The silly season

The Partit Laburista and the Partit Nazzjonalista are engaged in a life-or-death struggle where no quarters are spared.

The new editor of The Journal saw fit to invite me to start writing again now that The Journal is being revived. 

I presume he thought I might have something relevant to say, or perhaps he thought he would challenge a 78-year-old to come up with 800 words which are coherent in a world where many people find it unable to do so in a 20-word sentence.  Let’s say I thought better than to press him for an answer.

Well, you might think that, as a senior citizen, I have seen it all and heard it all.   But no, this year I realised that I have seen something that I had never experienced before.  In my journalism years, we newspeople used to scramble for a scrap of news during the long, hot summer.  Everything went quiet.  We called it the “silly season” because, having nothing really important to report, we spent the months trying to come up with stories that, well, were frankly silly.

But not this year. This year the conondrum did not happen.  Journalists have had a field day with climate change exacting a revenge on humankind for the damage that it has inflicted on the planet; the electricity outages that outraged thousands of people; the cost of living and having to pay €35 for a second course in an average restaurant which, until a few months ago, cost €25; the thousands of foreign immigrants who keep the wheels of the economy turning but are now increasingly being considered a “threat” to the existence of the oh-so-pure Maltese race; incidents where motorists block the road to come out of their cars and beat up other motorists, etc, etc.

Of course, like everything in Malta — from the wage-price spiral alleged by the Malta Employers Association to be taking hold, through the inconvenience of not being able to stop in the middle of the road at Ghadira to unload all your deckchairs and umbrellas, to the price of eggs — this becomes the subject of heated political debate.

In a deeply divided Malta, talking politics is a risky business.  In theory, debates about anything would enlighten, inform, and encourage us humble citizens who participate in the great, ongoing experiment of representative democracy.   In practice, what we get, more often than not, are barroom brawls straight out of a Hollywood Western.

One of the ancient world’s best examples of an argument with something vital at stake was the Mytilenian debate of 427BC.  Subsequent to an unsuccessful insurrection in the city of Mytilene, the Athenians had voted to kill both the uprising’s leaders as well as all Mytilenian men, and to enslave its women and children.  However, fears that this judgment erred on the side of harshness led to a second debate, with Diodotus arguing for clemency, and Cleon, “the most violent man at Athens”, opposing him.

Cleon’s point was that justice must prevail when confronted with the deliberate malice of the Mytilenians.  Any inkling of weakness by the imperial government was potentially disastrous, he argued; better to enforce bad laws than to hum and haw around good ones.  And, for good measure, he asked his audience to imagine what the rebels would do if they were in the Athenians’ shoes.

None of this intimidated Diodotus.  His retort was a paean to the power of debate.  “The good citizen,” he posited, “ought to triumph not by frightening his opponents, but by beating them fairly in argument.”  And so did Cleon do, with a series of cogent statements setting out his belief in how Athens’ long-term interests would best be served. The vote was close, but Diodotus won the day. The Mytileneans were spared.

Does this sound familiar?  The Partit Laburista and the Partit Nazzjonalista are engaged in a life-or-death struggle where no quarters are spared.  You’d better believe that the electricity outages two months ago were caused by lack of investment (due to the Vitals hospital affair) or else you are just another PL lackey.  Or, you’d better believe that the outages were caused by overheating of the underground cables due to the hot climate or else you are just a PN renegade.  Both the lackey and the renegade deserve to be hauled over the coals.

For all the tolerance and enlightenment that modern society claims, the Maltese are losing hold of a fundamental right as citizens of a free country: the right to speak their minds and voice their opinions in public without fear of being shamed or shunned. This social silencing has been evident for years, but dealing with it stirs yet more fear.

How has this happened? In large part, it’s because the political parties are caught in a destructive loop of condemnation and recrimination.  Their core rank and file are even more intolerant.  Criticism, irrespective of whether it is constructive or not, is deemed to be a vicious attack which must be met with an even more virulent blitz and bile.

Politicians on both sides feel it is safer to attack each other instead of focusing on policy.  They celebrate when they think they have drawn blood or struck a nerve against their opponent.  They seem to have concluded that playing tough and aggressive, rather than being funny or likeable, should be the metrics ordinary people use to rate leaders.  They do this all the time, even when the debate is not a direct one, but one conducted at arm’s length in the newspapers.  As a result, debates often fail to reveal to voters who would be the more successful policymaker or leader.

It is a matter of regret that our political culture is full of roundabout talk, superficial analysis, and mud-slinging.  Political commentators whose job is supposedly to add perspective to political statements and arguments engage instead in discussing how politicians’ remarks gain or lose them popularity.

In a democratic society, people should be able to put forward viewpoints, ask questions and make mistakes and take unpopular but good-faith positions on issues that society is still working through — all without fearing reprisals.  Instead, debates now inspire dread, prompting many of us to avoid sharing our views altogether. Faced with the prospect of saying the wrong thing or starting an argument, “staying out of it” often feels like the safest move.

But it isn’t necessarily so.  In fact, according to new research from Ike Silver, an assistant professor of marketing at the Kellogg School in the United States, taking a position of neutrality can come at an unexpected cost.  Take Taylor Swift’s years of silence on political issues. Far from discouraging speculation about the pop star’s views, her avoidance seemed to stoke it. (Swift put an end to the guessing game by endorsing Democratic candidates in 2018.)

Turns out, keeping silent can backfire.  The same Silver and Alex Shaw found that declining to take a position on political and social issues makes people regard those who take a neutral public position not as principled or genuinely neutral, but rather as calculating and deceptive.  The fence-sitters come in for a lot of vitriol.  In other words, people inferred that strategic motivation — the desire to hide their true beliefs — rather than genuine lack of opinion, guided the fence-sitters’ decision not to take a public position.

So, don’t expect any fence-sitting from me.  I will aim to create a dialogue about pros and cons and to offer our readers an insight into the incentives for choosing certain solutions rather than others.  Feel free to criticise me as much as you like, but respectfully please.

Photo: Mikhail Nilov

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