Monday, 16 November 2009

Independent: J’accuse: Hold on... let me get this straight

15.11.9? by Jacques René Zammit

This week’s news highlight tells us that not many Maltese are really in favour of having a lesbian Prime Minister. Also, they’d rather have a Roman Catholic head honcho than one of any other particular faith (I wonder what they would make of a Blairite conversion at the end of the mandate). Once we are talking preferences, it also transpires that we’d rather go for the paler sort of grey when it comes to skin colour – and yes, we do constantly labour under the illusion that we are a Catholic, Latin bunch so much so that we’d rather be led by a leader in our own image (or in that of our mind’s eye) than any other deviant.

That’s just “brill” isn’t it? Just as you were despairing at the incapacity of the Maltese electorate to develop the sort of selective taste that moves beyond partisan parochialism, you are bitch-slapped in the face by a Eurobarometer survey condemning the nation of troglodytes to eternal damnation in the circle of the hypocritically conservative, where there is constant gnashing of teeth and people are bombarded with repeat recordings of tasteless jokes about “fags, faggots and other sorts of homophobia”. (In case you haven’t noticed, I’ve decided to up the ante on the vocab in my articles in order to hitch a ride on the sensational success that rudewordery has around these parts. And yes, I invented “rudewordery”, but if Carroll can have a “jabberwocky” then I can have a “rudewordery”.)

So it is little consolation to know that the majority of the population would be OK with a person of the weaker sex (see that not so subtle deliberate provocation there? Quick write a letter to the Indy) were she to take up office in Castile. The results of the survey should come as no surprise really. When it comes to views on ethnic origin and religious persuasion, all you need to do is to take a quick look at the lyrics of the official hymn of that tolerant party in power and you will find the lovely phrase “ta’ Kattolci, ta’ Latini, Maltin veri nahilfuh” (as Catholics and as Latins, we do swear this as true Maltese). The implication is clear: the true Maltese is Catholic and Latin (Latin? stop laughing at the back) and that’s why Lawrence Gonzi is not gay, black or a Mormon (and Paula Mifsud Bonnici is not a lesbian).


As in weird, of course, is the background debate going on between Joseph’s Labour and its detractors. It was announced sometime in the last 10 days that Labour would now have an LGBT department. For a second the gourmand part of my nature took over, and I sat there wondering why Labour would

dedicate a whole section to sandwiches involving bacon. Upon regaining control of my mental faculties and avoiding an automatic trip to the closest eatery, I remembered that LGBT refers to an agglomeration of what could, before the advent of the politically correct era, best be described as the sum total of forms of deviance from the perceived norms of sexual orientation (in a Catholic and Latin country to boot).

So Labour had set up a workshop for fathoming whatever it is that lesbians, gays and the B&Ts desire in life. Rather unfairly, spinmeisters over at the Catholic workhouse in Triq Herbert Ganado shot at Labour for this move, which seemed to be straight (pardon the word) out of the “That 70’s show”. In doing so they insisted that LGBTs deserve no special attention whatsoever. Now, I am prepared to accept that this LGBT section business is just as much a marketing ploy as any other in the cynical world of hypocritical politics, but I also find this argument that LGBTs do not merit specific regulation in order to ensure that their rights are not trampled on rather generalistically.

This latest attempt to delineate the cool from the uncool smacks of overspin and reverse psychology. True, in the real world where black is just the absence of light and the words Roman and Catholic put together do not conjure up (perceived) ideas of the inquisition all over again, there is no longer the need for special LGBT sections to remind the “others” that the party is thinking of them. True, in the real world where gay politicians are simply politicians who also happen to be gay and closets are things you put clothes in, there is no need for a vociferous reminder of the existence of that section of the population who have long foregone the missionary position.


But that is the real world though, and we do not live in the real world. While in the real world the creation of an LGBT section is anachronistic, in this world of ours you would have to be downright stupid to assert that the majority of the population is long past the stage of spoonfeeding when it comes to LGBTs and their rights. So there you are, in this world run by Catholics and Latins, poofters and dykes deserve specific representation – particularly since there are probably many people who would read this sentence and find that there is absolutely nothing incorrect with my choice of provocative vocabulary.

So do let Labour find its feet and get in touch with its LGBT side in the hope that some ground is broken in the field of phobia barriers in this society of ours (in this case it’s either homophobia, lesbophobia, biphobia or transphobia). Of course we have to take long hard breaths in order to be patient with our partitocracy and its mind-numbingly slow effort to crawl into the 21st century. Meanwhile, in Salt Lake City, bang in the middle of the US Bible Belt, the Mormon Church supported state ordinances banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. A spokesman for the Mormon Church said that the new laws cause no damage to traditional marriage. Un-blooming-believable.


The whole business of the Eurobarometer survey reminded me of a recent interview that I read on the Spiegel Online. Umberto Eco was interviewed on the subject of his new exhibition at the Louvre in Paris and he discussed its theme: the place of lists in the history of culture. Eco is one for pointing out striking pieces of information that have always been there for all to see but there was nobody there to quite point them out. That is the job for the hermeneuticist that is Eco. His latest fixation on lists is incredibly interesting. According to Eco, our very idea of “definitions” is based on lists. To define anything you require a list of characteristics – a scientist might call water H20 but really it is the colourless, odourless, liquid substance that places it in a recognisable box.

The same goes for the platypus and a million other animate or inanimate objects. Lists, says Eco, have been a common feature throughout the history of humankind and have remained with us to this very day. Our Eurobarometer results showed us the list of qualities the majority of our society seems to want in a female Prime Minister – not the most welcome bit of news but there you have it.


Before I sat down to write this article I had a little online spat with Lou Bondi on Facebook, which again brought back to mind Eco’s Spiegel interview. Lou has a habit of asking questions to the general public on Facebook, presumably in a little exercise to get some feedback on some upcoming topic for Bondiplus – when he’s not busy playing X-Factor for Prime Ministers. This week Lou asked his faithful followers this question: “In a democracy, should citizens have the right to insult PUBLIC figures or institutions?”

I must admit that I joined the ensuing conversation rather late in the day, but it was me and my iPhone stuck in what passes for rush hour traffic on Pont Charlotte, Luxembourg and so I found nothing better to do than to point out to Lou that no liberal democracy in the world would go so far as to discuss a “right to insult”. No charter of rights or court of law would go so far as to couch the freedom of expression in those terms – if it did then we might as well speak of the right to “randomly poke other people’s eyes with red hot irons”.

Quite obviously miffed by my pointing out that the framing of the question seemed more like a desperate attempt at sensational journalism than a real opening for a discussion of freedom of expression, Lou did what public personae used to running a show tend to do – he played the man and not the ball. Bondi tried to play down my legal background by claiming to be baffled by what he called my ignorance of the fact that “countless Supreme Courts from the US to Europe have handed down sentences protecting the right to insult”. That I did not know this, according to Lou, was a clear demonstration of how cheap law degrees have become.

Aside from the fact that the only cheap thing in Lou’s reply was the repartee itself, there remained the issue of these myriad cases of the courts of law protecting the “right to insult”. Of course courts of law would not frame their words in that manner – courts of law deal with the freedom of expression and possible limits thereto. You will not find a court of law speaking of a “right to insult” but of the freedom to express oneself. There is a not too subtle difference and apparently it takes a lawyer with a cheap degree to tell the difference.

Lou had invited me to Google the right to insult. It was my turn to be baffled. Baffled, first of all by the high standards of research being displayed publicly by the sans pareil of Maltese investigative journalism. I would then be baffled by the results on Google (I had to check). Sure there is a whole string of references to the “right to insult” but invariably they turn out to be journalistic reviews of cases. In none of the cases is there a reference to the “right to insult” but simply an exploration of the limits to the freedom of expression. In every case the right to express one’s opinion is carefully balanced against the right of others not to be harmed thereby.


All of which brought me back to Eco’s interview. The author was asked what he thought of the lists created by such search engines as Google: are they the perfect lists? Are they the perfect answer? Here is what he had to say: “These lists can be dangerous – not for old people like me, who have acquired their knowledge in another way, but for young people, for whom Google is a tragedy. Schools ought to teach the high art of how to be discriminating.” He goes on to explain how the art of discriminating and identifying the right sources from within the lists is still a skill that has to be learnt - having Google at your fingertips is only half the work.

It’s ironic how even in a country like ours where we need sections for LBGTs and where people cannot tell between literature and really offensive material, we still discover that some people need to learn how to “be discriminating”. In the same way, this very article requires a discriminating mind: one that can tell that words usually considered to be offensive and insulting to sexual minorities have been peppered throughout the text in order to create a caricature and throw an intentional spotlight on the very issue to be discussed. I’m no Shakespeare so I’ve taken this literary licence up in a very clumsy manner (especially considering how I write this in the early hours of the morning) – so if anyone feels in any way insulted let me guarantee him or her that it was not my intention to be insulting but merely to illustrate through satire.

I do not believe in the existence of the “right to insult” but I am a strong supporter of the freedom of expression. I believe that intelligent people (the spoudaios of this world) will set their own limits and they would definitively not avail themselves of a right to insult even if it were available. The problem, alas, is that the world is not so full of spoudaios – which is why there will always be someone, somewhere googling “the right to insult”.

Jacques blogs daily at Comment is free and most insults are immediately answered.

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