Simon Mercieca, University history lecturer, publicly accused Matthew Caruana Galizia of playing a part in his mother’s brutal murder. He insisted that the public inquiry should call him to explain why he left his mother’s car parked outside, the night before her assassination.
The sheer callousness of Mercieca’s comments is staggering. He has every right to express his views, cruel and insensitive as they might be. After all, we enjoy, as the University of Malta, his employer, explained “complete freedom of expression”.
For a son still recoiling in bereavement, the gratuitous accusation must have hurt. Although “thou know’st, it’s common, all that lives must die” there is nothing ordinary in a parent’s death. When a mother’s life is so horrifically and prematurely extinguished, the experience of the son who witnessed the scene must reach the pinnacle of human vulnerability and abandonment.
Matthew retaliated – with witty humour, without referring to Mercieca. “Remember when you had to have a brain to become a lecturer. Due to a shortage, the rector has relaxed the rules. If you’re a single celled organism now is your chance.”
The lecturer snapped. A hysterical tirade ensued. “This is a person who has no problem stripping a person of his human dignity calling him a single celled organism” he accused.
Bizarre claims followed: “This is the language used by people in favour of abortion to justify killing unborn babies”. “Caruana Galizia today used abortive language against university lecturers,” he declared in shock.
Caruana Galizia had done nothing of the sort. And even if he had, are university lecturers a protected species?
Mercieca invoked the University and the rector. “His words are offensive towards the current rector and I believe the University should take action on this statement”. What University action did Mercieca have in mind? “It is truly racist and fascist to refer to people as single celled organisms,” he went on.
Of course, all citizens can exert their right to freedom of expression to make a fool of themselves. Sadly, however, this is a historian and an academic tasked with educating university students.
Now academics are frequently eccentric, often outspoken, occasionally insolent and irreverent. They challenge authority and question everything. They may be offensive and obnoxious. But the minimum expected from academics is that their views and opinions are based on facts and evidence. Their thought processes should be logical. While deliberate hostility and gratuitous aggression are undesirable, peddling lunatic conspiracy theories is anathema for academics.
Mercieca proudly proclaims himself a “Trumpian”. Donald Trump is notorious for his rude name-calling: ‘little Rubio’, ‘sleepy Joe’, ‘crooked Hillary’ – and his incitement to violence – “people like that would be carried out on a stretcher”. He has engaged in a surreal loop of disinformation particularly about COVID-19 and its treatment – bleach and sunlight.
Mercieca is emulating Trump. He hosted a show promoting the most outlandish conspiracy theories including the “plandemic theory”. This alleges that the spread of COVID-19 was designed to make big bucks for the pharmaceutical industry and philanthropist Bill Gates.
He created fantastical theories about Daphne Caruana Galizia’s murder. He claims Yorgen Fenech was framed because he is wealthy and the journalist’s family can receive more in damages; that Fenech is in custody to satisfy the family and Adrian Delia’s political rivals; that the public inquiry decides whether the family is compensated.
He falsely accused a journalist of winning an Air Malta tender without a shred of evidence. He is charged with contempt of court after uploading recordings, made by middleman Melvin Theuma, heard in court behind closed doors. If found guilty he may well end up in jail.
Professor Robert Sutton in his book ‘The No Asshole Rule’ emphasises that “There are real costs to organisations for putting up with asshole behaviour”. The institution’s reputation is badly damaged, other academics are discredited and most importantly students and society suffer.
The institution has a responsibility to break the circle of nastiness. Somebody who can be so intimidating and hostile in public towards a private citizen, cannot be trusted to foster a culture of debate and discussion among students.
One who can be so offensive yet take offence so easily is unlikely to take criticism from his own students lightly. Somebody who calls for action by the institution he serves against a private citizen’s sarcasm to defend his “honour and dignity” needs guidance.
The institution has an obligation to dissociate itself from false information propagated by its own academic – especially information that harms efforts to protect citizens from COVID-19. Spreading manifestly wrong information is not simply expressing an opinion, it is a health hazard for the population.
The degradation of public discourse is tragic and worth our moral attention. It is easy to be coarsely misanthropic. But big values inform civility and manners – respect, consideration, tolerance. Students are expected to behave professionally, with good manners and with civility. Academics should be role models of civility – even when our views are diametrically opposite.
We can disagree respectfully and politely and have a healthy rational discussion. Hostility, aggression, intimidation, bullying, coarseness and rudeness cannot be disregarded in academics when expectations for students are so high.
No wonder our leaders, themselves graduates of our University, routinely resort to hostile coarseness. Joseph Muscat’s comments “Imur jiehdu f’s….” (he can bugger off) to Simon Busuttil, or “tkellem wahdek” (talk to yourself) to journalists, Justyne Caruana’s “Nationalists are all snakes”, Ian Borg’s “you are amateurs” and countless others have normalised rudeness. In addition, they highlight the utter failure of our educational system and of our University.
When even our highest institution of learning condones rudeness and incivility from its lecturers, hope fades. Confucius’ main goal in educating his students was to produce ethically well-cultivated men (it was mostly men then) who would carry themselves with civility, speak respectfully and demonstrate consummate integrity in all things. Confucius died thinking none of it worked out.