In times of extremes...

No point in having a discussion when arguments are reasoned through partisan logic alone

“In times of extremes, extremists win. Their ideology becomes a religion, anyone who doesn’t puppet their views is seen as an apostate, a heretic or a traitor, and moderates in the middle are annihilated.”

That is a quote from a recent article by Margaret Atwood, author of The Handmaid’s Tale, in response to the ‘witch-hunt’ (as she describes it) following the Harvey Weinstein affair.

To be honest, I was half-tempted to just reproduce the entire article, as almost every single sentence articulates a notion that has independently occurred to me literally hundreds of times before. It is, in fact, rare that I encounter such like-mindedness anywhere in today’s media. And perhaps it’s not surprising that it would come from a novelist, and not from any journalist or political commentator. Sometimes, it takes an artist to unravel something so that its very roots are laid bare for all to see.

In any case: not only does Atwood accurately portray a mindset that is rapidly gaining the upper hand – everywhere; and in practically every issue, not just the one she was writing about  - but she also spells out the danger of the possible repercussions:

“Understandable and temporary vigilante justice can morph into a culturally solidified lynch-mob habit, in which the available mode of justice is thrown out the window, and extralegal power structures are put into place and maintained.”

At this point, a more precise context may perhaps be required. Atwood’s article refers to a specific case, in which a University professor in Canada was fired on the basis of sexual misconduct allegations that were never substantiated. The university also made him sign a confidentiality disclosure agreement, which in practice meant he couldn’t even respond to the allegations in public. To date, his case hasn’t been heard by a court of law. Yet he has already been tried and found guilty in the court of public opinion... and he has even been, so to speak, ‘sentenced’.

Meanwhile, Atwood herself was met with outrage and insults for pointing out the glaring injustice in that scenario... and for arguing in favour of the due process of law in this, and all cases. So yes, the ‘witch-hunt’ claim certainly does start looking credible. The Salem witch-trials of the 17th century looked a lot like that professor’s case. Adults were condemned to death on accusations brought forward by children, and were not allowed to put up any defence. Any who sought to defend them were threatened with similar accusations (some, in fact, were accused of witchcraft precisely on that basis).

It fell to another artist –Arthur Miller, in The Crucible – to sum up the ugly consequence of moral panic of a community scale: “... now the little crazy children are jangling the keys of the kingdom, and common vengeance writes the law!”

If any of this rings any bells, it is because this sort of mass-hysteria – i.e. of a level dangerous enough to derail an entire justice system - is something we have seen countless times before... albeit mostly in times of great epochal unrest and upheaval.

We saw it in the days of the Spanish Inquisition, for instance. (No, wait, we didn’t actually see the Spanish Inquisition coming, did we? No one did....). And it was the same rationale that underpinned the ‘Red Scare’ in the US in the 1950s, which Miller’s play was ultimately about: a time when authors, directors and musicians (among others) were blacklisted, and sometimes imprisoned, for their (real or perceived) Communist leanings.

Conversely, the atrocities committed during Josef Stalin’s purges in Russia would not have been possible without a similar wave of populist fervour and outrage at street-level, all over the country. Same goes for all such crimes committed on unimaginable scales.

The Holocaust, for instance. It takes more than just ruthlessness and logistical capability to murder millions of people. It also takes the presence of an overwhelming climate of extreme hatred and mistrust.

Naturally, the operative word there is ‘extreme’. Those were, as Atwood put it, ‘times of extremes’. Are we living in such times today, though? Is there any corresponding climate of primal fear, hatred and panic that could recreate the same basis for... well, if not for homicide being committed on an unimaginable scale... at least, for the justice system to be subverted, or even supplanted... and for injustices to be justified on the basis of an ‘ideology-turned-religion’?

Sadly, it is beginning to look a little that way: albeit on a much lesser scale.   To stick to the Communist analogy for a few more seconds... the situation in Malta today reminds me of the main control room in the 1981 film ‘War Games’ (when the fear of Nuclear Armageddon was still at its peak). In that film, a teenage Matthew Broderick unwittingly hacks into the mainframe Pentagon computer, and unleashes a global nuclear threat while under the impression he is playing a video game.

From Defcon 5, the alert level went to Defcon 4... and when it reaches Defcon 1...Ka-BOOM! (Yes, I know that sounds nothing like a nuclear explosion. But then again... who cares? We’d all be instantly carbonised, long before the sound waves reach the ashes that were once our ears...)

In any case: my own antennae are now picking up signals of a corresponding, metaphoric lowering of the Defcon level from 5 to 4 in this country. Or let’s be more accurate: from 4 to 3. (Note: to put all that into perspective: Defcon 5 = ‘Lowest state of readiness’; 4 = ‘Increased intelligence watch and strengthened security measures’; and 3 = ‘Air Force ready to mobilize in 15 minutes’. I’ll leave you to work out 2 and 1 for yourselves.)

I detect a sentiment that Malta’s current political situation – to which so much of the above applies – has just progressed to a more active state of passive-active hostility. It’s more of a presentiment, though, and therefore difficult to properly describe. Nonetheless, I feel we have reached a point where political hatred has extended too far not to have repercussions. Something’s got to give.

Examples are too many and too diverse to trot out in full. But we have all seen an increasing eagerness in this country to simply dispense with the ‘due process of law’ when motivated by suspicion alone, or when justice doesn’t run parallel with our own political bias. We have also seen how the ‘due process of law ‘ has itself, on multiple occasions, failed to hold high authority to account. We don’t need to rake all that up again, because these are still the issues that dominate public discussion in Malta right now.

It is the discussion itself I think we need to start... um... discussing. Underpinning all this popular angst is an attitude which is disquietingly similar to the one Atwood wrote about... and which is applicable, on so many levels, to so many historical atrocities and injustices.  Read the above quotes again: I have lost count of people who propose their own political opinions in purely dogmatic, Evangelical terms... and then brand any who disagrees as an instant heretic. It’s something practically everyone who ever comments about politics does, all the time.

Come to think of it, I’ve probably done it myself a few times. I’ve certainly sent a few people to Hell.... which I guess makes me as much of Chief Inquisitor as anyone else. (And you know what they about Chief Inquisitors, don’t you? ‘You can’t Torquemada anything...’)

This is, in fact, the problem. We have reached a point where neither side can talk their point across anymore. There’s no point in ‘having a discussion’, when arguments are reasoned through partisan logic alone; when people don’t listen anyway, and when everything that is actually said is instantly drowned out in an ocean of venom and scorn...

And if we can’t even talk about the issues which divide us... then what hope can we possibly have of ever ironing them out? None that I can see. So if you don’t mind... I think it’s high time I started working on my secret underground fall-out bunker. Before Defcon 3 becomes 2, and... well, you know how it goes...

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