Pushing the envelope towards incitement

Malta’s problem with hostility did not just appear magically now, but building up ever since it became ‘ballsy’ to trash people online. No wonder typing out one’s instinctive knee-jerk reaction has seemingly become justified

I have been following the story of comedian Kathy Griffen who took a photo holding up Trump’s “severed head”. What was intended as a deliberate pushing-the-envelope kind of stunt has seen her being ruined financially, shunned by the media and her friends, and even being interrogated by the FBI for two months.

On the advice of her friend and fellow comedian Rosie O’Donnell (“what if Daniel Pearl’s mother saw that?” she pointed out to her) Ms Griffen made a public, tearful apology. Daniel Pearl was, of course, the American journalist kidnapped and latter beheaded by Al Qaeda terrorists in Pakistan.

Despite the fact that she has probably one of the thickest skins in Hollywood (she has to be, considering the kind of comedy she likes to dish out), even Kathy Griffens was completely devastated and broken by the sheer tsunami-like force of the backlash to what has been widely denounced as a stunt in very, very bad taste.

It did not take her long, however, to pick herself up and start fighting back. She is now doing a world tour using the incident as her stand up act, while going on all the international talk shows which will have her, to point out that she has been shut up in the US (of all places) where freedom of speech is sacrosanct. She has also taken back her apology, claiming that the way she was treated is just another example of how Trump is completely abusing of his powers. Griffens is now back to defending the stunt, saying that a plastic mask of Trump’s face covered with ketchup cannot be construed as incitement to violence.

Now, like every story of this type, there are always two ways at looking at it. Isn’t humour all about pushing the envelope even though, as in this case, it makes us gasp at its sheer audacity? Shouldn’t freedom of speech mean we are allowed to joke about or insult anyone, including the US President? (Of course, one can also argue that while it had shock value, the stunt wasn’t even particularly funny, but that’s another issue).

On the other hand, shouldn’t there also be red lines which should never be crossed? Where does humour (or free speech) end, and incitement begin? Those who slammed the ‘severed head’ stunt claimed that the comedian was basically telling audiences that Trump deserved to be decapitated which, in a world where beheadings have actually happened, is treading on very dangerous ground.

Of course, there is no doubting Kathy’s real antagonism towards Trump - she makes it very clear that she cannot stand him. But even this has to be put into context, for the President himself has often used language in his speeches which can be considered as crossing over the line to incitement: “If you see somebody getting ready to throw a tomato, knock the crap out of them,” he said at one rally. “I promise you, I will pay for the legal fees.” After one protester was punched and kicked at a November rally in Birmingham, Alabama, Trump’s reaction was, “Maybe he should have been roughed up, because it was absolutely disgusting what he was doing.” I think everyone can agree that, coming from the American President, this type of language is completely inappropriate and seriously alarming.

You can see where I am going with this.

I have deliberately used an example from the US to try to put what is happening locally into perspective. Perhaps, shorn of our own partisan passions and with the help of some emotional distancing, it might make this whole issue of what constitutes free speech and what spills over into incitement, easier to discuss.

This week has seen several people being accused of hate speech and incitement to violence for their Facebook comments, with one person being criminally charged for threatening MEP Roberta Metsola. The comments were stupid, inflammatory and should never have been posted and it was good to see decisive action being taken so that maybe people will finally learn how to use FB properly (maybe there should be civic lessons at each local council). Everyone really needs to get it into their heads once and for all that whatever they write on FB carries a lot of weight because it is published on a public platform and has legal ramifications. You might as well have splashed your words all over a billboard or taken out a full page advert in a newspaper.

But, having said that, it would also be completely misleading and dishonest to try and pretend that what happens here, or in any country for that matter, happens out of thin air or in a vacuum. This hatred and hostility did not just appear magically now, out of nowhere, but has been building up like a pressure cooker around us for quite a few years now, ever since it became rather ‘cool’ and ‘edgy’ and ‘ballsy’ to trash people online. No wonder the man-in-the-street has decided that typing out one’s instinctive knee-jerk reaction about how they feel about a person is completely justified.

The inevitable references to “what Daphne used to write” against anyone who is Labour (or who is even friends with anyone who votes Labour) are always quoted as justification for why people think they are entitled to do the same. For me this reasoning completely falls flat: for why should you resort to using the same tactics if those tactics used to upset you so much? Are we really unable to come up with valid, coherent arguments when we disagree with someone, without slipping into verbal abuse?

And, frankly, if you are not sure whether what you are about to type is potentially a threat or incitement, there is no better maxim then, ‘if in doubt, leave it out’.

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