What do we mean by Social Conservatism anyway?

How did you vote in the referendum on the death penalty?

Referendum on the death penalty, you ask? We didn’t have any referendum on the death penalty!

Yes, we did. In June 2001 we voted by 62% to insert a ban on capital punishment into the constitution, and the fact that we have collectively forgotten about it tells you how radically Irish society has changed its view on the issue. In the 1983 Magill book of Irish politics the late Niall Andrews TD is described as being on the liberal wing of Fianna Fail because he was against hanging. It’s easy to forget that within our lifetime we have moved as a society from a point where the state having the power to execute Irish citizens was not only legal, but was a mainstream view held by a substantial section of society.

I raise the issue today within the context of what some speculate as a resurgence in social conservatism. It’s a catch-all phrase which is, I think inaccurately, used to label many citizens who have challenged particular viewpoints, and to label that challenge as somehow anti-progressive. It’s also a very unattractive label, in that it attempts to attach huge amounts of baggage to anyone challenging certain positions. We’ve all heard it:

“I believe in X”

“Well, I agree with you on about 75% of that”

“So you want to round up all those X and put them in Nazi death camps, do you?”

The issue of sex education is one which has come to the public fore once again. I’m old enough to remember when teaching kids about basic sex and contraception was controversial, and I was very much on the liberal side of the argument.

The current debate raises two valid points: 1) what age is appropriate to be teaching very sexually explicit information, and 2) should we be doing it at all?

I can see both sides. Parents appalled at what is being shown to their children. But also the reality that in a digitally-connected age we have young children (especially boys) being exposed to a pornified version of sex and relationships which will not help them or society.

This issue needs a rational and calm discussion, and not the heated hysteria of calling each others groomers or 1980s social conservatives. But we also have to be careful of the US model, where small but highly motivated groups of political activists hijack a process and twist the system to suit their own agenda.

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