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Malta puts the ‘cult’ in culture

It’s no secret that the Maltese put the ‘cult’ in Culture. It’s so screamingly obvious that John Sweeney recently wondered to a packed room whether there mightn’t be a “Muscatology” at play in Malta.

A cult requires more than mere veneration of a person or entity though: It demands that you submit your critical faculties to a movement. It possesses, bullies, coerces, and brainwashes, until the prospective devotee is completely detached from reality.

This detachment is crucial, because the survival of a cult depends on the leader’s ability to create a little solipsistic (egocentric) bubble – to this end they often insist that their members disown their families, that they give up worldly possessions, and that they adopt quasi-uniforms.

Perhaps most pertinent to my point is their emphasis on regression. A fundamental ingredient to any working cult is that it needs malleable, pliable, mindless, dependents who regard their leader in quasi-parental terms. So cults will often break their members down, infantilise and depersonalise them, render them childlike.

Cults, after all, are usually spearheaded by the pathologically narcissistic, and if there’s one trait narcissistic parental figures have it is the coddling of children to the point where they are hopelessly dependent on them, devoid of autonomy, in need of being told what to do and how to do it unquestioningly.

As a consequence you create a group of remarkably narrow-minded individuals who are possessed of incredible tunnel vision – because if there’s one thing that’s inherent to childhood, it’s solipsism.

Children know nothing outside the cocoon of their immediate surroundings, and so are gifted – and arguably cursed in equal measure – with childhood myths and fantasies like the tooth fairy and Santa Claus, that they swallow hook-line-and-sinker because they know no better.

Normally cult recruits are displaced and disenfranchised. They are the drifters, the blow-ins, the cast-outs, looking for a system of meaning that might adopt them. They are vulnerable, susceptible and gullible, and feeling alienated from the rest of the world they find solace in a grouping that promises them the world.

How, though, do you explain an entire country that exhibits cult tendencies? How is a whole 21st  century society, with free access to education and information, still so gullible?

While this is not limited to Malta, you could suggest it’s intensity is because Malta is so densely populated – the tightly packed environment doesn’t allow much room for individuality, self-reliance, self-awareness and perspective to grow. Nothing encourages groupthink better than fear of rocking the boat.

You could blame the terrible literacy rate (as author Ray Bradbury puts it, “you don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them”).

You certainly cannot discount the effects of colonialism on suppressing development. And there is also always the Edward C Banfield concept of amoral familism to contend with.

But what if the central element to all of this is the fact that the country’s epistemological approach has always fundamentally valued blind faith over fact?

What if there’s something in the collective wiring that has been compounded over centuries, that doesn’t simply predispose the community to messianic worship, but that also holds it up as a virtue to “just believe” despite – or in spite – of the evidence?

What kind of reasoning skills does the average citizen have in a country that has historically been led to believe that the laws of the universe can be annulled on behalf of a single petitioner through prayer? How do you ask the average Maltese person to step outside their solipsistic bubble and confront Fact?

Of course this isn’t indigenous to Malta, it was an integral part of humanity’s infancy.

Our ancestors were similarly solipsistic. They too felt that they were the centre of the universe, going so far as to believe their futures and their fortunes were written in the stars.

Like children, they were often guided by quasi-parental figures that they trusted – witch doctors, village elders, shamans and priests – who shaped their worldview, built stories and myths to narrate their lives, carved meaning into the black void of the sky with constellations to steer them through existence.

Yet there came a point when varying communities came to recognise, as individuals and as a society, that the myths, legends and fairy tales were no longer sufficient for survival. They questioned them, and found them lacking.

Just as children relinquish their vice-like grip on their mother’s apron, and the fictions they’ve been fed, to totter out of their bubble of fantasy and dependence into the real world, so too did many societies decide (for example) that the best person to have at the end of your death bed is more likely to be a doctor than a priest.

Yet while most of the modern world champions individuality, we still vehemently and proudly eschew it. When the civilised world values thinking for yourself, we are happiest being led by the nose.

Our discourse doesn’t, just yet, seem to be fully comfortable with lessons from history, deductive reasoning, fact-based and evidence-based research, context and a myriad of other dispassionate methodologies. It’s not part of our vernacular or schema.

And our national response to Daphne Caruana Galizia’s murder suggests we still have not adequately exercised those crucial muscles of compassion and empathy either.

On the contrary, it is with pride that we proclaim our slavish adulation of a political Party or leader to the world. With urgency do we trip over ourselves to flood Facebook statuses or tweets with unctuous, servile worship.

With ecstasy we welcome the opportunity to blend into the crowd, donning our uniforms and painting our faces – be it red or blue – to literally “go with the flow” of a mass surge of willing supplicants. Like dutiful minions we mindlessly repeat our leader’s mantras.

And, with particular relish, do some hate the people they are told to hate – like Caruana Galizia – without having fully read her work to decipher it for themselves.

Has this depersonalisation and homogenisation endured because Maltese education systems, Maltese political systems, Maltese systems of government, Maltese social organisation, even the Maltese vernacular, perpetuate it?

“Gullibility,” says writer David Wong, “is a knife at the throat of civilisation”.

Being a blind follower is not exclusive to religion, but it is fundamental to religion. If the central image of Christianity is that of Christ as a shepherd, and his followers as his flock, then it might be time for the Catholic Maltese to recognise that they’ve constructed their house on the wrong idea.

The late Christopher Hitchens put it this way: “Shepherds don’t look after sheep just because they like them: they either want to fuck them or fleece them.”

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