The Malta Independent 22 January 2021, Friday

Getting together when it matters

Michael Briguglio Thursday, 24 December 2020, 07:17 Last update: about 29 days ago

Us and them. Blue and Red. Pure and unpure. Clean and corrupt. Intelligent and stupid. Right and wrong.

In public discourse we often see the usage of such categories whn groups would want to distinguish themselves from others.

Whether it is in being active for a cause, a party, a faction, a group, an organization, or other sources of identity, the narrative one subscribes to is often echoed in monolithic ways.  This can lead to parallel discourses which talk past each other: Social distancing in rhetoric, a far cry from deliberation. 

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When I observe such narratives as pronounced, for example on the social media, I often get the impression that parallel universes exist in Malta. Networks often support each other, legitimise each other’s’ voices and choose their targets selectively.  The action of one politician is validated or attacked according to his affiliation. Similarly, the narrative of one’s organisation is necessarily seen as true, whilst alternative views are seen as intrinsically wrong.

The propagation of sensationalism, fake news, half-truths and reporting at the speed of light without proper verification, help amplify the bubbles of one’s affiliation. Sure, a plurality of discourses would be in place, but they would be talking past each other rather than engaging in proper communication.  

But at the same time, beyond this spectacle, we also witness instances of community, where people get together despite their differences. Value surveys often show that people’s major concerns are not really in synch with the loudest voices in the media sphere. The latter add colour to the media, they may actually be presenting legitimate concerns, and may offer better photo opportunities.

On the other hand, not all instances of community make the headlines. National fundraisers for charity do grab media attention, but we could also consider the everyday actions people carry out in silence within the same society that is often presented as divided and in conflict.

This year’s Covid-19 pandemic is a case in point. Beyond the noise, most people just wanted to get on with their daily lives. Hence, they took precautions in their own different ways, wore face masks, and kept their social bubbles as close as possible. These range from school children to workers, from elderly people to youth. In our different ways, we tried to adapt to the new situation. At times we were resilient, at other times we needed assistance.

Not to mention the heroes of 2020, the frontliners, who defended the universal threat that our society was facing.

If there is something to learn from the Covid-19 context, it is that despite all our different identities, aspirations, and situations, we are all part of this global risk. Sure, some social groups are negatively affected more than others, and this requires the attention it deserves.

But we can say that generally, most of us listened to the public health recommendations, had our own concerns, but ultimately, we sailed ahead amid the difficulties and tragedies. A sense of community prevailed.

Thus the same society which is characterised by contention and its impact on the news cycle, is the same society where thousands do their own thing in silence. Each and every one of us faces our own contradictions: We conform to certain processes, institutions and norms but do not conform to others. And increasing numbers of us are relying more on our reflexive judgements when making choices.

Indeed, I think that the Covid experience has shown us that we may act as community where it matters, despite our differences.

We did not become a monolithic society when we wore the face mask. We still retained our respective identities. But we forged a working arrangement for a practical challenge.

It would be helpful if we transpose this way of things in the public sphere of political and activist discourse. We could deliberate and listen carefully to the perspective of those on different sides. Rather than following a monolithic voice, we could try to see what alternative views have to offer. We could look at the bigger picture rather than just our sectarian interest.

We come to accept that other persons may have different opinions, but we also get together when it matters.

Here’s to wishing a Happy Christmas and New Year to all readers, contributors and staff of the Malta Independent.

 

Dr Michael Briguglio is a sociologist and senior lecturer at the University of Malta

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