Free speech for learners

'Prostitute' is a retrograde slur employed by men (and women) to undermine women in positions of influence or who take a stand, or simply when men are annoyed by women who get ‘uppity’ with them

Rosianne Cutajar and Andrew Borg Cardona
Rosianne Cutajar and Andrew Borg Cardona

Free speech and defamatory carnival floats are far lighter topics than the investigation into the murder of a journalist and its political ramifications. Yet somehow, all news stories find their way back to the same source of discontent.

So when Andrew Borg Cardona argued that gratuitously calling Rosianne Cutajar a prostitute, or a call girl, was acceptable in the wider appreciation of what is free speech, we all felt relieved.

Borg Cardona was defending his client Rachel Williams, an Occupy Justice activist, and a Facebook commenter – Godfrey Leone Ganado, an anti-Labour nostalgic, whom Cutajar has sued for defaming her by calling her a prostitute. ‘Boċċa’, the soubriquet the lawyer’s portliness has earned him, argued that likening the newly-appointed equality parliamentary secretary to a “prostitute” did not cause serious harm to her reputation and that Cutajar had to prove “serious harm to reputation”.

Specifically, Cutajar filed for libel last year after Leone Ganado facetiously wrote on a post authored by Williams on Facebook, the following: “Hamalli, prostitutes and call girls have a right to be represented in Parliament.”

I’m sure Boċċa is no newcomer to colourful language (he enjoyed calling Ira Losco a ‘bitch’ on Twitter when detractors feared a Eurovision victory would give Labour a feather in its cap, horror of horrors).

Indeed, he has argued that the words employed here are essentially harmless and that libel law had come a long way in the last two years. Yet, it seems many people have been taken to task for their own colourful language used of Caruana Galizia, who herself enjoyed free rein when it came to the verbal abuse of her targets. There is no doubt that her readers took the cue that verbally abusing people you disagree with was fair game on social media (yet I for one get to be taken to task by the foreign press for having called Caruana Galizia a hate-blogger).

Of course, at this point one asks: where do we draw the line? Because I fear that a few different measures are being applied here: that someone who calls Rosianne Cutajar, a young Labour MP, a prostitute can insist that she is fair game; but that calling the Occupy Justice brigade the same is sexism of the highest order. And I do agree: it is just that, it is a retrograde slur employed by men (and women) to undermine women in positions of influence or who take a stand, or simply when men are annoyed by women who get ‘uppity’ with them.

And of course, let’s take it a step further. The way the slur is employed here implies – and I’m not casting aspersions on the target of the slur – that a woman who is the sole arbiter of her sexual life, must logically be a “prostitute” or a slut, but that a man who is elected to parliament never gets to be second-guessed about his sexual proclivities. Because that is how women are viewed when someone employs this kind of slur – that by not being worthy of the democratic vote, they are either sluts or brainless.

And indeed, this is not the first time that Rosianne Cutajar encounters this kind of language. Even in the House, when she made her first interventions, the Opposition ridiculed her before even uttering a word.

Now, I can’t be called a fan of Cutajar, in that, I couldn’t care less about how an MP curates their image or fends off insults in the House. But when sexism and classism suddenly become some form of acceptable currency, especially when the conservative snobs are spouting it, it really is a time to take stock of the way human relations are deteriorating on social media. For this is indeed a democracy, one where its electors have the right to elect whoever they want – even ‘hamalli’ as Leone Ganado probably screeches out every time he types in a comment on Facebook.

You might be a critic of Cutajar as an MP, and a critic of what she says and how she says it. But to instantly denigrate a woman MP by gratuitously dubbing her a “prostitute” and then insisting that one enjoys the protection of the law, is low. And even should they do receive the protection of the law, nothing will rub them clean of the obvious misogyny and condescending classism that pervades their every comment on social media.

So… if we really want standards, why can’t we first ditch this horrible and hypocritical prejudice?

I am sure detractors want to take issue with the fact that Cutajar’s Instagram feed has shown off too much of her enjoyable holiday snaps and her bathing suit collection. So bloody what? Do we want to cross that line just as when men claim that women should not dress ‘provocatively’ lest they’d be asking for it (rape) whether they like it or not?

Free speech or not, and whatever Borg Cardona’s defence is, we cannot regress in the way we get on with each other and the way we grapple with political arguments, by painting an ugly picture of people we disagree with and ridiculing and mocking them, on such tenuous grounds of class and political prejudice.

Godfrey Leone Ganado may look like an insufferable toad to me (that’s a sort of anthropomorphist attribution Godfrey… I don’t actually mean to say you are really an amphibious creature, because it is obvious you are a human being…); Rachel Williams could be mocked well and proper… and yet, if we are to deal with the issues concerning our country just by calling each other names, well, that can’t be really good.

Of course, it was wrong of me to call Caruana Galizia a ‘witch’ or ‘queen of bile’ – I imagined she could take it in her stride given that she was the author of far worse monikers for yours truly and so many others. If we are to change, we must also start respecting our adversaries: only then will we be hearing each other more clearly.