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Better to hide than save the day

Daphne Caruana Galizia
A banner set up at the protest memorial at the Great Siege Square in Valletta on the one-year anniversary on Daphne Caruana Galizia's assassination. Photo: Pierre Ellul

“I didn’t like all his songs, but John Lennon shouldn’t have been murdered.”

I’ve never heard anyone say that.

We all know that lurking in the bushes and shooting someone is wrong. And it’s still wrong no matter what you think of John Lennon’s songs, or the breakup of The Beatles.

So why is it normal in Malta for people to say, “I didn’t agree with everything she wrote, but it’s terrible what happened to Daphne”?

It doesn’t matter if you thought Daphne Caruana Galizia was rude, mean, wrong, or a genius. No one agrees with every single thing someone else said. That is completely irrelevant.

Why can’t you just say straight out, in no uncertain terms, that you think it’s terrible she was murdered?

Why the lukewarm condemnation?

Let’s agree to assume that you aren’t just “virtue signalling” — saying something because you think it’ll make you look good in the eyes of others.

When you use the phrase “I didn’t agree with everything she wrote, but…” you’re trying to distance yourself from the opinion you just expressed.

There’s a fear of repercussion lurking beneath this.

You know that murder by car bomb is wrong, and you’re disturbed enough to feel you have to say something about it. But at the same time, you don’t want to risk being held accountable for your opinion.

Now, I know it might seem like I’m making a big deal out of nothing, or reading too much into a strange pattern of speech. But I saw something similar last week in the comments section of a Maltese news article.

When asked why he posted anonymously rather than use his own name, a vocal critic of government corruption replied, “Malta is small, everybody knows everybody, everybody gossips, everybody labels you. This does not happen in any other European country. But here you criticise the government, the government and its allies will retaliate, sooner or later, in some way or other. This is the saddest part of the climate we live in. I’m sorry.”

But isn’t that part of the problem? Not that you can’t speak out, but that you won’t?

This person isn’t living in Nazi Germany or the USSR, where he and his family would have risked being hauled off to certain death for daring to say what he thought. He’s living in a European Union member state.

His critiques were well grounded and clearly expressed, and he felt compelled to post them, but he didn’t want his own name attached because he was afraid of reprisals. And so he becomes another online ghost that no one pays attention to, an easily dismissible voice in the ether.

Unfortunately, his reluctance to stand up for himself isn’t an isolated sentiment. It’s even being taught to children.

In a 2017 opinion piece in the Times of Malta, Kristina Chetcuti shared the experience of a 15-year old student who told his teacher that he’d been too scared to join his parents at a vigil to protest the assassination of Caruana Galizia.

I’ll never forget what the teacher said in response. “You did the right thing,” she told him. “You keep away from these things because they might take photos at events like these and in future someone might see the photos and recognise you and you might not be given a job because of that.”

What kind of example does this set for your children?

It sounds completely bizarre to outsiders, but in Malta, cowardice masked as prudence is considered a positive virtue.

Now, before you object by telling me, “This is a small island, everybody knows everybody…”

I came from a town of 4,000 people. Everyone knows everyone there. We argued over municipal politics in my hometown. We had strong disagreements. And when there was conflict, it happened face to face and that was the end of it. I never saw anyone who was afraid to stand up and say, “That is wrong.”

Yes, Malta is plagued by a culture of Omertà, just like neighbouring Sicily. But it isn’t just a code of honour for protecting criminals. In Malta, fear of retribution has resulted in a culture where it isn’t the person who does something illegal or unethical that’s the problem, it’s the person who shines a light on it.

To testify against a neighbour in Malta, even indirectly, exposes one to petty acts of revenge from the culprit and from that person’s family. Pathetic stuff like setting someone’s door on fire or burning down their car in the night, rather than confronting them directly.

But this Maltese code of silence doesn’t just apply to conflict with one’s neighbours over moral right and wrong. Even something as ordinary as criticising government policy could result in loss of contracts for one’s business, refusal of a permit, or denial of promotion.

People live with this fear of being back-stabbed, but they also put up with it because they accept it as normal.

It took me a long time to come to terms with this, because it was so far from the Malta I’d read about. Were these the same people who showed stubborn courage in the face of hopeless odds during the Great Siege? Could people who defied the weapons of Nazi Germany seriously be afraid to speak up in front of their neighbours?

I gave this strange adaptation a great deal of thought, and somehow I always ended up back at amoral familism, the anthropological concept pioneered by Edward C. Banfield and applied to Malta by Jeremy Boissevain.

You’ll recall that the amoral familist believes any action undertaken to benefit one’s family or oneself is justifiable, and everyone expects everyone else to do whatever benefits their family or themselves, regardless of whether it is legal or ethical.

It certainly won’t earn anyone the George Cross, but when seen through the lens of amoral familism, keeping one’s head below the parapet is an intelligent survival strategy.

That’s because speaking up or taking a stand doesn’t serve your short term interest or the short term interest of your immediate family. It’s better to wait for someone else to take the risk, instead. By hiding, you’ll still benefit from the outcome without doing any of the work.

It’s a pretty spineless way to live, but hiding in the corner isn’t even the worst of it.

Peel away this vague fear of punishment and you’ll find an undercurrent of greed.

People do eventually jump sides in Malta, but they only rush to stick the knife in Caesar’s back once the outcome has already been decided.

They sit on the fence and wait to see which way the wind will blow and then commit to the winning side because they don’t want to miss out on the rewards.

This is the way a parasite acts, but it’s the logical end state for the amoral familist. And no matter how hard I try, I can’t find a clearer explanation for what I’m seeing in Malta.

“But what about Daphne?” you might say. “She stood up and look what happened to her.”

Yes, Daphne spoke up, and she refused to back down.

You read her blog in massive numbers, and a few of you commented (mostly anonymously). And when the wind seemed to be blowing in her favour, you took to the streets and joined the growing swell of angry demonstrations.

But when Joseph Muscat was reelected in 2017 with an even more powerful majority, so many of those who were so vocal in their protests against government corruption ran and hid.

You left her alone to continue writing, and to continue standing up to the most corrupt in your midst. Daphne was brutally murdered because of it — and that was wrong, even if you didn’t like what she wrote.

But killing one person doesn’t work when hundreds of people refuse to be silenced.

Can you retain a shred of self-respect knowing that you justified keeping your head down with, “But I have a job…. But I have a family…” all the while waiting for someone else to stick their neck out instead?

Is any job worth bowing down to the slime that is looting the country? They’re laughing at your timidity. What’s your price for licking their boots?

I don’t know about you, but I would feel so ashamed if every time the bully walked past I lowered my eyes and looked at the floor.

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