Non-Fiction Politics

On Public Shaming and So-Called Reverse Snobbery

Much of the discourse around the topic was in the interest of creating content rather than trying to have a discussion.

On Sunday, September 9th, just before 10 o’clock in the morning, Elaine Byrne tweeted a link to her new piece for the Sunday Business Post. It was mainly about Finance Minister Eoghan Murphy and what she argued were unfair criticisms levelled against him.

“The reverse snobbery at play in the Presidential election, the appointment of Drew Harris, the reporting of crimes committed by Trinity graduates and Eoghan Murphy’s background,” she summarised the article in her tweet. “Charles Stewart Parnell even gets a mention. Writing in the @sundaybusiness”

Within minutes, less-than-favourable reactions started flying in. “There is no reverse snobbery here,” said one person. “This ‘posh boy’ guff is all a trivial media pantomime. The minister is being spotlighted for his performance in office and rightly so.”

“Imagine getting to the point in your career when you’re writing articles in Sunday papers defending people who are destroying the very fabric of decent society,” wrote another.

“What is the secret to getting paid for writing this garbage?”

“Are you a doctor of shit takes?” said one, about her profile’s display name, ‘Dr Elaine Byrne.’

“Literally no one give (sic) a shit about this utter garbage.”

Google has a website called Google Trends where you can see how many times something has been searched. In Ireland, there wasn’t a single search for the term ‘reverse snobbery’ in the preceding nine months. Then, the print edition of the 9th September Business Post started circulating with Byrne’s piece advertised on the front page. Between 9 AM and 1 PM, there were 333 searches for ‘reverse snobbery.’

When I logged on that morning and saw the wave spreading across Irish Twitter, I screen-capped Byrne’s original tweet and sent it to a friend with a similar snarky comment. I then made a joke about it on Twitter. It wasn’t an especially funny joke; essentially, I slammed the phrase ‘reverse snobbery’ into a Simpsons reference. But, I was satisfied that I’d said something about the hot topic, so I left my joke up and carried on with my day.

While Byrne’s article jumped between a broad range of examples, from Trinity graduates to politicians from the early days of the state, the focus was Eoghan Murphy. Murphy has been the Minister for Housing since last year. It would be fair to criticise Murphy’s performance as Minister. Writing for the Journal, Stephen McDermott said that while Murphy was “not performing much worse than his predecessor” Simon Coveney, it is still the case that “virtually every aspect of the housing crisis has gotten worse.

“The cost of rent has spiralled, hitting an average all time-high of €1,304 per month in June. Critics say the private market offers no long-term solution to tenants, as landlords can evict them if they want to use the property for another purpose.”

-Stephen McDermott, ’15 months into the job, how has Eoghan Murphy performed as Minister for Housing?’ The Journal, published 9 Sept 2018

If you’re still feeling passive about the housing crisis, that might change when you consider recent events at 34 North Frederick Street, Dublin. On Tuesday 11th September, six activists who were occupying that building were arrested by gardaí on the street outside the property. Gardaí brandished batons and pepper spray as they tried to direct protesters to clear the road outside the property. The gardaí were masked, some of them were not wearing identification, and they hospitalised at least one person.

Those activists were from the Take Back The City group, which has organised a string of protest actions occupying vacant buildings in Dublin city centre to protest the housing crisis. Although the six activists were released that evening, the actions of the gardaí prompted a follow-up protest the next day.

This led to one person on Twitter making the connection:

reverse snobbery joke

This comes hot on the heels of Sinn Féin tabling a motion of no confidence in the Minister. We can safely conclude that Eoghan Murphy is not doing a good enough job, whatever Leo Varadkar might say. Public ill sentiment toward the man is not exclusively directed at his ‘posh boy’ persona.

This is one reason I found Byrne’s article, while interesting, to be ultimately unconvincing. When discussing that ill sentiment, it is unfair to skirt around Murphy’s controversial performance in the job just because it doesn’t fit your argument.

For the sake of retaining my all-important SJW credentials, I also want to talk about how oppression works. The larger reason I wasn’t taken in by Byrne’s article is that I feel it draws a false equivalence, at least implicitly. Byrne lashes into reverse snobbery with no qualification that it is less harmful than regular snobbery.

It’s a matter of who has the institutional power and who has the resources. Murphy isn’t a demon child because he’s from Dublin 4, but he does belong to a class that our society keeps well-off by trapping many others in relative poverty. When someone calls Murphy a posh boy, it may be rude but it’s not a slur because it will only upset or frustrate him. When someone from Dublin 4 refers to a working-class person as a skanger or welfare cheat, it’s more than merely rude; it helps to prop up the unjust system (unless they really are a welfare cheat, which is statistically unlikely). As Senator Lynn Ruane tweeted in direct response to the piece, “reverse anything only exists if the group we are talking about have had their life impacted by it. There (sic) access to health, education or employment impacted it. Otherwise, it doesn’t exist as the reverse of snobbery.”

At the same time, the way in which Twitter responded to the article was in poor taste. Much of the discourse around the topic was in the interest of creating content rather than trying to have a discussion. As the article was placed behind a paywall, many people didn’t even read it and instead responded to what they imagined the article might be based on the headline. It’s important to criticise journalists where appropriate, but it is also important to do so in an appropriate way. This was more comparable to being locked into the stocks, except much worse, on a national scale.

Such public shamings are commonplace nowadays. There are often two or three a day on Twitter. The days between shamings and outrages often feel empty, like we’re all treading water. Social media has turned the usually-undeserved humiliation of strangers into a form of passive entertainment. Worse yet, the algorithms encourage this by giving visibility to tweets which have no likes but many replies. Remember that Twitter does not run itself with the goal of fostering discussion or enriching your worldview. Twitter just wants you to spend more time on Twitter. It is not often that I will go to bat for anything even resembling a defence of Fine Gael, but I feel I must say this: be kind to each other and log the heck off.

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