The right to insult

In the end, the issue, I suppose, is whether the writing under consideration instigates the reader to hate someone

The diatribe against Roberta Metsola posted on Facebook by Mario Philip Azzopardi has provoked reactions from many on both sides of the political divide.

Let me first declare that my opinion of Roberta Metsola is the exact antithesis of Azzopardi’s and I cannot disagree more with him than on his short-sighted and furious assessment of Metsola.

But I do not intend to defend or attack either Roberta or Mario in this piece about the fine line between hate speech and insult. Frankly, I am often at a loss in this respect.

Take this week’s column written by Dana Millbank in The Washington Post. Millbank is a well-known US columnist who boasts of a BA cum laude in political science from Yale University – no amateur, I would say.

Well. the first part of his column published last Wednesday said this: “Allow me to share some frank thoughts about the president: The orangutan in the White House is less refined than a savage. He is a fool, an irresolute, vacillating imbecile. He is an idiot, of low intellectual capacity. He is a barbarian, a yahoo, a gorilla – the original gorilla – and an unshapely man. He is horrid-looking, a scoundrel, a creature fit, evidently, for petty treasons.

“He is dishonest. He is unjust. He has no principle, no respect for law. In his administrative madness, on his unconstitutional crusade, he uses the power of government to crush. His presidency is despotism, a dictatorship, a monstrous usurpation, a criminal wrong and an act of national suicide.

“The American people are in no mood to re-elect a man to the highest office whose daily language is indecent. His speech is coarse, colloquial, devoid of ease and grace, and bristling with outrages against the simplest rules of syntax. His silly remarks are flat and dishwatery utterances. It wouldn’t be easy to produce anything more dull and commonplace – awkwardly expressed and slipshod, so loose-jointed, so puerile. Lacking in dignity or patriotism, his words would have caused a Washington to mourn and would have inspired a Jefferson, Madison or Jackson with contempt.

“A leader of incapacity and rottenness, he has taken us on a wicked and hazardous experiment. He lacks practical talent and capacity for government. He is an old joker. He is weak as water, a man of canting hypocrisy. He sickens us. If he is re-elected I shall immediately leave the country.”

I have only reproduced half his column both because of space limitations and because, anyway, the incredibly strong language somewhat peters off.

My point is, in Malta we seem not to have accepted that insulting people is a right – part of the right for freedom of expression. After the Charlie Hebdo shooting in Paris, on 7 January 2015, the Maltese press joined the rest of Europe screaming about the sacred right for freedom of expression. Charlie Hebdo was well known for insulting religions – not just Islam, by the way. The Maltese press rose, united in indignation, and even adopted the hashtag #jesuischarlie, making it its own. Of course, the authors of the heretical cartoons were not Maltese!

When Daphne Caruana Galizia was assassinated – not because she frequently exercised her right to insult people, but because she was on the right track uncovering a serious case of corruption – all the Maltese press expressed solidarity with her in the spirit of freedom of expression.

When Mario Philip Azzopardi published a silly tirade against Roberta Metsola, it was described as ‘hate speech’ worthy of being condemned by everyone – to the extent that The Times last Wednesday, editorially expressed indignation that the Manoel Theatre “gave no indication that its board would take any action to prevent it from happening again” – as if the Manoel Theatre Board has a right to censor the private thoughts of any author or producer who uses the facilities of the theatre to stage their plays, plays that are no longer subject to censorship!

The fact that Roberta Metsola is a woman does not make anyone who insults her a misogynist, as the ToM editorial purported. Roberta was not insulted because of her gender but because of her politics.

Saying that everybody ‘hates’ Metsola when she gets so many first preference votes in the EP election is patently untrue and bordering on the inane.

The question remains: Where does insult stop and hate speech begin?

The notion of hate speech does not exist without an explicit instigation to ‘hate’ someone because of differences in ethnicity, religious beliefs, gender or political differences. But was Azzopardi’s silly tirade ‘hate speech’ or just a clumsy, exaggerated and absolutely unnecessary insult?

Is Dana Millbank’s post in The Washington Post – coincidentally published a few hours before the editorial of The Times – hate speech?

In the end, the issue, I suppose, is whether the writing under consideration instigates the reader to hate someone. Did Mario Philip Azzopardi instigate people to hate Roberta Metsola? Did Dana Millbank instigate his readers to hate Donald Trump?

Or were they simply exercising their right to insult as protected by their right for freedom of expression?

Perceptions, perceptions

A day or two after a long meeting with the Prime Minister in Castille on Monday night, former PM, Joseph Muscat, was reported to have presented his successor with a nine-page report compiled by “the office of Dr Joseph Muscat” mapping the possible evolution of the Maltese economy in 2020 and 2021.

The Prime Minister’s decision to involve his predecessor in the drafting of Malta’s post-COVID-19 economic recovery plan is, from a political point of view, an unwarranted disaster.

Not because Muscat’s contribution to this issue cannot be economically sensible but because the decision has – in one fell swoop – undermined all of Robert Abela’s previous attempts to distance himself from his predecessor.

The decision sustains the PN line that the change from Muscat to Abela was simply a cosmetic change and that nothing has actually changed. We are still in the same creaky boat!

Politics is all about perceptions and Abela has shot himself in the foot by unwittingly relaying the message that he is, after all, not his own man.

That he apparently did not realise this would happen, continues to show that Abela has still not yet learnt his ropes.

He has not yet realised that messages sent by actions are more powerful than messages sent by words.