Casualties of ‘war’

‘Sticks and stones’ may indeed ‘break your bones’... but words will hurt you far, far more in the long term

How did we get to this point, exactly? A point where we condone the bullying of small children, just because they happen to be the children of politicians we don’t like? Or – if you insist on maintaining a cosmetic veneer of ‘balance’ for its own sake – we pick on the marital status of an adult woman, simply because she happens to be in a relationship with a former Opposition leader?

It is quite frankly sick; no other word for it. But let’s take the proverbial step back, and look at the extended canvas from a safe distance. Speaking only for myself: I won’t jump onto the current ‘let’s-all-bash-Kristina-Chetcuti’ bandwagon, because – unlike most of the people who responded to her article last week – I, too, write regular articles in the newspapers, and I know from experience that sometimes, situations and emotions can get the better of you.

It is easier than you might think to lose sight of certain basic principles of logic and dispassionate analysis: even when you’re not directly involved in the issue you’re writing about (let alone when you’re in it up to your eyeballs). I seriously doubt Kristina Chetcuti would have written the way she did, had she not been feeling bitter and disillusioned about the current political situation. I suspect the absurdity of her own argument would have dawned on her a lot sooner.

But still: she did write what she wrote... and some of it betrays an almost frightening suspension of common sense in pursuit of a political obsession. This, for instance, is a direct quote: “School ground bullying is bound to happen. It can be because your children’s classmates think that your politician husband is absolute rubbish, but it could also be because your child wears specs or gets better grades or has a funny accent. You need to arm your children with witty replies and punches, and not making them feel they are little princes or princesses who deserve special treatment.”

Hmm... OK, tell you what: let’s see how that logic holds up in a slightly different scenario. Like rape, for instance.

“Rape is bound to happen. It could be because your teenage daughter goes out wearing a mini-skirt, or gets drunk; but it could also be because some men just can’t control their violent, possessive impulses. After all, ‘boys will be boys’. They have to let off a little steam now and again. So, rather than condemn rapists... you need to arm you daughters with all the moral fortitude necessary to endure violent, physical sexual assault without complaining too loudly. Above all, you should not bring them up to believe that they are ‘spoilt little princesses’ who enjoy some God-given right to walk the streets safely at night...’

What do you think? As for me: no, actually... I can’t bring myself to believe that Kristina Chetcuti would ever argue that way in the case of rape. Not when the obvious argument would be something like: “Rape is wrong, full-stop. It has nothing to do with the clothes you wear, or the sexy way you walk, or – in fact – anything that can even remotely be associated with the victim. It is the perpetrator who is at fault: so yes, your little princess does have the right to walk the streets safely... and to ensure that right, men have to control their violent, possessive impulses, or face the full brunt of the law.” (Note: I am limiting the example to ‘male-on-female’ rape for the sake of argument, but obviously the same applies to any other form of coercive, non-consensual sex).

There: it’s not that difficult to understand in the absence of a political context, is it? But place the same argument in a political context, and... bingo! We somehow end up justifying ghastly crimes which we would certainly condemn, in any other scenario.

Meanwhile, if Kristina’s ill-conceived article were the only example, I’d say... fine. She had a bad day, let’s all get over it. The trouble, however, is that the same suspension of common sense underpins our entire approach to every last aspect of politics in this country. It has truly assumed the proportions of an incurable national epidemic.

Consider the chorus of responses by people we so casually define as ‘Labour trolls’ (while busy doing ‘trolling’ of our own, of course, in the name of another party/political cause). Half the comments I saw took Kristina Chetcuti to task for not being married to the man she chose to share her life with. She is a ‘pogguta’, a ‘mara hazina’, and God knows what else.

Huh? What? I mean... what is it with these people, exactly? They can’t all have stepped out of a time-machine from the Victorian era, you know. And to make matters worse: these are (generally) the same people who loudly support Joseph Muscat’s ‘progressive, liberal’ agenda: who applauded when the government introduced civil unions, backed divorce, and strengthened Malta’s equality laws... among all sorts of other things that run directly counter to their own alarmingly anachronistic prejudices against unmarried partners.

Is it possible that they can’t see the contradiction in their own position? Unfortunately the answer to that question is very evidently: ‘yes’. This is after all a sickness we are dealing with here; and just as you can’t realistically blame a measles victim for coming out in spots... you can’t blame a victim of Malta’s virulent political fever for being hopelessly incapable of logical thought, either.

The most you can is say ‘Get well soon’, and hope for a miracle cure (note: it would have to be a miracle, because this disease is quite simply beyond the power of medical science to even treat). Or – as I find myself increasingly doing – mentally ‘quarantine’ them, by just pretending they don’t exist.

That last strategy, however, does very little to come to grips with the cause of this malady. I started this article asking how, exactly, we all got to this alarming, depressing point; I’ll end it by trying to answer that question myself, or perish in the attempt.

We got to this point because we allowed ourselves to become addicted to political warfare: just like a junkie is addicted to heroin, or pretty much everyone is addicted to their mobile phone.

For decades now, Malta has been festering in a state of low-level civil war. Back in the 1970s and 1980s, it regularly spilt out into actual street violence; and Daphne Caruana Galizia’s murder last October was a reminder that the volcano is dormant, not extinct. To this day, the ancestral political grudges that characterised former decades can still be felt; and now that we live in an age of social media and instant commentary... the street violence of the 1980s is being played out again in terms of naked, no-holds-barred verbal warfare.

Insults, lies and allegations have replaced the sticks, stones and chains of yesteryear. And that is very far from an improvement... for that old hackneyed expression was all along untrue. ‘Sticks and stones’ may indeed ‘break your bones’... but words will hurt you far, far more in the long term. Broken bones eventually heal over time; but the malevolence engendered by this culture of verbal warfare will quite probably never fade away at all.

And while we’re still admiring the canvas from a step back: consider another difference between the 1970s/80s and today. Back then, at least we all had a rough idea of what we were fighting about. The differences between the two sides were both very real and very unbridgeable: it was a case of two diametrically opposed ideologies – ‘protectionism’ versus ‘open markets’, to cite but one of the many battlefields of the time – and, like ‘Highlander’, ‘there could only be one’ of those two incompatible things.

Today? What are we waging this war over, anyway?  What are we even doing in the trenches at all?

If anyone thinks they can answer that question... well, go right ahead. There’s a comment thread, below. But I can save you all the bother by answering it myself. We’re fighting this war over absolutely nothing... nothing, that is, except the thrill of combat itself.

Like Vietnam vets who never got over their post-traumatic stress-disorder – or, even more cogently, those Japanese WWII vets who were still fighting imaginary enemies on far-flung Pacific islands, all the way up to the 1970s and beyond... we are going through the motions of a political war that may have once made sense, in a distant past, long, long ago... but which hasn’t made sense for so long now, that none of us even remembers the original cause of hostilities.

All of which would be perfectly fine, I hasten to add... if the warfare was limited only to legitimate ‘military targets’. But no. As in every war, there are also civilian casualties. Now, those casualties extend to include the 10-year-old children of politicians... the ‘partners’ of politicians... the extended family of politicians... all the way down to the dogs, cats, goldfish and pet budgerigars of politicians... not to mention anyone and everyone who happens to have a different political opinion: including their children, their partners, their family, their pets, and so on ad infinitum.

How else can we classify this but as a sickness? And – more to the point – how on earth do we even begin to seek a cure, when the people infected don’t even realise there’s anything wrong with them?

Well, sorry to be blunt... but there is something wrong. Something very deeply wrong indeed. It’s probably far too late to do anything about individual cases now; but the least we can all do is try and vaccinate our children against the disease. If not for our own sake... for theirs.

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