My, how hyper-sensitive we’ve all suddenly become…

We seem to be living in a country where ‘misogyny’ and ‘hate-speech’ are only ever considered crimes, when committed by people we don’t like

Let me start by doing something I never imagined I would end up doing in this column: sticking up for David Thake. 

You might have missed the small furore that erupted over one of the Nationalist MP’s many, MANY social media postings this week – because he retracted it so darn quickly – but… this was his online reaction to Thursday’s car-crash, which claimed the life of a 39-year-old motorcyclist: 

“I don’t know what caused this accident, but excessive speed has become endemic on our roads. More enforcement is needed and throughout the week. Imbeciles do not only speed on weekends. Condolences to the family of the young man who might just have been at the wrong place at the wrong time.” 

And… well, there is actually quite a lot you could take Thake to task for in those three sentences: starting with the first three words. 

Excuse me, but: if a post begins with ‘I don’t know’… well, you can expect it to invite a reaction along the lines of: ‘then why the bloody hell are you even commenting at all?’ 

But then again, ‘knowledge of the facts’ is not a pre-requisite for exercising one’s inalienable, fundamental human right of freedom of expression (otherwise – let’s face it - hardly any of us would be free to express an opinion, about hardly anything at all).  

So even if his comment is, by its own admission, rooted in ignorance… fact remains that David Thake still had every right to make it. (And there’s even this obscure document called the ‘Universal Charter of Human Rights’ to prove it.) 

But in any case: David Thake wasn’t criticised for commenting in the absence of any real knowledge of the facts (in which case, the criticism would have been partly justified). No, he was criticised for displaying ‘insensitivity’ towards the victim and his family… and even then, only for his use of the word ‘imbeciles’. 

And this is problematic for a whole bunch of other reasons: not least, because it once again points towards an incredibly widespread misinterpretation of what ‘freedom of expression’ really means.  

Honestly, though. How many times must we be reminded of the landmark 1976 ‘Handyside versus the United Kingdom’ ECHR ruling, before we all get it into our heads that: “Freedom of expression is applicable not only to ‘information’ or ‘ideas’ that are favourably received […] but also to those that offend, shock or disturb”? 

And much as the idea might seem distasteful to some… that also applies to ‘insensitive’ comments in the aftermath of a fatality.  

To put that into a broader international context: recently, it was reported that North Korean premier Kim Jong Un was either ‘dead’ or ‘dying’: prompting a deluge of online responses along the lines of ‘good riddance’ or ‘about time’. 

Likewise, some people responded to news of British PM Boris Johnson’s recent hospitalisation by wishing him a speedy… um… demise. 

Now: are those ‘nice things’ to say about people in such circumstances? Don’t people like Kim Jong Un or Boris Johnson also have families of their own (two, in Bojo’s case), who will surely mourn their passing? 

The answer to those questions can only be ‘no’ and ‘yes’ respectively. But… does that mean that people shouldn’t be allowed to express such opinions to begin with? Or that they should be ‘condemned’, or forced to apologise, if they do? 

I, for one, would certainly hope not: for otherwise, it would imply that the political system we live in today is not all that very different from the one we criticise so much in North Korea (which criticism, ironically, is also the reason for such ‘insensitive’ comments in the first place). 

The bottom line, then, is that even if David Thake fully intended to ‘offend, shock or disturb’ the victim’s family and friends… OK, I’ll admit it’s not exactly a very ‘gentlemanly-like’ thing to do, under the circumstances.  

But it’s still his right to do it anyway. Just as it is the right of others to seek legal redress, if they feel he has overstepped the legal limitations of free speech (for there is an important flipside here: the Handyside ruling applies to the expression of ‘ideas’ and ‘information’… but it doesn’t exonerate people from libel. In other words: you are free to be as ‘offensive’ or ‘insensitive’ as you like… but you are not free to just lie about people, in the name of ‘freedom of expression’).  

Having said all that, however… I honestly doubt that was David Thake’s intention in the first place. I would have thought that those same three words – ‘I don’t know’ – already make it clear enough that the rest of the post was intended as a broader comment about traffic accidents in general: and not just the one that happened last Thursday.  

From that perspective, I must say I find it very hard to disagree with his overall assessment. On May 1 alone, for instance, 74 drivers were booked for over-speeding: in the space of just four hours, mind you… and only on four arterial roads (the Mellieħa and St Paul's Bay bypasses, Triq Kennedy Drive and the Coast Road.)  

Two days later, that figure went up to 80; and it was reported that: “Police fined two drivers for reaching speeds of 103 and 94 kph” […] one car “was clocked at 143 kph [...] Two other vehicles were caught at speeds of 137 kph and 123 kph”.  

All this, on roads where the maximum speed limit is either 60 or 70kph (depending on location). 

Meanwhile, the following Sunday (10 May), “the police booked 74 motorists for speeding, including one driver caught doing” – wait for it – “193kph (!)”.  

So, um… what word are we supposed to use to describe such people, if not ‘imbeciles’? I mean… they’re not exactly ‘geniuses’, now are they?   

If anything, I think David Thake let them all off rather lightly, by focusing only on their stupidity: instead of their outrageous criminal irresponsibility, which exposes not just themselves, but also everyone else on the road to mortal danger. 

Ah, but suddenly, it’s become ‘insensitive’ to point out these facts, at a time when someone has only just died in a traffic accident. Which I must say I find not only strange, but almost disturbing: because by the same token, it should also be ‘insensitive’ to criticise certain construction and development practices… at a time when people are getting buried alive under the rubble of their collapsed homes. 

More than ‘insensitivity’ on Thake’s part, then, I would say it is a case of ‘extreme hypersensitivity’ on the part of his critics. And I need hardly add that this only drags a whole new problem into the picture: inconsistency. 

For it cannot escape notice that some of the people criticising David Thake this week, also stuck up for Karl Stagno Navarra when he singled out private citizens, and held them up to public opprobrium on live TV.  

Likewise, some of them defended former V18 chairman Mario Philip Azzopardi, when he launched a furious tirade aimed at Nationalist MEP Roberta Metsola – as well as, going further back in time, former GWU secretary Tony Zarb: over his 2017 comment comparing a group of female protestors to prostitutes from Strada Stretta. 

Where was all this hyper-sensitivity in those cases, I wonder? And why does it only ever manifest itself in cases where the ‘insensitive’ remark is made by people with different political opinions/affiliations from our own? 

Gee, what a difficult question. I guess we’ll just never know… 

Meanwhile, it obviously doesn’t help much that the same sort of blatant hypocrisy is just as visible – if not even more so – on the other side of the political divide.  

I’ve already mentioned the Mario Philip Azzopardi example, so I may as well stick with it for now.  Interestingly enough, among the many who cried foul at his behaviour was Labour MP Rosianne Cutajar: who, if you’ll remember, was herself the victim of a long-standing smear campaign, on the basis of allegations – originally made by Daphne Caruana Galizia – that she had once worked as an ‘escort’ in Sicily. 

Cutajar has since then sued some of the people who repeated that slur: and they just happen to include two prominent members of the ‘Occupy Justice’ movement. 

In any case: Cutajar argued that, just as that sort of treatment was unjust when applied to herself, so it should also be when applied to a Nationalist politician instead… thus displaying a rare level of intellectual consistency, in a political scene that is otherwise permeated by outrageous double standards.  

Kudos, I suppose, to Rosianne Cutajar. But can her own critics make the same claim? Doesn’t anyone else find it just slightly incongruous, that the same people who repeatedly called that Labour MP a whore, for well over two years now – and who, to this day, still defend their right to do so in court (citing the same Handyside ruling, if you please) - now loudly condemn Mario Philip Azzopardi over his ‘misogynistic’ comments about Roberta Metsola? 

Well, perhaps not. Because we seem to be living in a country where ‘misogyny’ and ‘hate-speech’ are only ever considered crimes, when committed by people we don’t like. When, on the other hand, we ourselves are guilty of exactly the same sort of behaviour (if not much, much worse)… suddenly, it’s not a crime at all.  

Suddenly, it becomes ‘freedom of expression’.