A People, Risen

I take it that you, like me, have already see the video posted above, of Panti’s Noble Call, a stirring address to the audience at the final production of The Risen People on Saturday night. If so, you won’t be the last. The video has been watched by 100,000 people already, and is spreading like wildfire across the world’s media.

And of course the whole thing is so magnificently stirring that you feel like soaring orchestral music should start playing behind it at the end. The setting, the Abbey Theatre, scene of so many famous nights in Irish history. The backdrop, actors playing workers who struck for their rights a century ago. The speech itself, so raw and honest, yet so thoughtful and reasoned that the anthologies of Great Irish Speeches already seem incomplete and out-of-date without it. It is the most significant piece of public speech Ireland has seen in years.

We all enjoy watching feelgood videos that confirm our already held political opinions. But for me at least, something else was at work when I watched. I couldn’t get the video out of my head, and I wondered why.

Yesterday, this conversation came up in my timeline:


And then I began to suspect why the Noble Call was still nagging at me, and I watched it again. Panti talks about checking herself at the pedestrian crossing, to make sure she doesn’t look too gay. She talks about cringing when friends act too gay in public. And this is the power of prejudice, that it is so pervasive that it can enter the head of an out-and-proud gay man and make him feel embarrassed by the very idea of gayness. And I recognised that embarrassment within myself. Because prejudice also worms its way into politically correct liberal thought. It makes us define other people’s struggle in terms of our own perspective (in my case, that of the straight white liberal male), rather than theirs. It leads to thoughts like “look guys, you know I’m on your side, but hey, dial it down a little”. It lead to my gut reaction when I read this tweet:


I thought, well that’s really sad, but maybe it was the safer option. This is how we endorse society’s prejudices even while we say we condemn them. Of course, I’m not prejudiced, we say, but not every taxi driver is as liberal as I am. This kind of thought is more common than we wish to acknowledge. You hear it too when people complain about tourists and foreign students around the town. We complain about their loudness, their “being in the way”, when maybe it is their visible foreignness that really irritates. You hear it when people declare they have no problems with Africans or Roma, but why do they have to dress like that?

Tolerance is a fine, useful value. It allows people to get on in society even when they hate or have no understanding of each other. But tolerance is no long-term solution for a society that aspires to inclusiveness and equality. These aspirations require us to accept people for what they are, not for how closely they conform to what we are. And that’s why the Noble Call wouldn’t get out of my head. By honestly addressing that homophobia exists everywhere, even in the minds of gay people, it (very graciously, in the circumstances) allowed me to recognise it within myself. It is not for me or anyone else to decide just how gay a gay man is permitted to act. Put on your heels and wig and make-up and do us proud before the world, Panti. Stand at the pedestrian crossing however you please. We, the risen people, will have your back.

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