Homophobic hate speech in Malta has decreased. Why are foreigners still a problem?

Homophobia is increasingly frowned upon in Maltese society. The same cannot be said for its xenophobic counterpart, an EU-backed report shows

Culture clash or integration? Muslim men pray outside in Msida in a symbolic demonstration over the lack of alternative mosques and prayer rooms
Culture clash or integration? Muslim men pray outside in Msida in a symbolic demonstration over the lack of alternative mosques and prayer rooms

A recent report from an EU-wide body has found a sizeable rift between xenophobic and homophobic attitudes in Malta, with the predominantly pre-active prejudice being dished out to foreigners and the instances of hate-speech directed towards LGBTIQ people showing a decrease in recent years.

The EU-backed study, by Stavros Assimakopoulos and Rebecca Vella Muskat from the Institute of Linguistics at the University of Malta looked into how certain groups experience more prejudice than others in the sphere of both online discourse and the press.

The most glaring ‘take away’ from the endeavour is the finding that, while xenophobic discourse continues to be prevalent in the local sphere, instances of homophobia appear to have calmed down somewhat over the years, with the study even concluding – based on a comparative assessment of the rest of the EU countries considered by the CONTACT UM research umbrella – that Malta is the only EU country to have registered a tangible decrease in homophobic hate-speech over the past few years.

With LGBTIQ-sympathetic legislation recently putting Malta on the map in a positive light, it’s not that hard to see why this distinction would in fact come about. But the details as to just how and why this happens are also worth exploring.

The Muslim blinkers

Initially exploring the lay of the digital land through their own parsing of the online discourse which evokes xenophobic and homophobic sentiment in Malta, the authors then asked a sample of people – either Maltese, or living in Malta and in both online and focus group settings – to assess the “acceptability” of certain comments which target migrants or members of the LGBTIQ community.

An interesting pattern of metaphors emerged when the authors began to classify the various types of discriminatory discourse against the relevant minorities online. Predominantly, migrant communities were singled out and ‘Othered’ on religious grounds, with plenty of commentators simply assuming that the bulk of them come from Muslim countries and that this, in and of itself, constitutes a problem to be rooted out of Maltese society.

Concerns about “these Muslims... changing Malta” were rife online, and were sometimes tied – implicitly or explicitly – to the fear of either organised crime or disease (AIDS and Ebola were mentioned in particular). The metaphor of invasion therefore becomes a powerful way of distinguishing between the Maltese ‘in-group’ and the migrant ‘out-group’.

However, when it came to negative online comments targeting members of the LGBTIQ community, a more detailed religious streak was observable. While the fear of Muslims that dominated the anti-migrant sentiment spoke to a ‘geopolitical’ conception of religious difference, the study found that in the case of homophobic attacks, this turned into an apparently more detailed recourse to scripture – with metaphors of ‘doom’ dominating the responses.

Not all negative opinions or negative expressions of opinion are hate speech, and as such they are permitted in a democratic society

“Sodom and Gomorrah are alive and well in Malta”, one comment reads, while another claims that the recent developments in LGBTIQ legislation on the island have led us to a “hell on earth” kind of situation. Fittingly enough, this also dovetails into more abstract religious concerns, such as the idea that “same sex unions are disapproved by God” and that non-heteronormative individuals have “given up on divine truth”.

The rift manifests

Then, through a questionnaire, the research team sought to gauge responses from its sample – which totalled 209 respondents across various age groups – about the degree of “acceptability” of certain cherry-picked xenophobic and homophobic comments taken from comments sections of local newspapers.

There, the gulf between xenophobia and homophobia becomes even more readily apparent, with responses clearly betraying far more lenience with comments targeting migrants than the LGBTIQ community. Two particular examples shine through.

One comment which lashes out at multiculturalism – describing it as an attempt to “[put] the starter, main course and dessert in a liquidiser and eating everything together” – received a more or less equal rating on the scale of ‘Acceptable – Somewhat Acceptable – Less Acceptable – Not Acceptable’, while a comment stating that, “These homosexuals are embarrassing us because they want the UNNATURAL be made NATURAL and they want it recognised as such,” was deemed to be ‘Not Acceptable’ by 72% of the respondents.

The horror of variety

The focus group sessions held by the research team allowed for some more in-depth discussion of the rift that characterises the study. What emerged at the forefront of the sessions, according to the researchers, was a nervousness to “defend opinions that are taken to be protective of Maltese culture”.

“Multiculturalism might not be negative by virtue of what it stands for; what makes it particularly negative is its ability to push the Maltese culture as the dominant and visible culture of the island aside.” As one participant put it, while giving an opinion about the low acceptability rating received by one of the comments, “In the other one he’s attacking directly the people rather than just analysing the situation from an ‘I want to protect my culture’ point of view.”

So, “It may be considered less acceptable to directly attack a person on the basis of a minority identity, but if one is trying to defend and protect one’s culture, it is more acceptable to use such rhetoric.”

Another aspect of the discussion considered how homophobia is likely to be less acceptable because the individuals in question tend to be Maltese – and therefore part of the island’s ‘in-group’ already – while they’re also perceived to have a “unified” goal that’s largely non-threatening to most (the acquisition of equal rights). This is contrasted against the phenomenon of multiculturalism, which proposes the arrival of people from a variety of countries, whose ultimate goals and priorities may not be so readily apparent.

The tricky tangle of ‘hate speech’

Responding to the study – which she called “well-written and timely” – Maria Pisani of Integra (an NGO aiming to facilitate the integration of migrants into Maltese society – commented on how the fear of migrants as characterised in the report and elsewhere, appears to exclude concerns about non-African migration.

“This is ludicrous. And so, for example, by this premise, the shift in the indigenous Maltese religiosity is somehow ignored or blamed on the ‘dark invader’? My point is, yes, of course, the ‘Maltese’ way of life is changing, and changing fast, and it’s a conversation we need to have, but let’s have an informed debate about globalisation – including the economic model – and the impact it is having on ‘Maltese culture’,” Pisani said, observing how the government recently announced that in order to “maintain the level of economic growth”, a further ‘20,000’ migrants will need to be brought in.

“And to my knowledge, no one batted an eyelid.”

Pisani also lamented the lack of accountability by public figures who make discriminatory statements in public – a sentiment echoed by Neil Falzon, director of the human rights NGO aditus.

“Measures should also be taken to address the lack of accountability of public figures, since they do not usually face any consequences when using language that is offensive to any social group,” Falzon told MaltaToday.

This concern tallies with another important underlying concern of the CONTACT UM report – the enforcement of anti-hate speech laws. Asked about this, Vella Muskat and Assimakopoulos acknowledged that a key problem is the perception that any measures taken against hate speech would be perceived as measures that stifle hate speech as a whole.

“This stems from a misunderstanding of what hate speech really stands for not only in legal, but also in ethical terms. When it comes to actual hate speech, in the sense of speech that incites discrimination and violence against an individual or group of individuals who share a particular characteristic that render them vulnerable to such attacks, characterising it as acceptable under the rubric of free speech is not just illegal, but also particularly dangerous,” according to Vella Muskat and Assimakopoulos.

Falzon also acknowledges the inherent challenge here.

“Not all negative opinions or negative expressions of opinion are hate speech, and as such they are permitted in a democratic society. However, hate speech fosters hatred, usually against people or groups who are already marginalised or vulnerable and therefore lacking the capacity to respond and react. From our perspective, hate speech legislation requires states to extend its protection to these people and groups,” he said.