It’s ‘Doctor’ Evil, thank you very much...

If this article comes to a sudden halt in mid-sentence, just assume I’ve been arrested by the Respect Police, and carted off kicking and screaming for a little forced re-education by the Ministry of Manners

I didn't spend six years in Evil Medical School to be called ‘mister’...
I didn't spend six years in Evil Medical School to be called ‘mister’...

Of all the classic TV tropes and clichés, the one that irritates me most consistently is ‘bir-rispett kollu’. The English equivalent is ‘with all due respect’... but as anyone who understands both languages will immediately notice, one of those words didn’t quite make it into the widely used Maltese version.

I say ‘widely used’ because, admittedly, there is a slighter longer and more complete version in Maltese, which also includes the missing word: ‘Bir-rispett kollu DOVUT’.  Some might think that it got shortened merely to save time or breath; but not me. No, I think there’s a far likelier reason for the omission; I think the word ‘dovut’ – ‘due’ – is considered superfluous, in a country where everyone seems to think they are automatically worthy of ‘respect’ by virtue of simply existing, and nothing more.

Conversely, it also suggests that people who insist on being treated with ‘respect’, should not have to lift so much as a finger to actually earn it. It is a quality that should be conferred on them at all times, regardless how they behave in life, or how they go about their private (and/or public) business.

Sorry, but... who on earth put that absurd notion in your heads? The only people who can get away with demanding ‘respect’ for no particular reason are Mafiosi.  Remember that classic line from the Godfather? “ don't ask with respect. You don't offer friendship. You don't even think to call me Godfather. Instead, you come into my house on the day my daughter is to be married, and you ask me to do murder, for money...”

The only people who can get away with demanding 'respect' for no particular reason are Mafiosi

Yes, people like Don Vito Corleone can get away with it... but only because they’re the sort of people who do precisely what the Don got so offended about in that scene: ‘murder for money’. And in any case, it’s a different sort of ‘respect’ entirely. You’d show the same ‘respect’ to any thug with a gun... or even, for that matter, to a dangerous-looking dog. Speaking entirely for myself, it is not the sort of ‘respect’ I would aspire to. (Then again, I’d be pretty useless as a Mafioso anyway. And I’d look kind of silly in a pin-striped suit...)

So let’s stick to the sort of ‘respect’ that so many people here feel they are owed for no reason under the sun. The sort that got an environmental activist escorted out of a Planning Authority public hearing last Thursday under heavy police escort, for instance.

I’ll admit it’s going to be difficult to make specific references to the actors involved there, because... um... what if I get their titles wrong? What if I say ‘Mr Vince Cassar’, instead of ‘Dr Vince Cassar’... or ‘Professor Vince Cassar’... or ‘His Excellency Vince Cassar’... or ‘He Who Must Not be Disrespected Vince Cassar?’

Heck, what if I forget my place entirely, and just call him ‘Vince’? Judging by what happened last Thursday – when four police cars, 10 policemen, and the Rapid Intervention Unit were dispatched to drag a member of the public out of a ‘public’ PA meeting – I reckon an entire SWAT-team of abseiling, Kevlar-clad spooks would come smashing through my windows in an instant.  They probably even have a ‘Disrespect Alarm’ system at the Floriana Police Depot, connected to strategically-placed CCTV cameras all over the country. ‘Red Alert! There has been a breach in Sector 3: a citizen failed to genuflect properly in the presence of a junior public officer... Go nab ‘im, boys...’

So if this article comes to a sudden halt in mid-sentence, just assume I’ve been arrested by the Respect Police, and carted off kicking and screaming for a little forced re-education by the Ministry of Manners. Meanwhile, let’s take another look at what happened.

From various eye-witness accounts, it transpires that a certain Robert-Louis Fenech – fairly well-known for online environmentalist activism, and a long-standing critic of PA policies – was a little rude during question-time at that PA hearing. He said ‘Oi!’ – ‘Oi!’, no less – when trying to get the attention of a board that was doggedly refusing to listen to his objections; he then called Vic... I mean, PROFESSOR Victor Axiak (phew, almost forgot) by his name, instead of by his ancestral title... and he even told the Great Googly-Moogly Himself to ‘mind his own business’. To his face, I might add.

Oh, and he also refused to leave the room when given his marching orders. (I’ll leave you to guess by whom, as I might get the designation wrong, and... you know...)

Meanwhile, the entire meeting had to be suspended for around half an hour... or however long it took for around one-third of Malta’s entire law enforcement capability to be mobilised to the scene of the crime... which also means that nobody else got to ask any questions in all that time, either.

And what do you know? Question time is eventually over, and the board gets to the part it’s been anxiously awaiting so long: the part where it votes to approve the development of a hotel on the Delimara coastline... and which just happens to be precisely what Robert-Louis Fenech – along with PROFESSOR Victor Axiak’s own Environmental Resources Authority, as well as all the civil society NGOs at that meeting – was trying to stop from happening.

Hmm. It all seems to have worked out spectacularly to the advantage of the people who were pushing for approval, don’t you think? The developers, naturally (who can blame them?)... but also the overwhelming majority of the Planning Authority Board itself (the project was approved by 10 votes to three).

Interestingly, among the most vociferous supporters was the Planning Authority’s CEO, Mr/Dr/Prof./Grand Mufti/whatever Johann Buttigieg, who downplayed the visual impact of the hotel on the beach and surroundings; as well as Government representative [choose appropriate title] Clayton Bartolo... who, somewhat bizarrely, described the project as a ‘good investment’ (!).

Small wonder the PA was so keen to avoid any... um... ‘rudeness’. Would it have been ‘disrespectful’ to ask why the Government’s representative on the PA board seemed so concerned with protecting investments of an entirely private nature – whose dividends will be enjoyed only by the developers – and so oblivious to the development’s environmental impact... which affects everybody? (Reason I ask is... Government has a Constitutional obligation for only one of those two considerations. And it sure ain’t ‘protecting private wealth’...)

I thought I’d point that last part out, because it places all this ‘rudeness’ business into some form of context. It may well be a fact that Robert (I’ll assume he won’t take offence at the first-name basis) might have indeed been ‘rude’ and ‘disrespectful’ at that meeting. But it is also a fact that he was forcibly prevented from speaking at a public meeting, which a) is designed specifically to allow the public to comment, and b) is also his inalienable, fundamental human right, according to the Universal Charter enshrined in the Maltese Constitution.

Against Robert’s ‘rudeness’, we therefore have to weigh the hamfistedness with which a public official simply quashed a citizen’s right to express an opinion, on what looks like an entirely vexatious pretext. I’m no international human rights lawyer... but I do know how I’d bet on a possible future ECHR court ruling on this particular case.

What I found even more intriguing, though, was that among the three board members who voted against was none other than PROF. Axiak himself – you know, the one on whose behalf the chairman of the PA board got so upset, that he silenced one of the voices that was actually agreeing with PROF. Axiak (and therefore disagreeing with himself) at that meeting.

Because of ‘disrespect’, naturally. Not because Robert-Louis Fenech was raising valid objections to the project; or asking questions that the board might find difficult to answer... and certainly not because he was expressing a very widespread public exasperation with YET ANOTHER foregone PA approval, flying in the face of genuine environmental concerns.

No, his eviction by at least three separate units of the Malta Police Force was occasioned by his ‘rudeness’... at a public PA meeting that is, of course, always characterised by the very maximum ‘politeness’ and ‘deference’ imaginable.

Is there a polite, respectful way of saying ‘pull the other one’, I wonder? Is it ‘rude’ to even ask the question? Hang on, are those sirens I hear approaching in the distance? Why is everything flashing red and blue all of a sudden? And who the heck would be kicking my front door in at this unearthly hour...?

Hey, what... who... wait... Aaaargh!

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