When we make faces
It’s history now. On February 6, 2013, Nationalist Party deputy leader Simon Busuttil said in a televised political debate that Labour Party candidate Deborah Schembri “has the face of a Nationalist”.
Did he mean it? And if so, what did he mean by it? Was it a premeditated sound bite or was it one of those times when you say something you immediately regret ever having said?
I don’t know. What I do know however is that even the most spontaneous of runaway statements tend to reflect our deepest and often unspoken prejudices. Chances are that, although this preposterous statement may have ‘escaped’ Busuttil’s mouth, it does suggest a mindset characterised by a cognitive bias, whereby an in-group (Nationalists) and an out-group (Labour) are attributed a degree ofinternal homogeneity that makes the differences between them almost a fact of nature.
Hence, the idea of typically Nationalist and Labour faces. I am sure that Busuttil now regrets having said what he said. I am also sure that he is aware of the pedigree of the ideas underlying his statement.
No doubt, he knows that the pseudo-science of physiognomy – a practice purporting to identify and judge a person’s character from her appearance – has for quite a while now been consigned to the curiosity cabinets of museums of science together with such other ‘marginalised practices’ as animal magnetism, astrology and alchemy.
Readers who want to know more about how the once accredited doctrines of physiognomy became “a discredited or even laughable belief” may wish to read Patricia Fara’s contribution to Volume 4 (Eighteenth Century Science) of The Cambridge History of Science, edited by the late Roy Porter, the eminent social and medical historian.
Porter, who will be remembered by colleagues across various disciplines as editor of the journals History of Science and joint editor of Journal of Historical Sociology and History of Psychiatry, himself visited the theme of physiognomy with his fascinating 1985 paper Making Faces: Physiognomy And Fashion In Eighteenth Century England.
Not many today would care to defend the ideas of a Lavater (1741-1801) or of the late 19th century so-called Italian school of criminology (Lombroso, Ferri, Garofalo). Very few would openly support the physiognomic stereotypes of Jews, “inferior peoples” and mentally disabled that saturated Nazi racism. And, yet, the history of physiognomy shows that it coexisted with the Enlightenment, suggesting therefore a tendency to return. Richard Grey illustrates this brilliantly in his About Face: German Physiognomic Thought from Lavater to Auschwitz (2004).
Underlying the idea of natural differences between races, social groups, normal and deviant persons, is the even more pernicious belief that these natural differences denote naturally unequal endowments.
The members of the in-group are taken to be naturally more intelligent, to have better and more refined tastes – sociology students will recall Bourdieu – and are therefore more likely to achieve. Moreover, this superiority is imagined to transmit itself quasi-genetically across generations and mixing with naturally inferior outsiders is frowned up and condemned.
The idea of a typically PN face (and, therefore, by exclusion, of a typically non-PN face) is built upon such irrational premises.
What are the political consequences, in practical terms, of these prejudices? More concretely, how will Busuttil’s ‘faces statement’ impact on Maltese politics today and tomorrow?
If Busuttil really believes that there are such things as naturally Nationalist and naturally Labour citizens, then he is excluding a priori the possibility of ever being a national statesman. If by a national statesperson we understand one who is able to inspire the confidence of the nation beyond a narrow, tribal notion of partisanship, he will, at best, only and always be a Nationalist statesman merely endured by around half of the citizens. He will be a ruler not a leader.
What a dismal prospect! This is not an argument against diversity. National leaders lead, rather than rule, because they respect diversity and because they are able to win the respect of those that think differently from them.
The second scenario.
Perhaps Busuttil abhors, as all men and women of goodwill should and as all those who pride themselves of their European credentials do, the fundamentally racist notion of physiognomy. Perhaps he does not really believe that there are such things as naturally Nationalist and Labour faces. If this is the case, then his cynical statement of February 6, 2013 was really an admission of defeat.
If this is the case, having lost hope of retaining the vote of thinking Nationalists and of those that desperately want their party to renew itself, Busuttil decided to say what he said to appeal to the unthinking followers.
If this is the case, he probably calculated that at this stage it is better to focus on consolidating his personal image with the mindless hardliners for whom only a hardliner is tough enough to be chief.
If this is the case, this was not a Busuttil campaigning for the March 9 election but, rather, a Busuttil competing for the position of Leader of the Opposition.
If this is the case, then I finally understand what Oliver Friggieri meant when, writing in this column a few weeks ago, he suggested that whatever happens there is no replacement for Gonzi to lead the PN in opposition.
Mario Vella blogs at http://watersbroken.wordpress.com .