The Malta Independent 27 November 2021, Saturday

Impunity and the ring of Gyges

Kevin Cassar Sunday, 17 October 2021, 10:17 Last update: about 2 months ago

A shepherd working for the king of Lydia discovered a golden ring. He realised this was no ordinary ring. The moment he slipped it on his finger, he became invisible. He slipped into the king’s palace, seduced the queen, and with her help, murdered the king, taking his throne.

The story of the ring of Gyges was recounted by Glaucon in Plato’s Republic. Glaucon was trying to make a point. He believed no man was so virtuous that he could resist the temptation to steal, kill and wrong his enemies if he could get away with it. Socrates strongly disagreed. He argued that the man who abuses the power of the ring only enslaves himself. The man who chooses not to, remains in control and achieves happiness.

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Sadly our experience teaches us that given the ring, most abuse its power. He who wouldn’t make the most of it would be thought a most wretched idiot by the rest, Glaucon argued. It seems nothing has changed since Ancient Greece.

Closer to our time, the Shredder test confirms that human nature hasn’t changed. A group of people offered a financial reward for each correct answer to a set of questions, on average got 7 right. When they were told to mark their own questions and shred their answer sheet, knowing nobody could check their results, they claimed they got 14 answers right. Given the opportunity of benefitting personally most willingly cheat.

A psychological experiment called the ‘Lady in distress’ reveals more worrying characteristics. One person is asked to sit down at a desk with a group of strangers and fill in a questionnaire by an assistant who then moves to the next room. A loud crashing sound of a falling book shelf is followed by the loud screams of the assistant “Help, my leg is crushed”. When the strangers ignored her screams and did nothing, only 7% of the individuals being tested got up to help. When the individuals were put in the same situation but alone without the strangers, 70% immediately got up to help. The experiment clearly demonstrates that our actions are influenced by what those around us do. Few go against the stream. The majority go with the flow. When those heartless strangers are our leaders, our inaction is guaranteed.

Nowhere better than Malta demonstrates those detestable aspects of human nature. That ring of Gyges is the culture of impunity that stifles Malta. Knowing they could get away with murder, they murdered. Knowing they could get away with day light robbery, they robbed. Knowing they could get away with duping those who trusted them with their vote, they duped.

Those who didn’t, simply sat back in their chair filling their questionnaire as Malta screamed in agony with the weight of that bookshelf squeezing the life out of it. Only two spoke out - Marlene and Godfrey Farrugia. They paid dearly. The rest quietly acquiesced to the shameless looting of the nation’s soul while enjoying the benefits.  They acquiesced to the relentless dehumanisation, persecution and intimidation of Daphne Caruana Galizia - some enthusiastically joined in. Glenn Bedingfield led the charge with his persistent harassment. Others rallied the mob to lynch those speaking the truth.  Some are still at it, fueling the frenzy of the social media hordes to abuse and threaten critics and detractors. Labour has a lavishly funded media empire tasked with normalising personal attacks and vilification, with a regular dash of falsehoods.

How many more murders do we need to recognise our own enslavement? How do we turn the tide?

Moral character is not fixed.  It’s malleable.  So is the character of the nation. It can change, not dramatically overnight but slowly and gradually. But what’s required is positive role models in public life - public figures who are paradigms of integrity.

Where are Malta’s role models? Where are those with integrity and values? We are burdened with their antitheses. There is little interest in the moral implications of political behaviour. Tangible results or relative strategic successes take precedence over decency. Politicians who achieve results through questionable ethical actions are feted as heroes. When the American congress, appalled by the indiscriminate killing in Yemen and the murder of another journalist (Jamal Khashoggi), passed a resolution to block the sale of 8.1 billion dollars of weapons to Saudi Arabia, Trump vetoed the resolution.  When Trump was challenged about his veto, he shrugged:  “Saudi is a big buyer of American products.  That means something to me - take their money”.

Money trumps murder every time. Malta has seen that maxim in action. When ill-gotten gains are threatened, just assassinate. Trump’s maxim guides our government. As our European allies implore us to terminate passport sales, a security threat to the whole EU, Labour digs its heels in.  When 17 Black presented an opportunity, Mizzi and Schembri took it. Labour’s driving mission is “Take their money” even if it’s the taxpayers’.

Its motto is the same as Mark Zuckerberg’s “You can be unethical and still be legal - that’s the way I live my life”. They claimed there was nothing illegal in the Panama companies, in accepting lavish gifts and thousands of euro from those accused of murder and money laundering. Nothing illegal in taking a spree on his yacht, joining him for dinner and asking him for jobs. Or inviting him to a birthday party.

What does this say about our political leadership? What is the lesson communicated? Moral leadership is essential for a more compassionate country. Which is why our society continues to fragment. Morally corrupt leadership is now so pervasive that we are no longer shocked by immoral actions. No longer surprised at our leaders’ failure to act on the Caruana Galizia inquiry recommendations. No longer disturbed by Labour’s efforts to shield the depraved behaviour of Konrad Mizzi, Zammit Lewis and Rosianne Cutajar.

Four years since Caruana Galizia’s horrific assassination nothing has changed - our leaders are still enslaved by the power of impunity. So is Malta.

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