“I’m always holding my tongue and trying not to offend anyone. The self-censorship makes you have to think within a set of intellectual limitations. When you can’t say what’s in front of your nose, you end up bending yourself out of all intellectual and political shape in an attempt to work around this thing. And I just can’t do it anymore.”
These are the words of Stephen Baker in Claire Mitchell’s most fascinating new book Ghost Limb.
I cannot tell you how much Stephen’s words resonated with me, particularly at the end of 2022. Indeed, I would go as far as to say that my biggest regret in 2022, what I need to confess the most, is how I allowed judgemental ecclesiastical bullies to force me back into self-censorship.
I had been to see Pope Francis in April. It was a private audience in his private library. It was an honour for 10 years of the 4 Corners Festival and I guess I was a little naive. I never once thought that it would cause people to write to the press in an attempt to get me sacked or that someone would suggest that, “He shook hands with the devil”. No. Honestly!
Much as I thought I had let those voices sweep over my head for many years I found myself self-censoring again. In some ways it is a desire for a quiet life. Don’t poke the beast and get him angry. Do not respond. Whatever you say, say nothing.
I even had myself believing that I was doing the right thing. The gracious thing. Anything for a quiet life.
It was reading this paragraph in Ghost Limb that shook me out of my pathetic stupor and woke me up to the insidious silencing of my voice. Preach it Stephen Baker. I will not bend myself out of my intellectual and political shape to keep this sectarian binary world I find myself immersed in. I need to get back to being myself and adding some breadth to the narrow confined discussions going on in my space and time.
The most powerful thing about Claire’s book is that it tells me that I am not a loner freak. Actually I knew I wasn’t alone. I just didn’t realise how much company I had. Even more than that Claire suggests why we might be the alternative thinkers we are.
The title Ghost Limb comes from a feeling that Claire has about an absence in her own identity; like a ghost limb. After years living in Dublin, Claire found that moving back north caused her very self to contract back to that captive binary default position we all feel the pressure of.
Claire has not only freed herself from the sectarian prison of the north but has a hunch that her alternative thinking might have something to do with 1798 and the United Irishmen. Two centuries ago life was not so binary. Protestants were not all loyal to a Crown that was oppressing Presbyterians as much as Catholics. Sectarianism was not so plentiful.
You might be thinking that I am now a freak twice over, imagining how events 200 years ago can be influencing me now. Well, as seeming chance would have it, I was reading another book alongside Claire’s.
James K A Smith is a Professor of Philosophy at Calvin University, Grand Rapids, Michigan. His latest book How To Inhabit Time knows little about Irish history but he has things to say into Mitchell’s theory. One of Smith’s many ponderings on time is about how much the past impacts the now.
Smith writes, “For everything created, to be is to be temporal, and to be temporal is to be indebted to a past and orientated toward a future.” He goes on, “To be temporal is to be the sort of creature who absorbs time and its effects. A rolling stone might carry no moss, but a temporal human being picks up and carries an entire history as they roll through a lifetime.”
The serendipity is uncanny, both books published just weeks apart.
Ghost Limb is Claire Mitchell’s personal dissertation into how indebted a growing number of us are to 1798 and all of that. She goes on walks to places where that history lingers. She talks to quite a range of Protestants who think outside the binary. She’s piecing something together. It is almost the Irish evidence for James K A Smith’s own dissertation.
Like Stephen Baker’s quote, at the top of the blog, I am finding traction in my head, heart and soul in so much of the book.
For forty years I have wondered why I think as I do. Why am I not hard binary? Why do I think Ireland as much as the United Kingdom? Why, in 1979, did the music of Horslips open that Irish soul in me that I have loved immersing myself in ever since? How has the needless bloody murder and mayhem of the IRA’s military campaign made me feel that my Irishness needed to be kept quiet in case it linked to those atrocities? How did the pressure of Unionist, loyalist and, for me, church bullying cause me to self-censor?
As a Presbyterian I discovered against the run of current play, that we were the dissenters. I feel that in the core of me. A ghost limb, if you will. Yet, dissenter is hardly what we would call Presbyterians in Ireland today. Even, within the denomination I am pushed towards self-censorship. Maybe particularly so. The light from all quarters and reading the Scriptures for yourself and being led by the Holy Spirit into radical obedience seems long gone from our Reformation DNA.
Claire Mitchell seems to me to be onto something. I could see a swathe of her generation who would find communal benefits in her thinking and listening.
Is this where the new surge in votes outside of Sinn Fein and the DUP are coming from? Now that someone has started to write these ideas down will they make a stronger mark? If there is a border poll up ahead then all sides in that debate need a read at Ghost Limb.
As for me, it has encouraged me to explore a past that I might need to recognise in my now if the future is to be shaped in a better way. My main quote from James K A Smith’s How To Inhabit Time will be much quoted as future Surmises unfolds:
“Our past is not what we have left behind; it’s what we carry. It’s like we have been handed a massive ring of jangling keys. Some of them unlock possible futures. Some of them have enchained our neighbours. We are thrown into the situation of trying to discern which is which.”