To make meaningful change, we must reconcile the desire to denounce with the ability to forgive

Actor John Connors’ public apology for his participation in a reactionary demonstration should be welcomed

On July 13, a rally under the banner of Hands off Our Kids took place outside the Dáil as a response to Green Party TD and Minister for Children, Roderic O’Gorman, being photographed with Peter Tatchell. This photo was taken in 2018, and Tatchell was not known to O’Gorman at the time, but the photo was used and abused by the far right in order to defame O’Gorman, and allege that he is a paedophile.

In response, O’Gorman has published a statement on Twitter saying: “I met Peter Tatchell once and took a photo. That was the only time I have met him. I knew of him as someone who stood up for LGBT people in countries where their rights were threatened. I was surprised to read some quotes from the 90s, which I had not read before. Any of those views would be completely abhorrent to me. I’m glad to see he’s clarified and explained that what is being alleged isn’t his view.”

“The homophobic allegations against O’Gorman grew wings, pushed by far right organisations such as The National Party and The Irish Freedom Party which culminated in a Hands Off Our Kids Rally at the Dáil.”

However, the allegations grew wings, pushed by far right organisations such as The National Party and The Irish Freedom Party which culminated in a Hands Off Our Kids Rally at the Dáil. Images and videos of this demo appeared on social media, rightfully disturbing and concerning many, given the banners patterned with nooses proclaiming “punish the guilty” and the bigotted nature of the speeches.

John Connors was the sole independent speaker. Connors is most famous for his portrayal of Patrick Ward in popular television programme Love/Hate. Connors has been an outspoken advocate for the rights of Irish Travellers, frequently condemning the Irish government’s previous refusal to recognise Travellers as an ethnic minority, and its inaction on institutional racism. In the documentary I Am Traveller, Connors commented: “When other actors in Love/Hate were interviewed they’d be asked about Hollywood or who they’d like to ask to a fantasy dinner party. Every interview I do is the same thing. I am asked to account for Traveller violence and feuding.”

“Connors has been an outspoken advocate for the rights of Irish Travellers, frequently condemning the Irish governments’ previous refusal to recognise Travellers as an ethnic minority and its inaction on institutional racism.”

Given his vocal support for equality on this issue, many were rightfully shocked and disappointed at Connors’ support for the reactionary rally which manipulated people’s genuine concern for children into a homophobic attack. However, on July 19, Connors issued a statement on social media formally apologising to O’Gorman, saying his actions were “wrong and unfair on every level” and referenced mental health issues he suffered which meant he “lost his way”. Connors alluded to the anti-Traveller bigotry he suffered his whole life, and emphasised: “I am fully supportive of LGBTQ rights and it pains me that anything I have said might in any way have hurt the wider cause.” Connors admitted that his own misguided anger led him to “appear to feed an army of trolls and support groups whose views I find abhorrent…and whose methods are ugly”.

“While strongly standing against oppression and opposing reactionary ideas is one thing, cancel culture in many respects has evolved into a sanctimonious and moralistic tactic, which does not take into account the reality that people can change their opinions and values for the better.”

O’Gorman graciously accepted the apology on Twitter, saying he considered the acrimony between himself and Connors to be resolved. While some people on social media have speculated that this apology was insincere damage control (as Connors has a new film soon to be released), I believe this cynicism is counterproductive. The term “cancel culture” has gained traction in recent years, sparking arguments, scandals, and “cancellations” galore. While strongly standing against oppression and opposing reactionary ideas is one thing, cancel culture in many respects has evolved into a sanctimonious and moralistic tactic, which does not take into account the reality that people can change their opinions and values for the better. Instead, it seeks to denounce, to ostracize, and to create a mentality of Us, the Good People versus The Others, who are “less educated” or less “in the know” than us. Connors’ apology was significant as it revealed the manner in which well meaning people can be sucked in by intolerant ideas. For example, while there are figures in the world who clearly consciously whip up hate and incite violence towards marginalised people, I do not believe that every person who attended the demo professing to “protect our children” was an irredeemable reactionary who is incapable of changing their views, just as Connors did. Similarly, there is an important distinction to be made between holding influential figures (perhaps most topically J.K. Rowling) to account for persistently spreading and promoting discrimination, and acknowledging that people who previously have said offensive things or behaved in an undesirable way, do not deserved to be ostracized or branded irredeemable.

Mark Fisher, the late writer and cultural theorist, once penned a piece entitled Exiting the Vampire’s Castle, in which he argued that contemporary left politics is often plagued by “an atmosphere of snarky resentment” coupled with “bad conscience and witch-hunting moralism” and that we should instead foster solidarity and acknowledge the fact that people can make mistakes and do not deserve to be excessively villainized or “cancelled’ for them. He compared this moralism to a quasi-religious obsession with condemning and excommunicating, erasing any nuance or capacity for shifting consciousness in the process. A single behavioural slip or ill judged comment becomes that person’s entire identity. Cancelling somebody for a mistake or one-time offence which is followed by a sincere apology and change of action is counterproductive, and entirely different to opposing oppression in a principled and forward-thinking way. Of course, Connors’ words caused untold hurt to members of the LGBT community, and it is not any single person’s job to decide who or how to forgive. However, in light of O’Gorman’s acceptance of the apology, I think it is clear that it is significant and positive for someone to say “I was wrong, I am sorry, I will change my behaviour” and for this to be taken in good faith. The alternative is to permanently dub the person One Of Them, arguably alienating countless more in the process. In essence, we should avoid this, and replace the desire to denounce with the ability to convince and forgive.

This article was amended at 12:21 on 23/07/2020 to correct the date attributed to a photograph of  Roderic O’Gorman and Peter Tatchell. The photo, which was taken in 2018, was originally stated to have been taken in 1997. 

Grace Gageby

Grace Gageby is the Deputy Comment Editor for Trinity News and studies English and Philosophy.