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  • glenwilliamspiteri

Stereotypes and language

On the rare days when the sun shines and raindrops pour, my late grandma would say “Rain and sun, an Ottoman was born.” Of course, she would not say this because of some mystical ability to get real-time updates from the Turkish birth register, rather, her saying would merely reflect a stereotype that established itself in Malta during the 1500s. Stereotypes reinforce the standing of the in-group in relation to out-groups and can persist long after the conditions or manipulations that gave rise to them have disappeared. Historical examples, such as stereotypes against the Ottomans dating back to the Knights' era, highlight the endurance of such perceptions. Before I dive deeper into the tensions between the Turks and the Maltese, some historical context is required. 

Malta during the Medieval era was conquered by the Knights of Saint John, a Roman Catholic Order that made the tiny Mediterranean island their home after their exile from Rhodes by Muslim conquerors. At a time when Islam was expanding throughout the Eastern Mediterranean, the Order sought to re-establish itself as soon as possible to prevent the expansion from going Westward, so they settled on Malta. Soon after, in 1565, the battle of the two religions was staged at the Great Siege of Malta, with the collective memory of the fighting between the Knights and the Ottomans becoming an integral part of the Maltese psyche that passed on from generation to generation. Against this backdrop, I pose the question, are in-groups held together through a mutual affection towards fellow members, or out of a mutual disaffection towards members of the out-group?

In essence, stereotypes reflect present or past relations between groups and are often propagated through language (Sherif & Sherif, 1953). These stereotypes can persist long after the conditions or manipulations that gave rise to them have disappeared. In fact, my granny’s saying – a commonly used expression in the Maltese language – refers to the rare situation where a good situation (a sunny day) is superseded by a simultaneous negative situation (rain). The causal

explanation behind the conjunction of these two events is attributed to the negative experiences lived by the in-group (the Maltese) because of the threats that were once posed to them by the out-group (the Ottomans). One fundamental premise is that attitudes, and by extension, stereotypes, are not isolated within individuals but are shared among members of a group. When a degree of solidarity exists within a group, its members' attitudes toward it are commonly held. These attitudes are not arbitrary; rather, they are derived from the prevailing norms of the group concerning out-groups. For instance, the Maltese and the Knights shared a common religion – Christianity – which at the same saw Islam as an existential threat. This suggests that the Ottoman invaders were perceived as the vehicle of change that could translate the existential threat into a reality for the islanders, and this was a scenario to be avoided at all costs. Hence, the attitude towards the Ottomans was shared among members of the Maltese, albeit at different degrees of solidarity, as hypothesized by Sherif and Sherif (1953; p. 237).

As I draw together these thoughts and reflections, I put forward the following answer to my question. The in-group that formed on the island was brought together under a common goal; survival and preservation of social norms. The island’s social fabric was tightly held together by the Roman Catholic church and the people were wholeheartedly resistant to any external force that might alter that balance. In this sense, the Knights posed no threat to the island’s state of affairs, and the mutual disaffection towards Islamic expansion proved itself to be a binding force. Present-day relations between the Maltese and the Turkish are amicable, and both countries have moved on, but nevertheless, the saying lives on as a by-product of group interaction (Sherif & Sherif, 1953; p. 269) serving as a friendly reminder about the group’s loyalty towards the Maltese struggle.

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