I was trying to write a coherent piece on the latest development in the Enoch Burke situation, and realised, about halfway through, that many of my thoughts contradict each other in some way. This is not a straightforward matter, alas, of goodies and baddies. Therefore, what follows is a list of bullet points, some of which you may agree with, some of which you may not.
- It seems to me to be a fundamental point of basic decency that in general, if you can avoid conflict with children that are not your own, that is a good thing to do. At the heart of this story is a child who has decided to change their pronouns. You may view that, as I do, as an impossibility, and an indulgence. But as adults, I think broadly that we should leave parenting to parents, and diagnoses to professionals. How to address a child that is not your own in front of a class seems to me to be an unfortunate and unnecessary, let alone lonely, hill to die on. In general, I think it would be better if public policy and culture war battles were contested at the ballot box, and not in the classroom. So if I were Enoch Burke, I would not have picked this fight. Maybe that makes me a coward, but I think it puts me in the majority of the public. The world will change neither for the better, or the worse, depending on what pronouns you use to refer to a single teenager. But even if you hold to the view, as some do, that children like this are troubled, it seems to me that confronting them publicly is not the way to help them.
- That said, it takes two to play at that game. Those who insist, and insist they do, that gender is a fluid thing have no issue whatsoever making schools the front line in this culture war. It seems to me we live in a country where nobody is ever, in a million years, going to be fired or suspended from a school for telling a child that they can be the opposite sex if that’s what they want. Heck, the INTO made a video for primary teachers telling them how to teach this stuff. That is instructive, I think, if you still labour under the delusion that education in this country is not increasingly ideological. Even if you think Burke is a jackass, is he just a jackass, or has he committed a fireable offence? Because that’s really the core question here, which nobody wants to answer.
- And on that note it also seems important, to me, to therefore note prominently and explicitly that Enoch Burke is not in jail for refusing to use the correct pronouns. He is in jail for refusing to abide by the terms of a court order not to trespass on a school from which he was suspended. In fairness to the courts, I am not sure that they were left with any other option than the course that they took. He gave them no other option. What were they to do? “That’s grand Enoch, you do what you want?” We’re a country of laws, or we’re supposed to be, and when we start ignoring court orders, we have to accept that the courts have a right to impose their will, or we’ll have no law at all. Every decision has a consequence, and Burke knew what the consequences were when he declined to obey the court.
- We are though, at the same time, left in a strange position whereby the Irish courts will send someone to prison for showing up unwanted to their place of work, but not for many, many, more grievous offences. Up to and including possession of child pornography, which will in many cases get you a suspended sentence. You can talk about the technicalities of contempt versus convictions until the cows come home, but that still strikes me – and I think it will strike many others – as nuts. This guy – this religious, bespectacled, sorry now Enoch, but nerd – is the guy we lock up, effectively, indefinitely? Maybe they’ll put him in a cell with the garlic importing guy. If he’d sexually assaulted someone instead, chances are he’d have been given a stern ticking off and a suspended sentence. Some contempt for the Irish courts, and their decisions, is warranted, and has been well earned.
- Here’s another thing – would we even know about this case, if Enoch Burke had not decided to, in the words of one commentator, “make a big scene about it”? Chances are, I think, that the answer to that is no. He escalated this situation, yes. But to a point, if you put yourself in his shoes, what other choice did he have? “Teacher quietly accepts suspension” is not, after all, a commonly written headline. We’re talking about this issue because Enoch Burke has made us all talk about it. Some people resent that. But it’s true.
- It’s an odd word, “expects”. Free of legal meaning, but absolutely laden with cultural and social pressure. It’s the word that the school uses to describe the situation with Burke and the student. He is not, they say, being “forced” to use pronouns with which he disagrees, but he is “expected to”. Their words, not mine. What does that mean, exactly? Expected by who? What is the penalty for refusing to conform to “expectations”? Clearly, there was some. At minimum, Burke was pulled up on it by someone, which is how this whole mess started.
- Speaking of expectations, Burke is a teacher. Which makes me wonder what would happen were he instead a fellow pupil. Do these “expectations” transfer to students as well? In other words, are pupils in this and other schools expected as a matter of course to treat changing your gender as 100% natural and normal and not to be questioned? I strongly suspect that the answer to that question is “yes”. And if I’m right, we don’t have education, but indoctrination. What would happen to a student in a school with these “expectations” who took the same stance Burke did? They couldn’t be fired, of course. But society has other ways to punish those who don’t conform, right?
- Somebody made the argument to me yesterday that in the absence of Burke’s “big scene”, he was doomed anyway. There’d have been – this person argued – an investigation, high powered external lawyers hired to make that investigation unimpeachable, and – the cynic claimed – “they’d have found a reason to quietly fire him”. Obviously, I have no reason to share this person’s doubts about the integrity of the school’s disciplinary processes, and nor do you. But I cannot imagine my correspondent is alone in that thought. This is Ireland. We all live here. We know, as the man says, how things work. Some cynicism about these matters in general, whatever about this school, is more than warranted. Especially if you’re a holder of minority, troublesome, views.
- On that note, I notice that liberals and progressives in the media, both traditional and social, are *very* eager to ensure that the world knows that poor ol’ Enoch is in jail for non-compliance with the court, and that this has nothing to do with pronouns at all. Nothing to do with it at all, they proclaim. Underline the “at all” five times for emphasis, and so on. Which is completely true as a matter of both fact and law, but also strikes me as a very convenient way for them to avoid the central question about whether a teacher should, in fact, be compelled to use a child’s personally chosen pronouns rather than the ones they were born with. No need to talk about that at all. Some things are both true, and obfuscating. This is one such thing.
- There’s a logic to Burke’s actions, personally costly though they are. If the state is going to deploy force and power over you to make you act in a certain way, there’s sometimes a point to making them do it. Would this article be written, would people be talking about this, if Burke simply complied? I think not. There’s not a huge difference between Enoch Burke and, say, extinction rebellion protestors gluing themselves to paintings and roads and things. It’s peaceful civil disobedience, of a kind, though not likely to be as popular or gently indulged by media types. When green flower-power kumbaya types get themselves locked up for contempt of court, we don’t have a parade of blue ticks and know-it-all journalists lining up to defend the authorities for doing the only thing they could. Enoch Burke won’t be invited onto Prime Time to justify his civil disobedience, like the XR types are. Convenient, that.
- Sooner or later, this issue will have to be confronted head on. For good or ill, and I think ill, the number of trans-identifying children in Irish schools is exploding. We can wander around the point this time with talk of injunctions and contempt all we want, but ultimately, there’s a bigger question to be answered: Am I, or is anyone else, forced to address a person (yes, even a child) in a way we believe sincerely to be absurd? I gave you my own views on what we should do in point 1 above, but there’s a difference between what we perhaps should do and what we must do.
As you can see, many of these points contradict.
About the only people free of blame here, ironically, are the courts, who were left with no real option but to throw him in jail for contempt, or see their authority openly flouted with no consequence. That would have been a bad precedent for all of us.