Violent words lead to violent crimes

Hate-speech has been normalised to such a degree that the preponderance of such comments online makes it almost impossible for the authorities to actually enforce the law. The result is a free-for-all, where people genuinely, albeit mistakenly, believe they have God-given right to threaten or intimidate others as they please.

It was perhaps fitting that a conference ‘about combatting and preventing hate speech’ was held this month, at a time when the phenomenon appears to be at its very peak. 

These are, indeed, troubled times for freedom of expression in Malta: a country that is still reeling from the brutal assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia in October 2017; and also, from the shocking murder of an African migrant worker, cold-bloodedly gunned down in the street in April 2019. 

In different ways, both these events illustrate the dire consequences of permitting a culture of hate-speech to flourish unabated. Last June, the Public Inquiry into the Caruana Galizia murder established that hate speech had played a large part in dehumanising the victim (thus making the assassination possible in the first place).  

And in the latter case, both the random nature of the crime itself, and (even more distressingly) public reactions which openly applauded the murder, only reinforce the same, general message. Our choice of words is directly conducive to our choice of actions: or to put it more bluntly still, ‘violent words lead to violent crimes’.   

And yet, recent events seem to confirm that we have learnt little, if anything at all, from either of those tragic events. Indeed, it would appear that the incidence of hateful, hurtful comments – including explicit death-threats – has only increased ever since. 

In just the few days since that ‘Hate Speech’ conference, we have witnessed shocking, disturbing reactions to an interview given by Matthew Caruana Galizia, including some comments that can only be interpreted as unequivocal ‘incitement to violence’. 

But the phenomenon itself extends far beyond the confines of party-political tribalism. For instance: the police’s dedicated  Hate Crime and Hate Speech unit, which was set up in October 2019, has already handled over 300 reports in just two years; and in September alone, the Vice Squad charged a record 40 people, in the space of a week, over racist comments posted in relation to a single online video. 

While the underlying motives may vary, from case to case, all those incidents seem to have one thing in common. They represent an inability to tolerate anything at all – be it an opinion, or even another human being – that in any way conflicts with one’s own viewpoint.  

More worryingly, they all reach the same conclusion: i.e., that ‘violence’ – both verbal, and physical – is in itself an entirely justifiable reaction to any form of disagreement. All of which recalls the topic of that timely conference, held last week: specifically, how to ‘combat and prevent hate speech’… at what appears to be a very late stage in the game. 

Predictably, it is not an easy question to answer. Maltese law, for instance, contains very clear definitions of what constitutes hate speech – e.g., ‘hurtful or threatening remarks meant to attack a person on the basis of race, religion, ethnic origin, sexual orientation, gender or disability.’ It also specifies that such comments are punishable by up to 18 months in prison, along with hefty fines stretching into thousands of euros. 

Yet hate-speech has been normalised to such a degree, that the sheer preponderance of such comments online (especially where racism is concerned) makes it almost impossible for the authorities to actually enforce that law. The result is an apparent free-for-all, where people genuinely – albeit mistakenly – believe they have God-given right to threaten or intimidate others as they please: without ever facing any consequence. 

This, in turn, may also have something to do with the precise wording of the law itself: which specifies that there has to be an explicit threat, for any comment to qualify as hate-speech. 

But this is at best debatable. In other countries such as the USA, for instance, legislators have amended the definition to also include communication encouraging an audience to ‘condone’ – as opposed to only ‘inflict’ – harm. 

Among the types of communication that are considered ‘harmful’ – in the sense that they may, in fact, provoke violence – are the following:  

Speech which directs popular anger towards specific individuals, or minority groups; 

Speech which dehumanises minorities, to make them appear inferior and thus unworthy of respect, and; 

Speech which portrays the victim as “so revolting they are undeserving of even basic humane treatment.” 

All three of those definitions can be seen to apply to the above examples of hate speech in Malta: regardless whether the hatred is motivated by political reasons, or out of some other form of prejudice. Yet as Maltese law stands today, they remain insufficient to warrant a prosecution on hate speech charges. 

Ultimately, however, there is little chance that a legal reform – no matter how comprehensive – can address the root cause of so much hatred to begin with. Sadly, it appears that Malta will have to endure more cases of violence in future, before (or indeed, if) we finally learn that the responsibility really lies with ourselves – and more specifically, with our own choice of words – and not just with our laws.