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Social media controversy of the week: Dan Boyle and the Young Adults

Green Party Councillor Dan Boyle’s name is one that at this stage, will likely only really be remembered outside his Cork City Council bailiwick by political nerds. But between 2007 and 2011 he was a prominent figure in the Fianna Fáil/Green Government that presided over the economic crash of 2008, when he served as Deputy Leader of the Seanad and was a regular on current affairs programmes defending that Government’s record. Before that, from 2002-7, he was a TD for Cork South Central. When Fianna Fáil and the Greens came crashing down, so too did Boyle’s career as a national politician. He retreated to local politics, and after a failed attempt to get elected in 2014, he succeeded at the second time of asking and has been a member of Cork City Council since 2019.

He has also served, notably, as the Vice President of the National Youth Council of Ireland. All of which made this assertion by him, over the weekend in a now (probably wisely) deleted tweet somewhat controversial:

The context, as you may be able to divine from above, was that Boyle got himself involved in an online debate about whether certain books in Irish libraries – which have been the subject of the recent protests covered here and elsewhere – are suitable for kids of 12 years of age. Boyle’s answer is that 12 year olds are young adults, and therefore should be given information appropriate to young adulthood. Including, presumably, the more explicit content of the books in question, which have been controversial because of their often explicit descriptions of various exotic sex acts.

As you might expect, with social media being what it is, the reaction to him was neither particularly kind, nor charitable.

It is not the intention of your correspondent to defend Boyle here – we’ll come to the merits of what he said in a moment. It should though be noted that this is one of the drawbacks of social media for politicians who choose to use it to engage with voters or take part in debates. Had Boyle thought long and hard about what he was saying, he may have come to a more mature and sensible position – but being backed into a corner in an argument where you don’t feel you can concede an inch often makes people stake out and defend very silly positions, and make themselves look odd in the process.

Boyle made himself look odd, in this instance.

The state recognises, in every law it has on the statute book, that a 12 year old is not a young adult. Young adult isn’t a term that even exists in Irish law, but if we want to divine a legal age of young adulthood, then the law starts granting people individual rights at the age of 16 or 17, when things like provisional driving licences can be awarded, or when the age of consent is reached.

In the main, though, “Young Adult” is entirely, and completely, a marketing term in the literary world. It refers to a genre of books that are intended to reach kids who are growing in awareness of the world, and can be exposed to some of its realities, but are distinctly still children. The Harry Potter books, for example, are for young adults. They contain hints of romance, mild depictions of violence, and are set in a school setting familiar to children. They do not, notably, contain detailed instructions on how to perform oral sex.

Whether Dan Boyle genuinely believes that 12 year olds should receive such instructions is impossible to divine, but my own view is that he’s more a victim of his own intransigence than he is genuinely that intellectually lost: The culture war does funny things to people, and the internet makes those things worse. Faced with a choice between admitting that the hated “far right” has a point, and defending an absurdity, he’s chosen to defend the absurdity because that is the tribal imperative. It’s in the same family of nonsense as the Irish Government choosing to house people in tents on the electric picnic site, rather than admitting they got their immigration policy wrong.

This is, I’d argue, the poison that’s seeped into the Irish body politic: Mesmerising fear of the “far right” is leading people to trenchantly defend the indefensible because, in the minds of many, it is much less harmful for society to have 12 year olds exposed to pornography than it is to admit that politicians have allowed nonsensical situations to arise. Put Dan Boyle in a pub, I’d expect, chat with him frankly over a pint, and he might agree with you that maybe these books shouldn’t be in the “young adult” category in libraries.

But put him on social media, waging tribal war against the hated right wingers, and not an inch of ground can be given. There’s a madness in our political class that compels them to defend absurdities like the notion of 12 year old adults, rather than give an inch to the dreaded “far right””.

The irony here, of course, is that this very instinct is making the Irish body politic look and sound extreme in comparison to the very people it wishes to call extremists. Ask a normal person what they think of the books, or the tents in stradbally, and you’ll get an answer much more aligned with the “far right” than it is with Dan Boyle.

There’s only so long that can be sustainable. When politicians insist on making themselves look like weirdos, the voters will eventually do what they exist to do. If I was Dan, I’d spend less time online, and more time on potholes – the next local elections are less than a year away.

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