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Sunday Bloody Sunday - Michela Spiteri

“Believe it or not, even I hesitate to write about certain topics out of fear of being snapped out of context and have my words twisted.”  

 These aren’t my words: they’re Manuel Delia’s. Out of context they may be, but I’m not twisting them – definitely not. Actually I endorse them… wholeheartedly. Having written a column for the past 10 years or so, I’m all too familiar with the words “I hesitate to write”.  And I’m sure others in the business of filing op-ed copy for Malta’s newspapers feel the same trepidation: “Do we really want to go there? Will we be targeted, called names, and torn to shreds? Is it worth falling out with friends, colleagues (and family?) over this and that?” Deciding what – and what not – to write about gives a whole new meaning to Sunday Bloody Sunday.  

Writing is hard work, made even harder when readers and writers are not, in all but the most literal sense, on the same page. There are times too when writers are deliberately misconstrued, their thoughts twisted, their sentences wrenched out of context. Sure, readers aren’t always to blame: an article might not be clear enough (or so clear that misinterpretation is an impossibility). But even when an article is well-argued and ‘non-porous’, there is no telling whose wrath will be stirred and how far that person will go to rubbish it – and you – in the process.   

Life (and that certainly includes politics) was definitely simpler, and more dignified, before the age of blogs, online commentary boards and social media. Whatever you wrote – and whatever was written about you – was not immortalised. There was far less chance of anything coming back to haunt you, dismembered and dissected word by word. It was easier to get away with below par writing too. 

There’s a lot I could say about the recent ‘women-on-women’ spats – the ones that have involved the spouses of, respectively, the Prime Minister, the Opposition leader and the former Opposition leader. But, in the spirit of what I wrote earlier, I just won’t go there. Let’s just say that the ‘hesitation factor’ is hard at work. And it’s even busier on Facebook, social media and the online comments boards. There is, you see, a marked difference between writing a column for an independent newspaper with a strict editorial policy and writing your own unfiltered blog, which you administer and censor as you please. Worse still is Facebook, where you are ‘on home turf’ playing to thousands of your cheerleading friends, who’ll encourage and bolster your public (status) lynching with their ‘likes’ and ‘shares’, or else by riding to your rescue. The whole exercise is not unlike schoolyard bullying.

Life (and that certainly includes politics) was definitely simpler, and more dignified, before the age of blogs, online commentary boards and social media

Which is why I don’t have a blog and why I try to limit myself on Facebook to discussing public hygiene, trees, over-construction, and other public-interest subjects without ad hominem agendas. And occasionally, I get carried away with one of those vonvon apps that show you what you look like in a sari. I don’t do lambasting.

There’s a lot I could say – from first-hand experience – about the joylessness of op-ed writing, what with the gas lighting, trolling and public lynching that go with the territory. And in the same breath I could also talk about my own shortcomings and errors of judgement. But I don’t really want to talk about personal experience here, let alone grind axes or appeal for your sympathy vote. That’s because, as a columnist, I have to rise above these things. So I either get on with the job or get on my bike. Yet in these febrile times of character assassination, of dehumanising people in ways that stretch the freedoms of free speech, there are a few things I do want to get off my chest.

Telling someone to take a running jump off the nearest cliff isn’t nice. Neither is saying that he should see a shrink and take his medi­cation, or that he ought to be taken out and shot or blown out of the water. And there are many more where those came from – black-on-white real attempts at dehumanisation that make ‘whore’, ‘fat’, ‘ugly’ seem rather puerile and mild. And herein lies the rub. When is something just a ‘figure of speech’ and when is it genuine cause for moral outrage? Similarly, when does something qualify as free speech and when does it cross a line? Does it all depend on whether you like the speaker or the victim (or vice versa)?

These questions are easier to answer when you actually experience the shock and hurt of a public mauling. Because even if you’re a public figure or a columnist (and to some extent have invited the opprobrium) it’s never as easy to shrug off as you think it will be. Those lacking basic sympathy, not to mention real empathy, don’t realise this, and in the private or collective hell of their anger they dish it out to those who do not share their political beliefs or class culture.

Take Raphael Vassallo. He’s easily one of our most prolific writers and certainly someone who possesses an objective, free (and beautiful) independent mind. Yet, if he attacks the Opposition, or defends the government, he is accused of having a visceral anti-PN bias or even worse, vilified as the writer of articles ‘scripted’ at Castille. The mere suggestion is ludicrous, terrifying and sinister, to say nothing of defamatory.

Are we really saying that if a journalist does not lambast (this) government or lambasts the Opposition, then his writing is automati­cally corrupt, partial and its author ‘bought’? If so, the endgame for non-compliant journalists and columnists is all too clear: first sow seeds of doubt, then assassinate character, and finally bully them into silence. 

 Believe it or not, we’ve all been there.  We’re all wearing the T-shirt underneath our scars.  

michelaspiteri@gmail.com

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