‘Hate speech’ doesn’t mean ‘speech that you hate…’

If the next step in the equation is: 'therefore, he must be silenced'… then suddenly, we are in the same territory as those who argued in favour of censoring Stanley Kubrick’s ‘A Clockwork Orange’, way back in the 1970s

For a country that is so utterly replete with hatred, everywhere you look – class hatred, political hatred, misogyny, homophobia, racism, xenophobia… you name it, we’ve got it here in abundance – it never ceases to amaze me how very few people seem to understand what the word ‘hate’ even means.

Still less, the expression ‘hate speech’… which – unlike the underlying emotion itself – is actually a crime in this country: without or without the final approval of the Equality Act, currently being debated in Parliament.

I thought I’d point that last detail out, because one of the major local misconceptions regarding ‘hate speech’ is precisely that it’s not even illegal here at all. And this can very easily be confirmed, just by reading the comments under any online story about (for instance) immigration.

How many of those people, I wonder, are aware that Maltese law states, quite clearly, that: “Whosoever uses any threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour  […] with intent thereby to stir up violence or racial or religious hatred against another person or group on the grounds of gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, race, colour, language, ethnic origin, religion or belief or political or other opinion […] shall, on conviction, be liable to imprisonment for a term from six to eighteen months”?

My guess is: not a lot (or else, that many do know perfectly well… but are just as aware that it is a crime that just never gets prosecuted in this country anyway). And this in turn might explain why so many people seem to think they can get away with such obviously threatening, abusive and violent comments as: ‘Burn them!’; ‘Shoot them!’; ‘Drown them!’; or even ‘Gas them all, like Hitler did to the Jews!’ (all real examples, by the way: and all directed at only one, very recognisable minority: African immigrants.)

Because… um… then can. And they do, all the time...

In fact, Article 82A (1) of the Criminal Code is well on its way to breaking the national record for ‘laws that are most consistently ignored, unenforced, copiously defecated-upon, or just violated with impunity on a daily basis’ (a record currently held by Article 7.2 of the Constitution, which states – while somehow managing to keep a straight face – that: “The State shall protect and conserve the environment and its resources for the benefit of the present and future generations…” )

But still: at least, it exists. Which also means that, if anyone out there truly feels sufficiently ‘threatened’, ‘abused’ or ‘harassed’ to file a police report on the basis of ‘hate speech’ – and if the complaint also meets another, rather important legal requirement: “whereby such violence or racial or religious hatred is likely, having regard to all the circumstances, to be stirred up” – there is nothing actually stopping them from doing precisely that (or at least, ‘nothing’ beyond the sheer futility of even bothering in the first place).

And yet, this week alone I lost count of the number of times the ‘hate speech’ accusation was bandied about: either with reference to the archaic (and, quite frankly, rather repulsive) views on homosexuality expressed by one particular priest – Fr Patrick Pullicino – in a Times opinion column; or to the widespread reactions of horror, disgust and condemnation the self-same article provoked among readers.

Well, I need hardly add that were no police reports (as far as I am aware, at any rate) filed against either Fr Patrick Pullicino himself, or any of the people who publicly responded in kind; and this leads me to suspect that what I just wrote about the people who indulge in hate speech – and I mean hate speech of the truly illegal variety: you know, ‘Burn them!’/‘Shoot Them!’/’Drown Them!’ etc. – is equally true of those who accuse others of the same crime.

They clearly don’t know what the expression means, either. They, too, seem to be entirely unaware that we are actually talking about a serious criminal offence here:  punishable by up to 18 months in prison, no less… and not just anything they happen to read, or hear, that they themselves don’t particularly agree with (regardless how ‘hateful’ it may sound to their own ears).

OK, let me break with tradition, and start with the reactions to Fr Pullicino’s article… instead of with the article itself. (Oh, and another thing: I won’t waste time boring you with my own opinions on the subject… the important thing here is not whether any of us particularly agrees or disagrees with his views: but whether he was within his legal rights to express them).

As far as I can see, the main objection was to his core argument that “Homosexual acts are not only harmful to the individual who engages in them but also to society at large.”

Not, mind you, because it was the only sentence in the article to betray a deep-seated prejudice against homosexuals: but because – by portraying one particular minority group as ‘danger to society’ – it could conceivably be interpreted as ‘directing hatred against that group’… and therefore, potentially illegal.

But there is a difference between ‘illegal’ and, um, ‘idiotic’… and LGBTiQ activist (and comedian, etc.) Chucky Bartolo summed it up rather neatly in just a few words: “This is wrong. This is dangerous…”

He is, of course, right on both those counts: but they still remain two separate, distinct statements. So let’s get the obvious one out of the way first.

Yes, Fr Pullicino is ‘wrong’… in the sense that he’s making a colossal sweeping statement, unsupported by any scientific evidence – or indeed, by any form of argumentation at all: his claim that ‘Homosexuality damages society’, for instance. Really? Like, erm… How, exactly? – not to mention that the only study he does reference in that article, happens to have been officially debunked years ago.

I could go on, of course; but as far as I can see, that only makes him ‘wrong’. And to the best of my knowledge… a) there’s no law against ‘being wrong’ (otherwise, who among us wouldn’t be serving multiple life-sentences, as we speak?), and b); last I looked, the only rational reaction to people who are wrong, should be to rebut their flawed arguments with solid, data-backed evidence…

… not to call for their imprisonment; or even, for that matter, to demand that their views (however ‘wrong’, in any factual sense) be banished from the public forum altogether.

‘Dangerous’, on the other hand? That’s a slightly different matter. The whole point of that law I quoted earlier – you know, the one that never gets enforced – was precisely to specify that ‘hate speech’ only becomes illegal when it involves at least a plausible likelihood of violence actually taking place.

Applied to this particular instance, this suggests that Fr Patrick Pullicino would only have overstepped the legal limit… if his words could reasonably be interpreted as having the real potential of inspiring violent reprisals against homosexuals.

And here, I shall have to admit the issue is very far from clear-cut. Did Fr Patrick Pullicino sit down to write that article, specifically and intentionally to inspire other homophobes out there to commit violent crimes against gays?

I don’t know: sounds a bit of a stretch, to tell you the truth.

And even if that thought was indeed lurking in his mind somewhere – at a subconscious level, perhaps – well, it still doesn’t quite come across in his choice of words. No matter how shockingly antediluvian the opinion itself may sound to your ears, or mine: to say that “homosexual acts are harmful to society” is not exactly the same thing as to argue that: “all homosexuals should be burned/drowned/shot, etc.”

If nothing else, because you can always counter the first statement on the basis of scientific fact and logical argument. Against the second, however… even the gods themselves are powerless.

But does this mean that Fr Pullicino’s views are entirely harmless? Erm… no, it doesn’t quite mean that at all.

Even if you can’t interpret his words as any direct incitement to violence (which, incidentally, also means that any attempt to prosecute would most likely be thrown out of court)… indirectly, statements like these can (and do) contribute towards a very real aura of prejudice and social hatred; and which can, indeed, contribute to a climate that results in violent hate crime targeting vulnerable minority groups.

Arguments like the ones put forward by Fr Pullicino are often used as excuses to legitimise discrimination against gays; and they are certainly part of what both perpetuates, and condones, violence against gays too: be it the classroom bully, tormenting the little sissy kid at school… and maybe later the thug who beats up, or even murders, homosexuals (who only happen to be among the most frequently-targeted victims of hate-crime, all around the world)…

And this, too, is part of why Fr Pullicino was ‘wrong’… and very wrong indeed, one might add.

But I wouldn’t be so quick to add too much else.  For if the next step in the equation is: ‘therefore, he must be silenced’… then suddenly, we are in the same territory as those who argued in favour of censoring Stanley Kubrick’s ‘A Clockwork Orange’, way back in the 1970s: on the basis that its ‘ultraviolence’ might – and arguably did – provoke violence and murder.

Or, even more paradoxically, we may end up using the same arguments that banned Monty Python’s ‘Life of Brian’, or Scorsese’s ‘Last Temptation of Christ’, in decades gone by. Those, too, were once viewed as ‘harmful to society’… and not just in the same way as Fr Patrick Pullicino himself, and others like him, view homosexuals (and other ‘miscreants’) today; but also – irony of ironies – how contemporary, liberal society now tends to view the archaic conservatism of Fr Pullicino and his ilk.

To put it another way: if ‘hate speech’ now means ‘speech that is potentially harmful to society’… why limit it only to the homophobic views of a dying generation? Why not also to those who argue that homophobes, bigots and other ‘undesirables’ also have to be banned… because their views are… um… ‘harmful to society’…?

No, I think it’s far safer to stick to the real definition of ‘hate speech’: and to the examples that really do showcase the potentially homicidal effects of this ugly, dangerous crime.

And as a rule, they tend to sound less like: ‘I disagree with what you just said’… and more like: “Burn them!’/’Kill them’/‘Drown Them!’ ‘Shoot them!’…

…you know: the sort of ‘hate speech’ that no one ever talks about at all.