Just to digress from the formerly established pattern, I am making a break from comment on printed media to pass a brief comment on a recent Internet-based initiative undertaken by blog enthusiast Jacques René Zammit.
Earlier this month, the lamppost movement published its manifesto. As the document explains in introduction, the lamppost serves to be a platform as well an umbrella, an odd sequence of images that conveys more a rainy train station on a Tuesday evening than a progressive organisation.
The blog calls for comments, which I have decided to offer here in some greater length than I would prefer to volunteer on the forum provided. As the overly rich combination of images and intentions of the manifesto alluded to earlier suggests, some of the core issues of discussion may be fundamentally linguistic in nature. Some time back, I encouraged Sharon at Lost in Thought to throw out a few provocative questions on her blog in an attempt to incite some discussion, and hence understanding, of the themes underlying the decidedly medieval fashion for door-burning and racially intolerant rhetoric taking hold in Malta. Ultimately, the discussion proved unfulfilling and was relatively unsubscribed to, which is a shame, because explanations should ideally be sought to social problems before setting forth into nominally noble and grandiloquent affirmations of love and respect for one's fellow man. Consequently, amidst the austere legalistic framework of the manifesto, which looks like it owes more than something to formative mini-European assemblies, the author(s) speak of how they are:
"Alarmed by the current rise in acts of intolerance, violence, terrorism, xenophobia, aggressive nationalism, racism, exclusion, marginalisation and discrimination directed against national, ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities, refugees, migrant workers, immigrants and vulnerable groups within societies, as well as acts of violence and intimidation committed against individuals exercising their freedom of opinion and expression – all of which threaten the consolidation of peace and democracy, both nationally and internationally, and are obstacles to development."
The very notion of tolerance is then used as the defining issue for the first article of the manifesto. However, as Zadie Smith recently noted in an interview of Radio Tre (available here, listen from 5:09 for the relevant remarks), tolerance is a concept that cuts in both directions. As Smith correctly observes, tolerance is the sensation one feels when someone on the train plays their stereo too loud. It's irritating, but you can put up with it.
As a concept, tolerance has several centuries of vintage to it and is not the enlightenment novelty that we might immediately assume it is. Mindful of the fact that this is beginning to sound like a column in the Sunday Times, it should be recalled that as early as the 13th century, Pope Innocent IV observed that it was not desirable for natural law as understood by ecclesiastical authority to be imposed upon the non-believer. From this, there derived two basic propositions - first, that which is tolerated is synonymous with evil; second, the application of tolerance serves merely to pre-empt the prevailing of a worse evil.
These remain the basic principles that define, if not inspire, tolerance on a popular level. As I attempted, not very clearly, to argue in e-mails to Sharon Spiteri, tolerance understood as the act of "putting up with" represents a far more ominous and real threat than the likes of Malta's budding far-right.
The Maltese have, after all, with their centuries of Catholic piety become experts at the art of making the right noises about loving one's neighbour while stabbing them in the back and gossiping about them at every available opportunity. This means that the effort to browbeat people into saying the right things about the minorities may be the easiest part of the challenge that the lamppost initiative is taking upon itself.