Sunday 09 August 2020

An examination of our conscience is badly needed

This column first appeared in Malta Today

I’m sorry to sound so morose and morbid on a hot August summer’s day, but it bears repeating that no matter how hard we try to stave off the inevitable…we are all dead in the end. Whether rich or poor, black, white, brown or yellow; whether we are gay, straight, male, female or transgender, whether we are born into drudgery and poverty or born with a silver spoon in our mouths, there is a rite of passage which everyone must go through and it will be the only time in our lives when everyone is reduced to a level playing field.

And, in the end, perhaps as we are laying on our deathbeds from a lingering illness, or when we see our life flash before our eyes when it is cut short abruptly, in those lost few seconds before we meet our Maker and we become aware that, ‘this is it’, I wonder if those who have treated others very badly ever feel a twinge of remorse?

There are anecdotes, of course, about really nasty types who are suddenly gripped by a crisis of conscience, and perhaps start recalling those long ago days from their Catholic upbringing when they were admonished to do good, otherwise they would end up in the fiery pits of Hell. The dogma instilled in us as children is always difficult to discard, especially in desperate moments, which is why even those who claim not be religious will often turn to God when they are plunged into dark despair, praying fervently for divine intervention and making all sorts of wild promises and vows if only their life, or those of their loved ones, is spared.

On the other hand, there are those who claim that those who are truly and intrinsically evil do not go through any of this. From them you will get no remorse, or redemption or any evidence of a conscience whatsoever. I do believe that in the worst cases, yes, it is true that pure evil is incapable of those last few moments of attrition, because had they been capable of it, they would not have ended up as evil as they are. These are the psychopaths and sociopaths of this world, made famous in documentaries and film, who are analysed in detail by those who are fascinated and intrigued by what makes them tick in order to discover what turned them into the monsters they are.

But then, on a lesser, although not insignificant scale, there are also people who may have not plummeted to such depths of evil, but who have nevertheless made the lives of others a sheer misery through their heartless behaviour. In this category I place those who exploit others for material gain and power. For these types, the end always justifies the means, and if that entails employing people at what amount to slave wages and cramming them into apartments like animals, then so be it. They rationalise it away by saying, “well, compared to the countries they come from they are still much better off!”. They openly and loudly despise blacks and yet have no problem with telling you in all seriousness to “pick a few of them up from Marsa” to get some maintenance job done. They are adamant that foreigners have “ruined our country” and yet will ask around for a “Filippina” to take care of their elderly parent or act as a nanny for their child.

There have even been cases of what amount to domestic servitude, according to a recent seminar on the topic. As reported in The Times, the cleaning, construction and caring industries are where exploitation tends to be more prevalent. “The way some people are brought here to work is like you’re ordering goods. These are human beings and there needs to be better regulation in the industries they work in,” said Dr Lara Dimitrijevic.”

However, as long as our needs are being met, there seems to be little humaneness left over to actually treat those who are ‘serving’ us as real people, and it is an attitude which is becoming more common every day. “Dawn” (this lot) is a word I often hear being bandied about in reference to those who are doing the jobs the Maltese no longer want to do. They are referred to as a collective, anonymous mass with no individual identity, which perhaps makes it easier for them to be dispensable and replaceable when they no longer suit our lives. Have you ever wondered what will become of those poor Turkish workers working seven days a week in the blazing heat to finish off the Marsa flyovers, while we are comfortable in our air conditioned homes and offices, or cooling off at the beach? Where are they living? What conditions have they been made to accept? How much are they being paid?

Unfortunately, there is a category of people for whom empathy, the ability to feel what others are feeling by imagining themselves in their shoes, is a completely alien concept. As time goes by I feel that one of our most serious problems is not so much a lack of formal education (although that is a concern as well) but a lack of emotional intelligence and the ability to discern why something is inherently right or wrong. I hesitate to use the word ‘ignorance’ because it is such a loaded word which is often misconstrued, but I am constrained to use it here: for me, ignorance encapsulates the inability to simply know that certain behaviour in a given situation is just not right. It is ignorance which leads a certain sector of the population to have no civic pride whatsoever, even though their own homes may very well be gleaming from washroom to basement, scrubbed thoroughly with disinfectant while no shoes are ever allowed to make contact with the sparkling tiles (or parquet) inside. They want to get rid of their domestic waste at all costs and dumping it near recycling bins is, for them, the best solution. Out of sight, out of mind, it’s not my problem, let someone else clean it up.

There is also an utter absence of emotional intelligence in people who on the one hand can love festi and the patron saint and all the religious paraphernalia that goes with it, but feel absolute zero compassion for refugees who are dying within reach of our shores. I am aware that our village feasts are more pagan than sacred, but still, how can one claim to embrace everything that has to do with the Catholic faith and yet still gaze with a stone cold heart as other human beings die in the Mediterranean sea? As I have often written before, I don’t have any answers for the immigration problem, but is it too much to ask to bite one’s tongue and hold back from poisoning online commentary with atrocious comments? Say nothing, write nothing: surely if one cannot feel even a drop of sympathy, at least we can do that much?

There are other instances all around us when people fail to demonstrate common human decency towards others, most recently in the case of the stripper known as L-Amerikana which I already wrote about in my Thursday column. It still perplexes and disturbs me how the men present at that stag party who pelted her with eggs can on the one hand love their wives, children and their mothers, but have no compulsion about treating a woman in this way. It brought to mind the lifestyle of Tony Soprano and his men who used strippers and prostitutes with undisguised contempt, disdain and even cruelty, but who then went dutifully home to their families, and attended Mass and funerals and mouthed religious platitudes without any self-awareness about how hypocritical they were being.

And what about our politicians who seems to have no interest at all in safeguarding our heritage and our environment because they think that money will plaster over all the country’s ills? Or what about those at all levels of power who have allowed themselves to be corrupted in order to approve a permit, close an eye and generally ease the way for developers to get what they want? And the developers themselves, hell-bent on building even more despite the fact that the market is saturated to the brim, as if they are trying to grab as much as they can in some madcap race before their own mortality inevitably catches up with them?

I cannot help but harbour the lingering feeling that this economy on steroids will not last. And when it does come to a screeching halt, or start to plummet in free fall, I wonder how many people will be able to examine their own conscience and say, hand on heart, that the piles of money they have earned, and the people they have stepped on in the process – was worth it.

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