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Ending the siege mentality

One of the dominant ways in which we think about our history is to think of it as a series of sieges. Don’t be surprised if you come across it again today, as the State commemorates the Great Siege of 1565.

An island of strategic military importance is bound to be defined by the attempts to capture it. Defined not just in terms of actual attacks but even in terms of the aftermath – the new fortifications, the commemorative plaques.

The heritage stretches beyond the historically besieged cities. During World War II, the main target of the bombing raid was the harbour area, but the nearby towns were also hit. So the scars of the siege remain even in a town like Żejtun, where a prominent marble plaque in the main square lists the names of those who died.

In Birgu, there is a small landing on the stairs leading down from the main square to the waterfront, where several marble plaques remind the viewer of the victims of various raids and sieges, Ottoman and Axis. And, diagonally across from Żejtun’s memorial to the WWII dead, the main square also boasts a prominent replica of a Cross rescued by the Żwieten during a skirmish with Napoleon’s army in Cottonera.

Different sieges begin to superimpose themselves in memory. One siege begins to fade into the other, as though history were one long siege with different episodes. The grand-uncle who died in World War II becomes inter-changeable with those who died fighting the Ottomans or the French.

In other words, the siege becomes a metaphor we think by. It’s not just an event. It’s how we absorb new information. It becomes the story that filters how we think about what’s happening around us.

New episodes keep being added. The real problem of drug use and addiction becomes absorbed as a ‘siege by drugs (or drug barons)’. Legitimate political disagreement about values becomes a ‘moral bombardment’.

Malta is hardly alone in this but our uniqueness is not the point. Powerful metaphors don’t just organise our thinking. They shape thought.

I’m not so crazy as to blame all our civic ills on a single metaphor. But think of how our political discourse follows the template of a siege. Immigrants saved at sea, arriving in a wretched state, are called invaders, like a long list of others before them. In partisan competition, supporters are put on a military footing, mobilised to meet en masse, because envious foreigners are out to get us, while the opponent is called a traitor.

Of course, modern communications, patronage, neo-liberalism and consumerism are the dominant forces shaping our politics. But a dominant metaphor like “siege” helps organise the hype and the spin until it shapes our thought and filters out the alternatives.

I suspect the siege metaphor contributes to how we think about the public sphere. In mainland Europe, the public sphere was born in the coffee house and the salon, with people arguing vigorously against all comers. The public sphere remains a space where criticising one lot of politicians doesn’t mean you’re necessarily an agent of another lot.

But if you think of politics as the conduct of a siege, then the public sphere becomes a place where you’re either with one side or another – or else you need to behave as though you’re neutral UN or Red Cross personnel.

Of course, the viciousness and vindictiveness of our politics mean that it really is risky to criticise. We’re not just imagining it. What the metaphor of siege does, though, is make it seem as though the risk is natural and legitimate. The metaphor helps make possible what should not be acceptable.

Hence why it often happens that even those who claim to reject the “PLPN hegemony” might actually reinforce it without wanting to. It happens every time critics feel they need to underline that they enter the public sphere wearing metaphorical UN helmets.

The moment they do that, they accept the premise that they are there only by tacit invitation or tolerance. They need to “deserve” the protective ceasefire.

In fact, however, the way to end the “PLPN hegemony” on public discourse is to reject the siege mentality. It is to reclaim the public sphere as a place where we can speak our minds without making sure we criticise everyone every single time, as an insurance policy. The hegemony begins to end the moment we refuse to acknowledge it.

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