Neutered students make most sound
I am utterly disgusted at what happened at University last Wednesday. What should have been one of the highlights of the campaign all but degenerated into the usual round of formulaic chanting and cheering. It was an insult to students and an affront to the most basic things that University stands for, namely critical inquiry and open-minded assessment.
First, two caveats. It seems that this was Labour’s retort to a situation five years ago when a similar debate quickly came to resemble a PN mass meeting at which Alfred Sant turned up uninvited and unwelcome. Last Wednesday’s was Labour’s way of showing that two can play the game, that the PN has no monopoly on sonic warfare.
Second, I spoke to a number of Labourites this week who told me they were delighted to see that the tide had turned (‘inqalbet il-folja’) right in PN heartland. They seemed especially proud of the fact that University students and staff no longer thought it infra dig openly to support Labour, that this was one sure sign of the emancipation of laburisti.
The first is easily dispatched. Surely the ‘Malta tagħna lkoll’ slogan should be a negation of such partisan tomfoolery. Just when I thought I heard Joseph Muscat say that he had no time for the ‘old way’, it all broke down into a standard tit for tat. Not terribly promising or inspiring.
As for the second, I can only speak for myself. I never thought there was anything wrong that University students or academics (or anyone for that matter) should openly support Labour. Some of the most stimulating discussions I’ve had on campus have been with fiercely Labourite students and colleagues. I didn’t need a busload of pom-pom girls and boys to teach me that people will have different political convictions, thank you very much.
I was not myself at the debate. While the first reason concerns me alone, the second is or should be of general interest. I well remember the University debate of five years ago. Two colleagues of mine, both professors in the Faculty of Education, had joined us at the staff cafeteria feeling ‘completely disgusted’ at the way Alfred Sant had been booed and jeered – not so much for anything he had said, which would have been fine, but just because he was the Labour leader.
In any case I doubt I would have managed to get in on Wednesday. Colleagues and students I spoke to said it was practically impossible to make it past the marċ ta’ filgħodu crowd, and that the best seats were anyway occupied by a Labour aristocracy that saw fit to ignore the rules of allocation.
What we have here is a fascinating species indeed, a University debate at which the choice seats are occupied not by students or academics but by party prima donnas and assorted hacks and puppets.
The problem as I see it was not so much the crowding and yelling. I didn’t really expect the auditorium to look and sound like the lobby at the Hotel des Bains, and that’s fine by me. Rather, it was the content I found unacceptable.
I just find it strange that a University debate should be practically indistinguishable from a taħt it-tinda event. Flags and ‘tagħna lkoll’ slogans are quite alright at the latter, simply because the situation calls for a certain ritual.
Rather like the marċ ta’ filgħodu in fact, in the sense that it would be decidedly odd in that situation to spit out the beer and perorate on the finer points of the saint’s theology. Revellers at the marċ will scream and scream – not because they lack brains but simply because the moment calls for it.
I’m not given to fantasies of ascetic students and academics sitting around under the trees debating Hegel or the age of the universe. Still, I suppose it’s not too much to ask that a University debate should reflect the tenets of the institution.
Parroting ‘tagħna lkoll’ and ‘Joseph il-mexxej’ are not among those tenets. A healthy scepticism and a critical approach to politics are. It’s more than acceptable to be a Nationalist or Labourite University student; what isn’t is to be unquestioningly thus, or to behave as such. There should be no place for pedestals of any sort at Tal-Qroqq.
Following last Wednesday’s circus, a number of people asked if the flocks of squawking parrots were the sort of people we are handing over stipend money to. What sort of student body is it that cannot stand up and be a bit irreverent for a short while?
That’s not entirely fair. I’m told that Insite, the student organisation which organised the debate, took pains to make the event a critical and useful one. It was hardly their fault that it ended up hijacked by a gang of mindless boors.
That also means that it’s not quite right to blame University students in general for what happened. I teach and know many students who thrive on scepticism and who would have resisted the idolatry and asked discerning questions – just as they do during lectures for that matter. Only they probably never managed to squeeze their way into the auditorium in the first place. Even if they did, their chances of making any inroad at all were slim.
There are two ways to silence people. The first is to use the threat of or actual violence, the second to get them to parrot exactly what you want them to, when and how you want them to. To quote a well-known Maltese astrophysicist, it’s alright for students to shut politicians up, but not the other way round.
What happened on Wednesday was that our students were shortchanged. The hacks in the headsets managed to make a mockery of and denature University. I have nothing but contempt for them.