Monday 08 August 2022

Freedom to offend? Tony Zarb tests the waters

This article first appeared on Malta Today

These last few weeks have been a test case in how far we are really willing to stretch the concept of freedom of speech, and specifically, the freedom to offend. Everyone and his or her keyboard has been busy at it, voicing their opinions, expressing their feelings and answering any rebuttals with what seems to be the latest catchphrase, “hey, freedom of speech, baby!” The problem is that sometimes the wires connecting the brain to the fingers don’t always have a filter, and the result is, as we are seeing, a free-for-all.

You see, that’s the thing with free speech; it’s a two way street even when the tune being played does not sit well with your own music score.

And then, as if to test the waters himself on Thursday evening, as a group of women activists camped out in front of Castille to protest, Tony Zarb came crashing in with a clumsy, heavy-handed and blatantly misogynistic FB post which (loosely translated) read thus:

“The went to the wrong place, because instead of Castille they should have gone to Strait Street and back to the 60s. That would have been the right place for them because there would have been a lot for them to warm up.
These are a bunch of Maltese traitors because they form part of a group of assassins who, in order to grab power, are ready to do anything.
I’m convinced that if they feel cold they can find someone to warm them up.”

For the benefit of those who don’t understand the references, Strait Street in the 60s was a notorious red light district full of prostitutes and sailors, so good old Tony was clearly comparing the protesting women to whores. And just to make sure no one misunderstood his wink, wink, nudge, nudge inference, he added the words “to warm them up” which in Maltese is a double entendre meaning to be sexually aroused. I really don’t see what being a traitor or an assassin has to do with their protest, but he threw that in anyway, for good measure.

Thanks Tony, for you have provided all of us with a very clear, classic example, just in case we needed one, in order to examine the questions: Is freedom of speech and expression absolute? How free are we to say whatever we like?

My immediate reply would be that, on the face of it, sure, one can say or write anything one likes, but this always comes with a very important proviso. You have to be ready to accept the consequences and repercussions. In some cases this will be a libel suit (in which case you will have to prove that what you said is true or else constitutes what is called ‘fair comment’ and is not defamatory to a person’s reputation) or else you will have to face the court of public opinion as Zarb found out to his detriment.

Now maybe Mr Zarb thought he was being witty and that he would be given virtual slaps on the back by those who think of women in the same way he does (incidentally what is it about women united in groups which some men find so completely alarming? Does it trigger some kind of primal fear that they are going to take over the world, leading them to conclude that any dissent needs to be firmly squashed?) However, while he did get a few words of praise, the majority of those who flooded his FB page came down on him like a proverbial tonne of bricks, demanding that he remove the post immediately. At first he stuck to his guns, by which time the post had gone viral and everyone seemed to forget about the hapless Police Commissioner because they had found a new whipping boy. Eventually, because he was asked (or told) to, he removed the post and came out with this reply:

“I am agreeing to a request made by someone whom I admire very much, who, along with his family, was a target of abuse, as well as other appeals by genuine people and I have removed yesterday’s post. If there were any genuine women who did not like what I wrote I apologise because that is what being a gentleman requires.
Viva Malta that I love so much.”

I love the fact that he does not see the irony of describing himself as a gentleman, but let’s let that one slide. After that there must have been some other development, because as I was writing this article, he announced he would no longer be writing on FB except for the occasional brief post “in favour of Malta and the GWU”. He also complained that his freedom of speech was being curtailed.

OK, let us leave aside the fact that Tony Zarb seems to have a penchant for melodrama and simply examine what happened in a clear-headed way.
Did he or did he not have the right to offend the protestors?

Well, for a start, Mr Zarb is just not some ordinary guy who wrote on Facebook. Apart from his long history as the leader of one of Malta’s largest unions, the GWU, which made him very much a public figure, he is still, as far as I know, employed as a part-time consultant with Minister Konrad Mizzi. It is within this context that his offensive remarks have to be seen, because it colours everything. I sincerely hope that Konrad Mizzi or Joseph Muscat himself were the ones who told him to remove the post and to get off FB and at the very least, I expect Minister for Equality Helena Dalli to say something as well. To me she is disturbingly silent where women’s issues are concerned, and it keeps happening, time and again.

So, to get back to Tony – no he should not have written what he wrote not because he is not entitled to free speech, but precisely because he is who he is. To top it all off, he did not even have the emotional intelligence to realise that comparing the women who were protesting because of the murder of another women to whores, was something you just don’t do. Does this even need to be spelt out? Perhaps it does because he seems to be surprised at how much flak he got for it. There is also something known as being in synch with the public mood, and right now the public mood is still very sensitive and volatile. The majority of people have been mature enough to realise that, even if they privately do not agree with the need for these protests to remove the AG and the Police Commissioner, they have the choice not to attend and to simply let others do what they like.

In Tony Zarb’s case there is also the balance of power issue. It rather reminded me of President Donald Trump who cannot seem to understand that, in his position, he has to be willing to ‘take’ criticism and even insults, but he should never himself get into slanging matches with celebrities and journalists or ordinary people who do not agree with him.

A similar, albeit milder, incident happened to Kristina Chetcuti, Simon Busuttil’s partner, who has in the last few years herself become a public figure. She posted a photo of onions with one of them depicting the Police Commissioner’s face, with the comment: “All onions are equal, but some onions are more equal than others” (in Maltese the word onion is used in the same way that the word ‘turnip’ is used in English, to refer to someone who is a moron). The fierce backlash by the public even took me by surprise and is indicative of the strained undercurrents in the country right now, especially online. But again, was it wise for someone in her position to resort to childish name-calling especially as throughout the campaign she was pretty much left alone? I think it was very unnecessary because, let us face it, insults beget insults and she received the full brunt of it on that thread.

The upshot is always the same: if you are willing to get personal when you post something, attacking the person rather than the argument, be sure that you are ready for others to get personal in return. Especially when we know that there are many out there who will defend people within their party with the same undying loyalty with which they would defend their loved ones.

There are a plethora of other examples I can come up with. Remember the famous incident when Michelle Muscat did her charity swim and Mario Vella from the band Brikkuni wrote a crude and vulgar post about her because he considered the whole thing a cheap publicity stunt? Did he have the ‘right’ to write it? Sure he did, if we believe in freedom of expression, but there were obviously going to be consequences. The ensuing outrage was something to be expected and Farsons dropped him from their upcoming beer festival line-up. True to form he was not bothered, and it has definitely not prevented him from plowing on with his earthy quips regardless, insisting on his right to offend. The public, if they wish, also has the right not to support his music in return as a form of protest.

It also has to be said that some people even manage to make a living out of being shockingly outrageous and provocative. Over in Britain, media personality and newspaper columnist Katie Hopkins has made a career out of being politically incorrect and deliberately insulting to those who don’t agree with her. Similarly, in the US, right-wing political pundit Ann Coulter relishes when she makes liberals foam at the mouth with rage. In both cases, both women clearly enjoy the sensationalism every appearance of theirs creates, and have seemed to accept that the price they have to pay is to be the targets of relentless torrents of abuse in return.

Champions of free speech sometimes forget that it does not just stop at what you say or write, because you cannot control or anticipate how people are going to react. When celebrities read out the ‘mean tweets’ written about them by Joe Public on the Jimmy Fallon show, some of them can clearly take it on the chin and even manage to see the humour…but with others, you can tell that the careless remark would have wounded them at some level we cannot begin to understand. We all have our insecurities after all, and even the richest most famous celebrity or public figure is, at the end of the day, a human being.

Personally speaking, I still maintain that some things are just not done; there are intrinsic basic tenets which should have been instilled in us at some point, and frankly, some lines once crossed speak more about the person crossing them than the ensuing reaction. On the other hand, there is always the option of ignoring offensive remarks and rising above them, but as we can see many people seem reluctant to take this route.

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