Sunday, October 14, 2012 by Mark Anthony Falzon
We’ve heard the jokes about the Republic of Mellieħa, the only gay in the village, and such. But there’s a deeply unpleasant and unfunny side to what Magistrate Carol Peralta said in his now-infamous ‘gay jibe’ sentence on Monday. I’d say in fact that the sentence, and the reasoning behind it, may have set a dangerous precedent.
As reported, the court argued that the accused’s action was the direct result of provocation and therefore worthy of leniency. That’s assuming that being provoked by someone is a fine reason for parking your car on their head. Still, the law seems to allow for that and I suppose we have to accept that thus far Magistrate Peralta was well within his ambit.
The problem lies in the logic he said he used in order to decide there was a provocation in the first place. This is how The Times (October 11) reported that fine piece of philosophy: “Given that the insinuation that the accused could be gay was made in Mellieħa, in front of other residents, it is possible that for the accused and other Mellieħa citizens this was unacceptable.”
What this seems to mean is that Magistrate Peralta rooted his logic not in case-specific and individual circumstances, but rather in a collective moral code he seems to have ascribed to Mellieħa. The mention of that code sent me right back to the happy days of undergraduate anthropology, specifically to the course on ‘honour and shame’.
In 1980 Godfrey Wettinger, now Emeritus Professor of History at the University he loves and still visits daily, wrote a little paper called Honour and Shame in 15th Century Malta. It tells of the fateful night of June 8, 1473, when a Nicolaus Caxaru and two other gentlemen of Mdina decided to pay a visit to one right charming Catherina of Siġġiewi.
It seems that Catherina was happy enough in her own company. And that, to his credit, Caxaru decided he could live with.
But the three men had been seen to enter her courtyard and the villagers had heard a certain Gaddus Chutaye call out to Caxaru, “Misser Cola, what you are doing is not right because Catherina has already taken a husband”.
They had also heard a group of women screaming: “They came into our house and shamed us! Tomorrow we shall be reviled by the inhabitants of the village. Kill them, kill them!”
The damage, in a nutshell, was done. The three were chased by an angry mob and Caxaru was unlucky enough to fall off his mount and take refuge in a cave. There he was set upon and viciously stoned and stabbed to death. Whether anyone also tried to run him over with their cart is not recorded unfortunately.
The reason Wettinger knows this is that the case made it to the secular and ecclesiastical courts, before which a number of villagers were eventually tried. Some it seems died under the then-standard procedure of torture. The luckier ones got off with ‘blood money’ (a form of compensation to the dead man’s family) sentences.
I see an uncanny resemblance between this case and what happened in Mellieħa. Or rather I don’t, because there are a few minor differences between that village in 2012 and Siġġiewi in 1473. The people who killed Caxaru believed that the bogeyman (il-babaw) wandered about the alleys at night, that the hawkmoth (il-baħrija) was a harbinger of bad news, and that women who wanted to get pregnant could do worse than tie a black cloth (which one could untie, presumably) round their genitals.
So no, I don’t think there’s a resemblance. Peralta however does, or reasons like he does. What he said in court was basically that Alan Gauci’s dubious driving skills were down to a violation of the moral code of honour and shame. The same code, that is, that saw off the hapless Caxaru.
Gauci, according to Peralta, was shamed by the defendant. What’s worse, the affront took place in full view of the villagers of Mellieħa. The only way for Gauci to keep his moustache on was by restoring his honour – in public of course. It would be too easy to argue that the Melliħin have better things to do than hang out in the vill age square with their honour-and-shame balance sheets. That point has been made and there’s not much dividend in repetition. Let’s just say our good magistrate took ‘l-Aħrax tal-Mellieħa’ to mean a person.
The really sinister bit is that we now have a court sentence that seems tacitly to uphold a code of honour which according to it obtains in land’s end places like Mellieħa. Whether or not it does obtain is secondary. What matters is the court’s nod to its (real or imagined) legitimacy.
One might argue that notions of offence and provocation, and therefore the laws that address them, are always and invariably rooted in culture. But this is different. What we have here is a (real or imagined) moral code that essentially competes with that of the State.
Wittingly or not, Magistrate Peralta ended up privileging that moral code over that of the State. (The latter incidentally holds that being called gay is not good enough reason to run people over.) That’s something not even the courts of 1473 did. Caxaru’s murderers did after all end up with dislocated joints and/or missing bags of coins.
The wording of Monday’s sentence is not just medieval in tone. Nor does it just betray deep-seated, old-fashioned, and ill-informed beliefs about life in our villages. The really bad bit is that it is based on the model of the State, and therefore its moral codes and laws, as strong in the centre and ineffectual in the periphery.
I’m not over-egging anything. It’s fairly well established that (usually violent) codes of honour and shame tend to be strongest in parts of the world that the State has for one reason or other failed properly to penetrate. Places like rural Sicily and the so-called tribal belt of Pakistan and Afghanistan come to mind. Now it seems we must include that untamed wilderness that is Mellieħa.
I said earlier that Monday’s sentence may have set a dangerous precedent. Take honour killing, the not-uncommon practice in which a person (usually a woman or a homosexual) is accused of bringing dishonour upon a family and killed by their own kin. Or, say, dowry deaths, in which young women are murdered or disfigured by their husbands for failing to meet the cultural norm of bringing a dowry.
Would Magistrate Peralta also refer to the ‘mentality of society’ in those cases?