There is a paradox about the conclusion of Friday’s State of the Nation conference, organised under the auspices of the President of the Republic. It’s a glaring paradox but has gone unremarked.
Vincent Marmara — the statistician who analysed a survey about how people felt about themselves, politics and the nation — presented a picture of contentment.
Around 60% feel content and fulfilled; 75% feel their standard of living is above average; 71% live with families they consider the first port of call when they have a problem, and 83% would consult family for the most important decisions.
Over half associate themselves primarily with Malta as a whole (a third with their home town), and 87% don’t wish they had been born elsewhere.
Faced with this picture, however, the President still concluded we need a Foundation for National Unity, and he asked political parties to restrain politically motivated online hate speech.
How could contentment raise such concerns? How do we square the picture presented by Marmara with the concerns of George Vella?
Keep in mind three factors.
First, Vella wasn’t going out on a limb. He was reflecting the concerns raised throughout the day — on the culture of debate, the implications of the digital revolution for the country’s strategic, economic and cultural needs, and on civic values, among others. (Full disclosure: I was on one of the panels.)
Many panellists were concerned about whether our institutions can foster the social cohesion we need to be a decent society, one able to guarantee social and economic security in the face of radical challenges to the bases of citizenship, education, work and the environment.
Second, Marmara’s survey does not lend itself to straightforward interpretation.
Take contentment. Sixty per cent are content but, in 2006, an international survey had us at 74% — and the ‘happiest’ in the world. In the last few years, our position has tumbled. This spring, the report for last year had us plummet 17 places (37th out of 95).
All such surveys should be taken with a pinch of salt. My only point is that once you begin to compare, the same numbers change meaning.
One panellist expressed surprise that only 11% identified primarily with ‘Europe’. Should we read this as evidence of cultural closure? No. The late Umberto Eco, global intellectual and champion of European integration, liked to say he only felt European when he was outside Europe — say, in the US — since that’s when he had a heightened sense of his Europeanness. I feel the same way.
Several of the key survey questions are ambiguous. Taking your problems to your family doesn’t mean the problem is solved there. The family could simply be where experience, information and contacts are pooled so that the right path is plotted. That’s not a closed family; it’s a networked one.
The questions are so open to interpretation that some conference participants drew a different picture from the results: less of contentment, more of complacency. They pointed to the data that showed 87% had always voted for the same political party, and only 27% would consider voting for another. Signs of unthinking atavism, the critics said.
Possibly. But not considering the other party as a credible alternative does not rule out abstaining from voting for your preferred party. This is not a theoretical point: it’s been a key dynamic in more than one general election. Repressing the other party’s core vote (as distinct from winning over its vote) is part of any standard campaign.
Voting consistently for the same party isn’t necessarily a sign of an unthinking reflex. The same respondents think of themselves (90%) as voting for the party that most matches their thinking, rather than fitting themselves to the party. The respondents may be under an illusion, but in that case, it’s the illusion of a thinking person, not a partisan parrot. Fewer than half (48%) said politics is very important to them.
The answers are, in fact, compatible with a third interpretation: a picture of people who think of themselves as moderate sceptics. They trust others but carefully (52%). They’re iffy about whether the media covers their concerns (59%). They believe in God (94%), but only 54% explicitly take ‘religion’ into account when making a decision. They’re sceptical about multiculturalism (41% say it all depends), but they value justice and liberty over equality and solidarity.
The survey doesn’t settle anything, although it can help us have a more focused public discussion. It does, however, raise the one important question with which this column began. How do we square the online aggression with the survey?
Maybe the keyboard warriors are not representative at all.
It’s partly a matter of the medium. It’s been documented that, around the world, people behave with more aggression online. During the conference, Peppi Azzopardi attested that he tries to meet up with people who spew hate speech against him — and he has found that, in some instances, a friendship is created.
More ominously, it’s a matter of who’s behind it. Keyboard warriors often belong to organised armies, actively trying to trigger ordinary people, stoke hate and intimidate opponents.
In which case, it’s an insidious minority that is inflicting grave damage on the rights of ordinary people. Especially if, as the survey shows, 72% get their news from online portals and Facebook. Their opinions may be manipulated while they think of themselves as thinking critically about information.
The President has good grounds on which to ask the political parties to restrain themselves. The request, tame in itself, gives the rest of us the basis on which to demand accountability from the political parties.
As for the Foundation for National Unity? Even if the nation is not as divided as some think, it could serve as a useful watchdog, enjoying the authority of the Presidency, against organised abuse. In a polity where our rulers increasingly behave as though anything goes, civil society needs all the authority it can get.