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Is a civility pledge possible in Malta?

Seventy eight per cent of voters are frustrated with the tone in politics today, 74 per cent think the tone of the political campaign has grown more negative than past election years and that 66 per cent believe that candidates spend more time attacking their opponents than addressing the issues.

This time round the social networks – the territory of the individual citizen – will dominate the campaign
- Fr Joe Borg

Have things become this bad in Malta?

Before jumping into conclusions please note that these figures are taken from a recent poll in the United States which, as you know, will be holding presidential and other elections this November. I am convinced that if the same survey is held here, probably very few respondents would disagree with these figures.

This negative popular perception of the political process is not healthy for the development of democracy neither in the United States nor anywhere else.

Can anything be done about it?

Recently Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Archbishop of NewYork and president of the USConference of Catholic Bishops, wrote to the Democratic and Republican nominees for President and Vice-President asking them to sign the Civility in America pledge proposed by the Knights of Columbus. Many were vociferous in their criticism for Dolan for proposing such a pledge.

His critics accused him of interfering in politics. Since the head of the Knights is a Republican and the Knights are believed to be of the same political stripe, then, the critics opined, Dolan should not have meddled in this issue. I have no brief or wish to defend Dolan who is capable of defending himself particularly since he is accustomed to be in, and perhaps enjoy, the eye of the storm is a metaphorical space.

I fail to understand why Dolan was lambasted for supporting the pledge which is quite proper and short as evidenced by its text.

“We, the undersigned citizens of the United States of America, respectfully request that candidates, the media and other advocates and commentators involved in the public policy arena employ a more civil tone in public discourse on political and social issues, focusing on policies rather than on individual personalities. For our part, we pledge to make these principles our own.”

Since people’s perception of the political process is as negative in Malta as it is in the United States, I suggest that a comparable initiative would not be amiss in our country.

I am not advocating a copy and paste exercise but an adaptation for our temperament, culture and other conditions.

Perhaps the Maltese version should be more specific than the American original which tends to give high flown principles without translating them in concrete terms. I think that everyone would in principle agree that the political debate should be more civil and that we should concentrate more on the analysis of policies than on personal attacks. The devil is, as it always is, in the detail. The word ‘civil’ tends to have a different meaning to different people and the personal does tend to be intertwined with the policy side on several issues.

All this is true as it is also true that the shades of grey in these areas are probably more than fifty. But even within this scenario there should be agreement that some things are definitively either white or black: acceptable or not acceptable.

Civility and common sense should impel politicians and people in the media to avoid what is obviously a no-no. Those who do not, do so at their own peril as they will further irritate themajority who are already exasperated by the low level of public discourse.

At the same time I stress that I am not advocating a public debate shorn of good punches. Nor do I agree with those who shout “personal” whenever criticism becomes too harsh for their taste and comfort. Politicians have today limited their legitimate course to vast areas oftheir private life because most of them parade it so publicly. But whatever remains should be protected and respected.

It is quite natural that the proverbial kitchen overheats in the run up to the general elections. And by now I think that everyone knows that we have been for quite some time in the run up for an election that (barring an unexpected surprise) will be probably held early next year.

Politicians themselves have a very important role to play for they set the tone to the campaign. Besides, the role of the political media is of particular importance. I have stated elsewhere that the way the media belonging to the political parties were used during the last electoral campaign was tantamount to psychological violence on the audience even though it was a willing audience. Do I hope against hope if I express the wish that the same will not happen this time round?

It would very well be that Christmas time will be in the midst of an official or unofficial electoral campaign. Will the political parties find enough courage to stop active campaigning during the Christmas week?

Will they agree not to use the faces of Maltese children on political propaganda material? Will they agree on specific steps that can be taken to eliminatecharacter assassination by the party media?

This time round the social networks – the territory of the individual citizen – will dominate the campaign. The Civility Pledge I reproduced above makes demands on voters as well. Those who sign it commit themselves to the same principles of civility that they expect from politicians, the media and other actors in the field.

The social networks are proving to be the greatest offenders against civility. This means that the worst culprits are the common citizens who visit Facebook and post the most obnoxious comments. Insults, obscene words, threats of violence are traded as normal fare and physiological pressure together with character assassination are rife. If this momentum is kept, depravity, not civility, will be the hallmark of the contribution of common citizens to the coming electoral campaign.

This places more pressure on the leaders to lead by example and for the media to follow suit.

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