Sunday 17 February 2019

Back to the schoolyard

When we were kids and got into arguments or fights, the weapon of last resort was always some insult or what was imagined to be a cutting remark: “You’re so ugly!”, or “at least I’m not a metal mouth! (if a kid wore braces) or “Shut up, four eyes!” (if they wore glasses) or perhaps the cruelest of all, “you’re a fat blimp”.  The hurtful insults were aimed to hit below-the-belt, targeting the other person’s insecurities or flaws (“acne face”, “big nose”, “cross-eyed”) and, of course, they succeeded, probably contributing to a lifelong obsession with one’s looks and years of therapy to recover from low self-esteem.

Looking back, I always think how cruel children and young teenagers can be to one another and that it is always a small miracle that we survive those turbulent, hormonal adolescent years with our self-worth intact. If you did not develop a thick skin to shield yourself from this bullying behaviour (because bullies have always, and will always exist), you could easily go through life believing that you were only one step removed from the lowliest worm.

Fast forward to adulthood and here we are again, only this time it seems that it is middle-aged people who are still resorting to insults when words fail them. Because that is what personal attacks are all about, aren’t they? It is when you have no more solid arguments to back up your opinion that you fall back on the childish behaviour of the schoolyard, grasping at anything which you think will “diminish” the other person, and make you feel better and superior (in your own mind at least).

When I see derogatory adjectives being thrown around on the Internet, my first thought is OK, that person has just lost their argument right there. If you cannot debate your point by sticking to the issue, you either don’t have a leg to stand on, or you are simply unable to articulate your opinion properly. Either way, even if you started off with solid reasons for your point of view, by resorting to calling people the most despicable names you can think of, you have basically reduced yourself to the equivalent of a ten-year-old who yells “turd face” at the kid who stole their lunch.

Zibel (filth) and skart tas-socjeta’ (society’s trash) are just two examples I read recently on Facebook addressed at Alfred Grima (the ex-Labour councillor who wrote “It’s a shame it wasn’t you Cecilia Malmstrom” when sharing a link about a Swedish politician wounded in a Somali kidnap attack).   Was Grima’s comment disgraceful, unbelievably stupid and not fitting coming from someone who used to occupy public office? Yes, of course it was.  The Labour party needs to act, and act fast, to drive the message home that this kind of bigoted, ignorant discourse is not acceptable – and I perfectly agree with the viewpoint that the escalation in verbalized racism could have all been avoided if Joseph Muscat had been more measured and tactful himself in his public statements.  In delicate matters such as this we need wise leadership not throwaway remarks which make good sound bites on the evening news.

There have been too many instances of blatant, racist comments popping up as if there is absolutely nothing wrong with them. But does anyone honestly think that by calling people who are racists/bigots ‘zibel’ they are going to suddenly become tolerant, and start singing Kumbaya around a campfire? What has been achieved exactly except to further inflame an already easily inflammable situation? What was worse about the zibel/skart tas-socjeta’ comments was that they were then used to encompass anyone who votes Labour.


Yes, that will really help to defuse political hatred in this country. Douze points, and all that.

Let’s leave Alfred Grima aside (where he belongs) and move on to another more recent example.

John Busuttil, after 43 years being employed with the PN in various capacities, has now moved to One TV where he will be co-hosting a breakfast show.  Has he switched political allegiance? Has he simply jumped ship because he can no longer see a future with the party he once militated in so fiercely and which is now bankrupt? Has he been weighing his options, finally deciding that with Labour in power for the next few years, he prefers to be associated with those who have all the clout?

Only he can answer these questions – he claims to have lost his motivation at his former place of work (Eurotours), that he missed working in television and felt it was time to move on. In a country where there is a dearth of opportunities for those who want to work in TV – it’s either PBS or the two political stations – many popular broadcasters have had to take a deep breath, take the plunge and appear on a station whose political views they don’t agree with. Let us not forget that even Claudette Buttigieg appeared on One TV for a while.

Yet Busuttil, like John Bundy before him, has been at the receiving end of a barrage of insults and scathing remarks.

From accusations that they are two-faced blatant opportunists, to the simple expression of disgust “jaqq”, the name-calling has not stopped. Rats, goats, clowns, rubbish…the litany of adjectives from loyal PN supporters continues unabated.

Now, I admit, I find it hard to understand how you can have such a high-profile role with one political party, only to blithely cross over and have an equally high-profile role with the opposite camp. But the last time I checked this was still a free country and it is not illegal for people to change their minds when it comes to their vote (whether they will retain their credibility in the public eye is another matter, but that is a consequence they have to face).

What makes me laugh however is that, in the heyday of the PN’s popularity when anyone who was anyone in the media was swarming over to have their photo taken with Eddie and later, with Gonzi, while falling over themselves to appear on Net TV, PN supporters did not turn up their nose and call them opportunists (it was Labour supporters who were doing the freaking out at the time). To this day, I still make the sign of the cross in disbelief when I see Eileen Montesin’s daughter presenting Indifest.

I have lived long enough in this country to conclude (with heavy-hearted resignation) that, with every election, there will always be those who make their cold-blooded calculations and latch on to the winning horse because they depend on political favours for their existence.

So all this name-calling now is not only school-yard behaviour, but it is also very short-sighted. Because as the last election has taught us, the core diehard vote will not win you the seat of power – it is only when you woo those “from the other side” that the scales will be tipped in your favour. It might be galling to admit it, but the people they are calling zibel and gridien today are probably the ones on whose vote the PN’s future will lie in 2018.



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