore, they have remained quiet amid their unimaginable private grief. No, the people we were to listen to were journalists, feminist campaigners, academics, and anybody else willing to read from the approved media script in relation to the tragedy.
We were asked to be quiet and listen to media pain, and media anger, and media rage, and media fatigue. In other words, to the same thing you hear every week, relentlessly, and on almost every subject, from the same people, with the same single transferable opinion on every subject.
This has not been an opportunity for a “national conversation”. It has been an opportunity for one group of people to do what they always want to do: Tell everyone else to sit down and shut up and listen to what they have to say and accept it as gospel truth.
Dare you speak up against this, and you will face being called a misogynist, or “part of the problem”. No presenter will jump in and defend you. No columnist will say you had a point. The best you can hope for is an embarrassed silence, and an admission, six months down the road, when nobody is listening, that “maybe it all got a bit out of hand”.
The script has been written, and now it is being followed, almost to the letter. To listen to, or read, the coverage of this crime, it might be very easy to forget that the murder was carried out by a single perpetrator. Instead, “men” are collectively in the dock. There has been talk of good men, and bad men, and how “all women” feel unsafe, and how men can do more, do better, or stop doing, or encourage others to do. In the telling of the people who write and produce our news, and who book guests, and who do the talking, all of the time, the blame for this crime rests with a single gender. At the fringes, it has delved into the ridiculous: Talk of curfews for men, and blaming mammies for coddling their sons. No deep seated resentment held by any single activist has been considered a take too far.
What we have seen this weekend is the shameless hijacking of a tragedy, with the full and active participation, connivance, and direction of the media, who have decided collectively what the problem is. In truth, they had decided collectively what the problem was long before they had heard of Ashling Murphy. There has been no room granted to other perspectives, or other opinions, or anything at all that might counteract the burgeoning narrative that men are broken, and need urgently to be fixed by way of a yet to be announced “comprehensive strategy”.
There has been no room, for example, for any discussion of the role of the state, or sentencing, for violent crimes. We live in a country after all where, in recent years, a man who lured young girls into his van and exposed himself to them received a suspended sentence because his offending was “at the lower end of the scale”. That’s a political failure, not a male failure, and there is no room to discuss it. The scale of the sentencing issues is huge: People in possession of child pornography regularly escape prison. In one example, a man who entered a woman’s home and got into her bed beside her, and her child, was given a suspended sentence.
We say we want men to be better? Why don’t we talk about how we do not punish the bad men to begin with? Where has that conversation been, this weekend? Or has it been absent because so many of the commentators are of the bleeding heart persuasion that prison solves nothing? Figure it out yourself.