While at the Dublin Empowering Women Through Secularism conference, I interviewed Catherine O’Brien who offered some closing remarks on the final day of the event.
Some controversy followed O’Brien’s remarks: an audience member (a Saturday panelist) interrupted her remarks, an audience member (another Saturday panelist) walked out of the room during closing remarks and comments from audience members despite a conference policy which asks people to “listen respectfully,” and some Twitter users complained while tweeting the conference hashtag.
I interviewed O’Brien to dispel confusion and obtain some clarification. An intrepid supporter of mine — Matt Cavanaugh — has offered to transcribe the interview – streamlined for accessibility. A YouTube video of the interview and a transcription of the interview are below:
Justin Vacula: So, tell the audience about yourself.
Catherine O’Brien: Well, I’m a member of Atheist Ireland, but I was previously chair of the Humanist Association of Ireland. And I was asked today to chair one of the sessions. So that’s my involvement today.
JV: Toward the end of the conference you had made some closing remarks …
CO: … I was trying to get audience participation for this session. So I started by just drawing attention to some observations that I had, that in society in general and this point in time in the whole feminist movement and about empowering women, that it’s important to broaden this out. That women’s rights are human rights, and that in order to do that, we need to acknowledge and draw men in and raise their awareness about how damaging a patriarchal society is to them as well as to women. Between the hierarchical set-up and the pecking order, that, in fact, the vast majority of men do not actually have control over their lives, either.
And to point out to them how valuable it would be for them to have more women in power that the whole of society would benefit. And this would be a consciousness-raising effort which would in time bring much greater change, and perhaps a lot faster than having an aggressive feminist approach and blaming men all the time.
JV: You said, “Men and women need to work together in society”. One of the comments you made … was that in jails 90% of men are incarcerated, and that the suicide rate [of young men] is four times that of young women. Can you talk about that?
CO: … in Ireland. Well, I think in 2009, 93.6% in American jails were men. So that’s a ridiculous situation. I can’t understand myself why men aren’t actually wondering: why is that the case? Why are so many men in jail? Ireland is really looking very closely at the fact of why that age group — between 15 and 25 — the rate of suicide in Ireland is four times higher in young men.
Society needs to own this problem, needs to take it on. By empowering women to take a much bigger part in society and in decision-making — socially, culturally, economically, politically — men will benefit by this. And it’s a question of raising awareness, looking at all the research that’s out there, and making sure that men see that this is in their own very interest. And get them campaigning and forming alliances with feminist groups, to make sure they too will benefit from the very changed, equal society. It’s much greater social justice, social awareness, etc.
JV: You had said here that you weren’t going to make an apology for your remarks. What did you mean by that?
CO: When some of the people from the floor … were saying, ‘Oh, no; we need to fight, we need to be very angry,’ I drew attention to the fact that I do think we need to fight — there’s a lot of work to be done. But am not for a split-second saying that we can be complacent about this. It’s actually a very urgent issue. So I was making no apology for … drawing attention to the fact that men suffer as well as women.
Now, I understand, it’s not like looking for ‘equal’, no. We suffer much more than you do. Obviously women do. They own very little of the world’s wealth. They’re not in positions of power. In Ireland there are far too few… there are 15% represented in our Daîl. So, I’m not for a split-second comparing. Of course, women’s rights, the glass ceiling; all these issues need to be tackled.
We need to have a quota system to give women that leg up. I’m fully behind the quota system. It will just move things forward a little bit more quickly. So, I’m not getting complacent about this issue. But it seemed to come from the floor that the things I that was saying was kind of making excuses. Which is absolutely not what I was saying.
JV: There are some people here on the live tweeting … they’re on the conference hash-tag here, and they’re lamenting the fact that men’s issues were brought up here. Saying here: ‘There’s problems for men that still stem over privileging male characteristics over female ones. I understand. But we are not discussing misandry. rather the ways in which men are negatively affected by the patriarchy?”
There’s another person saying here: “Men suffer as much as women. That’s why I make more than most women here. And have unconditional right to life and health.” So, it seems people are … lashing back.
CO: Well, that’s fine.
JV: But was this what you were saying? That men suffer as much as women? This isn’t what i heard at the podium.
CO: No, of course that’s not what I was saying. I was saying that it’s a human right, that we should be trying for. I’m not saying anything new here. In the United Nations, in European human rights, they are saying: women’s rights are human rights. So this thing of dividing it up as only women’s rights demeans it. Because, actually, it’s a much broader thing than just women’s rights. It’s human rights for all.
I was trying to draw attention. To look for allegiances, to look for other allies, from all kinds of groups. And I’m really talking about raising awareness in terms of society. And trying to move things faster. So It’s not a question of me being an apologist for the status quo. [Laughs]. That’s totally misinterpreting what I was saying.
JV: There’s another tweet. Someone says: “What about the menz?? Misandry is not a real thing. Very disillusioned with the conference now.”
CO: Oh, that’s too bad. I’m sorry they felt that way, but they’ve totally misinterpreted what I was saying. That’s unfortunate. I think I have learned over the years that people will hear what they want to hear. And that is not what I was saying. That’s all I can say about that. That is misinterpreting absolutely what i was saying.
JV: There’s another person here saying that they think you’re going to be criticized and attacked for some of the comments that you had made. How do you fell about that?
CO: A needless remark, and it saddens me. I don’t have a thick neck. I’m not out there … I’m not a political person. I’m just doing my best at a conference of what, approximately 120 people? So, it actually puts the likes of me — who has genuine, passionate desire for quality in society — it puts me off, sticking my neck out. I’m not the typical person who likes to go out there and shout; it’s from very sincere motives. So, of course, these type of comments would put the likes of me off.
JV: And final question, based on something else you said: “Anger can be destructive. We need to turn it into constructive activism. Until then, it is useless.”
CO: Yeah, to the individual. You can be angry in your living room. You can kick your television set, you can throw something out the window. That’s absolutely useless. It damages you. Unless you can then turn that into some kind of action. I mean, the psychology is out there; I’m not saying anything unique. This isn’t controversial, even. [Laughs] No, this is such an understood concept, that anger is useless and only damages the individual. But it is a huge motivator…. If you turn that anger into action, you actually feel much better about it. And you’re doing something about the problem. But just anger by itself, as some people suggested here? Eh, no. That’s useless.
As always, feel free to comment below.