Let us imagine, for one brief, blessed moment, that Enoch Burke and his employers, the Wilson’s Hospital Secondary School in Westmeath, manage to patch things up. Such a notion seems impossible, without one or both parties backing down completely: Either the school agrees that Mr. Burke shall never have to use pronouns to which he objects, in any circumstances, or Mr. Burke agrees to, as he sees it, condemn himself to hell by saying “they” instead of “he” or “she”. The positions on both sides appear, at this point, so entrenched that no such resolution seems possible.
But even if it were: How can Mr. Burke and the school ever co-exist peacefully again? Mr. Burke has spent one hundred days in Prison. The School, for its part, has spent months in the headlines on foot of Mr. Burke’s situation. Yesterday, the school sought a court order seeking to deprive Mr. Burke of his assets.
You’d need a very big bridge for all that water to pass under. And even if such a pontoon could be found, both parties would presumably spend the next 30 years or so of Mr. Burke’s career in constant fear of a new situation sparking another explosion between the parties.
Whatever side you come down on, therefore, it should be readily clear that the present position is untenable, for both parties.
But all of that said, the fact remains that the behaviour of the school is, and has been, deplorable. This is an institution that first sought the imprisonment of one of its staff members, and is now seeking his financial ruination, over a row about pronouns. That such a situation could be permitted to escalate to this point – even if one believes firmly that Mr. Burke sought, or encouraged, such escalation – is an utter indictment of the school’s management, and those advising it.
What’s more, the fact is that the schools’ absurd strategy has allowed Mr. Burke to run rings around it, at every step. Mr. Burke feels so strongly in his position that he was willing to endure a hundred days in prison. One assumes that, in such circumstances, he is also willing to forfeit his worldly goods. Rightly or wrongly, his convictions will have won him admirers, and sympathisers, who would not have flocked to his banner in the absence of his civil disobedience.
At this point, it is worth noting something very simple and straightforward: All of this could have been avoided, had the school simply agreed, on day one, that Mr. Burke was not required to use pronouns for any person to which he objects. A simple public statement to that effect, had the matter become controversial, or Mr. Burke disputed the truth of it, would have taken the wind from his sails.
Instead, the school, in its own way, has acted with a zealotry that matches that of which Mr. Burke stands accused, at every step. It is the school, remember, which seeks punitive consequences for Mr. Burke – not the other way around. It is they who sought his imprisonment. It is they who now seek to seize his assets. One wonders do they think it will work.
One wonders further how the school imagines that this will all end, or whether they truly believe that this fight has been worth it? What, after all, has been gained?
Is the transgender student at the centre of this story really best served by what has taken place? Would that student not have been better served by simply being placed in classes taught by other teachers, with a guarantee that he or she would not be compelled to interact with Mr. Burke?
Or would they, perhaps, have been better served by simply being told that while their pronouns are something they can ask for people to respect, in the real world, you cannot simply demand that others accept that you are what you say you are?
Because this is the nub of it, for many people: Mr. Burke’s insistence that he will not use “they/them” pronouns might well be rude. Or it might well be unkind. But it is not illegal. There is no law compelling us to use any pronouns that people demand that we use. The school’s policy here – and it is a policy, not a law – provoked resistance because rightly, it should be resisted.
Resisted, it was. And now, here we are. With the spectacle of a school trying to have the courts seize the assets of a teacher because, ultimately, he would not agree to use particular pronouns in day to day conversation. Everything else is a secondary consequence of the original silly decision.
In all of this, Mr. Burke himself should not be excused. He has chosen, willingly, to defy court orders. And to go to a school where he is not wanted, and from which he has been placed on leave, pending a disciplinary hearing. Those are his choices. And while one might think the school foolish for forcing them on him, he cannot be absolved from the consequences of them.
But Mr. Burke is not in management. It was never his responsibility to avoid a conflict, or to decline to fight his corner in a particular way.
This situation has arisen solely, and entirely, from an idiot school picking a very silly fight. And taking that fight, now, to ridiculous and absurd and tawdry extremes. The board of management, in my view, deserve all the misery and embarrassment that is presently flowing in their direction.