Aditus, a leading NGO promoting human rights in Malta, described the threats to Roberta Metsola that were posted on the social media recently with the following: “The recent threats against MEP Roberta Metsola are a worrying reminder of what happens when societies ignore, support or fuel right-wing sentiments and expressions.”
Before delving into the subject, I would like to join in condemning such vile attacks that are unacceptable in any civilised society as well as to express my solidarity with Metsola who, in the area of migration, is promoting an EU position that places the respect of human rights and dignity at the forefront.
The reaction by Aditus is also a position I fully subscribe to. I agree that “decency, human dignity and fundamental human rights” should be the values that characterise any discussion on any issue concerning migration and that, unfortunately, in our midst there are individuals whose only values, according to Aditus, “are violence and vulgarity”.
The NGO also appealed to the authorities and to society “to take a clearer stand against racism and hate speech, in support of a migration discussion that is inclusive, respectful and dignified”.
The picture that emerges from this survey is of a society that is healthier than some would wish to make it appear to be
This brings me to my subject, the recently released report of the Eurobarometer survey of public opinion on discrimination in the European Union which was held in June of last year. Not surprisingly, one of the main indicators was that discrimination on the grounds of ethnic origin in the EU is still regarded as the most widespread form of discrimination (64 per cent).
Of all the so-called grounds for non-discrimination, discrimination on the grounds of ethnic origin is the highest followed by sexual orientation (58 per cent) and gender identity (56 per cent). In all three cases, substantial increases were registered over a similar survey carried out in 2012.
Generally speaking, the report draws a number of conclusions: in the EU, attitudes towards groups at risk of discrimination show greater tolerance, yet differences between member states vary greatly; the social circles of Europeans are becoming steadily more diverse with people having friends or acquaintances who have different religious beliefs, or disabilities, are of different ethnic origin or lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT); attitudes towards LGBT people vary widely between member states; awareness of rights is increasing; and significant criticism is addressed towards the effectiveness of national efforts to fight discrimination.
Another interesting conclusion is that it could be that the perceptions that discrimination is on the increase “could reflect a greater awareness about discrimination as much as an actual rise in cases of discrimination”.
When it comes to the local situation, it is interesting to compare public opinion in Malta with the EU average. Taking the different grounds for non-discrimination, 71 per cent of respondents regard discrimination on the grounds of ethnic origin as widespread. The EU average, as one may recall, stands at 64 per cent meaning that it is seven per cent higher in Malta. It is also higher when it comes to gender identity.
With regard to sexual orientation, at 55 per cent, the rate in Malta is three per cent lower than the EU average. It is also lower when it comes to religion or belief, disability and gender. Perception on age discrimination in Malta is identical to the EU average with regard to persons over 55, whereas it is one percentage point less in relation to persons under 30 years of age.
In a country which has a woman as its head of state, it is not surprising that 89 per cent of respondents feel comfortable with having a woman in the highest elected political position. This is seven per cent higher than the EU average.
When asked the same question with regard to persons belonging to different groups, 75 per cent are comfortable with a person with a disability. The figure declines dramatically when it comes to a person from a different religion than the majority of the population (40 per cent), or from a different ethnic origin than the majority (41 per cent). Yet, 61per cent of Maltese would feel comfortable with having a LGBT person in the highest elected political position (the EU average being 54 percent) and 50 per cent are fine with a transgender or transexual person (EU average 43 per cent).
I believe that this shows that the lead taken by our legislators in introducing civil liberties for LGBT persons in this country has paid. Policymakers and decision takers influence society. The argument that one should wait for society to be more prepared before introducing certain measures does not hold to a large extent.
In Malta, as well as in the EU as a whole, thanks to various legislative measures in favour of LGBT rights, general attitudes towards LGBT persons have improved significantly. In the EU, 71 per cent agree that LGBT people should have the same rights as heterosexual people; 67 per cent agree that there is nothing wrong in a sexual relationship between two persons of the same sex; and 61 per cent agree that same sex marriages should be allowed throughout Europe. In Malta, the figures are even higher with 77 per cent holding that LGBT persons should have equal rights as heterosexual persons; 71 per cent stating that there is nothing wrong in a sexual relationship between persons of the same sex; and 65 per cent supporting same sex marriage across Europe.
Linking to what Aditus declared when expressing its solidarity with Metsola, I believe that a similar lead needs to be taken by authorities (not just political) against racism. It is good that we acknowledge the extent of the problem, yet it is about time that we stop merely condemning and start doing something about it. There is a price to be paid as Metsola, Kathrine Camilleri and others can tell us. Yet, this is what leadership is all about.
One manner in which to tackle the situation is, obviously, through education. Undoubtedly, the government and NGOs have been instrumental in creating greater awareness on issues relating to discrimination. Perhaps, one needs to address the situation in schools since exposing children to diversity will help them to accept diversity as something natural and not merely something to be tolerated because it is unavoidable. Moreover, from personal experience, children are also capable of challenging the older generations.
Respondents were asked to what extent they agreed that school lessons and material should include information about diversity. Public opinion in the EU is overwhelmingly favourable to the inclusion of information on diverse ethnic origin (81 per cent agree vs 14 per cent disagree) or religion or beliefs (80 per cent vs. 15 per cent). Figures in Malta are even higher and stand at 82 per cent and 83 percent respectively.
Although when it comes to sexual orientation and gender identity, the EU average falls to 67 per cent and 64 per cent respectively, 75 per cent of respondents in Malta agree that school lessons and material should include information about diversity in terms of sexual orientation whereas the figure stands at 72 per cent with regard to gender identity.
When reading this, I could not fail to recall the whole much ado about nothing by certain quarters concerning a number of books on different forms of families and same-sex relationships that had been donated by the MGRM to the Ministry for Education for use by educators in State schools. Generally speaking, it would seem that three out of every four persons in Malta have no problem with this.
My view is that the picture that emerges from this survey is of a society that is healthier than some would wish to make it appear to be. The bigots among us are few yet they seem to make a lot of noise that captures the headlines and makes it appear as though they represent a sizeable proportion of our society. However, the silent majority needs to emerge from its cosy corner and stand up to these individuals and expose them for what they truly are.