The President’s conference on national unity yesterday was held under a shadow of suspicion. For some critics, any talk of unity is a cheap distraction from demands for justice and action against the plainly corrupt; for others, it’s a ploy intended to bolster a Labour slogan, ‘Team Malta’. So how did the actual conference play out?
On Facebook, the numbers following the live proceedings never exceeded the order of 300. Those are excellent numbers for a Saturday morning discussion, but poor for a grand conspiracy.
In fact, the only time ‘Team Malta’ was mentioned was when a speaker dismissed it — as it happens, Aleks Farrugia, the former editor of It-Torca. He denounced it as an empty slogan that makes much of unity while marginalising the losers in a rigged economy.
More discussions are planned but we should expect those numbers to dip over time, unless the talk is linked to action — a civic initiative that emerges either from the President’s office or a national non-partisan organisation.
One serious obstacle: we flounder when we talk about unity. The consequence of years of threadbare talk has been to leave us without even a basic vocabulary to make headway.
It was symptomatic that many speakers (from the floor as much as the panel) tried to ‘go back to basics’ on unity by appealing to common sense or shared human emotion. Of course, common sense is anything but common, and tends to give different intuitions depending on your social environment. As for human feelings, they are an unreliable guide to action: otherwise, we wouldn’t be arguing about how to treat human wretches on high seas.
The discussion yesterday ranged over three distinct kinds of unity as though they were the same thing. We had people talking about the social cohesion we need to ensure a secure collective future: the stewardship of environmental resources.
Others spoke of integration under the law, where the main threat is corruption and blatant injustice, and where people of integrity feel they can no longer identify with the country.
Then you had those who spoke of solidarity and equality, where the main threat is indifference and the marginalisation of the weak.
All are important but they’re hardly the same thing. Solidarity is the proper topic of party political debate. Strategic issues need the participation of political parties but also call for consensus over long term interests. Integration under the law, on the other hand, is the framework within which all debate takes place.
Each kind of unity needs to be kept distinct. A rule of law framework is essential but, on its own, will not sort out strategic issues. You can have a perfectly honest-but-mad environmental policy that destroys long term sustainability.
Simone Borg, an environmental law expert, showed how a change of vocabulary can lead to a dramatic shift in perspective and policy frameworks. She asked everyone whether we could still speak of Malta as “din l-art ħelwa” — exploring the range of meaning embedded in ħelwa, from sweet to charming to loveable and homely.
She was, of course, talking about us and what we have made of Malta. But the shift — from the command to love the country, no matter what, to asking if it is worth loving — enabled her to move on to ask what legal framework could facilitate responsible adult love of country that makes it a proper home, rather than a warren of maisonettes.
The point to underline: This was not an activist’s speech that satisfied itself with a slogan. Say: “Dwellers of Malta, unite! You have nothing to lose but your cranes.” (Even if that’s not a bad call to arms.)
Borg was saying that patriotic sentiment can only be the way we acknowledge a problem. As a solution, it’s inadequate and fake. Solutions require us to move beyond sentiment to an ethic of responsibility, and from an ethic to a framework of law and institutional obligations.
If the President’s conferences help us acquire a fluency in the language of real unity, so that we can actually converse about it, rather than shout slogans at each other, they would have served a fruitful purpose. Unity in practice will elude us until it’s less slippery in conversation.