This article first appeared on the Sunday edition of Malta Today
No, don’t turn the page.
This is not about politics per se, but about our general attitude towards that dreaded ‘p’ word.
I have often noticed that there are those who pre-empt whatever they are about to say with “this is not about politics”.
I’ve lived here long enough to know that by saying this, what they really mean is that it’s not about partisan politics, in other words, PN vs PL. And who can blame them really, when so many are ready to whip out their little rubber stamp to label your forehead as “blue” or “red”? For life.
But the fact is that many issues are political, but not in the sense they mean. For example, in the footage of the civil society protest when some PN supporters were upset at the Graffiti sign “Same shit, Different Government”, one woman objecting to the sign came out with the curious statement that “this is not about politics”.
It was curious because a protest, in itself, is a political statement. Why attend a protest at all if you are not trying to “say” something in public about an issue you object to, or agree with. Just like those who don’t want to vote are exercising their right to register a very loud protest vote by staying firmly at home on polling day, which is about as political as you can get. But the misconception shown by this particular lady, which is shared by others, underlines just how skewed an impression we have of that vague term ‘politics’.The Graffiti sign was drawing attention to the fact that underlying corruption in the country is a problem which has been haunting us for too long, and a change in government has not seen any change. The woman took umbrage at the fact that “her” party was being criticized at a protest which she probably assumed should only be aimed at the current administration. One man even went so far as to be insulted at the word “shit” which he inexplicably transferred on to himself, little realizing that the excrement in question was referring to politicians. The fact that he could not even separate himself from his party speaks volumes, but is often exemplified when people speak about “il-gvern taghna” (our government) for all the world as if they were members of the Cabinet themselves.
Our general inability to discuss politics with a small ‘p’ means that lines are drawn and people forced to choose sides and declare their allegiance on even the most innocuous of topics. These reactions underscore the fact that we have become so drilled and indoctrinated into turning every issue into tribal warfare, that in order to circumvent this, it has become almost mandatory that when you criticise one party, you are almost obliged to say, “yes, this used to happen before”, or “yes, the others did it too”, as if by doing so we are distancing ourselves from that dreaded label.
Have I done this myself at times? Yes, mea culpa, guilty as charged. But it is something I occasionally feel obliged to resort to when I am accused of being “Labour” (you know, like it’s some kind of crime) and occasionally even “Nationalist” (depending on whom I have criticised), although it is often very amusing when I am accused of being both in the comments section of the same exact article. It’s enough to make a girl suffer from an identity crisis, forcing me to look anxiously in the mirror and wondering, existentially, who or what I am.
I’ve also done this when I have seen comments which are so blatantly unfair and replete with prejudice, that I just cannot keep still. Recently someone posted a photo of a young child draped in a Labour party flag for the 1 May demonstration with the words “starting them young” which led to a plethora of disparaging comments about Labour supporters. Am I against taking children to mass meetings and brainwashing them with party propaganda? Yes, definitely. But I could not let that one slide by without posting a similar photo of my own of a child at a PN rally waving a party flag. The issue, for me, is the early politicization of children, which is wrong, no matter who does it. It cannot be something to sneer at in one case, and something to be commended in the other, because that just does not make sense.
In a way, I can understand why so many people abhor speaking about politics. Apart from suffering from real political fatigue, which has led so many to switch off, pronouncing yourself on a current topic often acts as a trigger for people to come out of the woodworks, snarling with aggression; sometimes, unfortunately, even people you once considered friends. Who needs that kind of aggro? There are also times when one may agree with one party on some issues, but with another party on others. The problem is that this concept is still so alien to many that anyone who speaks openly and frankly without caring which side of the divide is praised or criticized, is looked at with downright suspicion. There does not seem to be any room for leeway: it is either utter loyalty all the way or complete ostracism into that murky wasteland which in Maltese we call “pinnur” (literally, a weather vane, which changes sides according to the weather).
It is for this reason we have still not reached the stage where we can have mature, adult debates on the bigger picture of politics, on the essence of what really matters, on what kind of country we wish to live in, and what policies we support or don’t, not according to who has proposed them, but on their own merit, shorn of any emotional bias towards party politics. This is easier said than done of course, moulded and groomed as so many people are, from childhood, to base their opinions only after first checking who came up with the idea or policy.
I often think it would make an interesting experiment to give people a list of projects, laws and decisions and ask them to indicate which ones they agree with and which ones they don’t, without knowing which government had proposed them. Would they be able to form an opinion, I wonder, without the influence of their inherent political bias coming into play (my party = good, the other party = bad), and the constant stream of propaganda flowing from the party media telling them what to think? Would their final opinion differ once they know the proposal had come from a Labour or a Nationalist government?
The fact is that almost every decision that affects our lives is political: from education, to employment, to social wellbeing and the environment around us. It may be tempting to completely stop caring about anything, bury our heads and live an oblivious life because we do not want to “talk politics”, but perhaps if we just tried to look at things from a wider perspective, shut out the political rhetoric, and zero in on what can make Malta better, we may find that we agree on more things than we probably thought, after all.