Rough charabanc ride
Peppi Azzopardi is a trapper who has caught the songbird that sings the song of truth, and two things have happened to him.
One, he cannot understand why the others cannot hear the song the bird is singing. Two, he himself cannot find the proper way to explain the tune to others. In a way, he is experiencing that there are things which cannot be put into words. They can make themselves manifest... they are what is called “mystical”.
Mr Azzopardi has climbed up a metaphorical ladder and is genuinely surprised that others cannot climb it too. The wiser course for him to follow would be to keep silent on what he cannot speak about. Instead, he defiantly wants to speak about the truth he has found. For this alone, Mr Azzopardi has gained the admiration of a staunch minority and but got a lot of flak from the majority.
In this article, I would like to try to decipher the truth I believe Mr Azzopardi has found. I might be completely wrong, but I want to give it a try. During one of his interviews, he kept repeating that the 17-year-old interviewed by Xarabank and whose interview was banned by a Court of Law, is a “person”: “Every person is a person” he repeated over and over again. This tautology is the song the songbird Mr Azzopardi has trapped keeps singing. Since it is a tautology, its truth is certain.
There is the need for elucidation – we need to take Mr Azzopardi’s possibly cloudy and indistinct thought and make it clear and give it sharp boundaries. Not from the legal point of view, as most probably Magistrate Mifsud is right. Not from the sympathy point of view either, as we all join the chorus of those (Peppi included) who express their boundless solidarity with the victim. What happened to this police officer is heartrending, to say the least. Lastly, we do not need to explain this matter from the perspective of the institutions – an intelligent point raised by Dione Borg during this newspaper’s INDEPTH discussion. I think Mr Borg is right: the attack on the victim happened only because the victim was a police officer, and it is therefore, by extension, an attack on the country’s institutions.
All of this is true and beyond discussion. My point, however, is that Mr Azzopardi seems to be talking on a higher level, higher than the positive law, higher than sympathy shown the victim, higher than the country’s institutions. Mr Azzopardi’s discourse seems to me to be on a “mystical” level, and I was impressed by this. In this day and age, very few people would have the courage to express such thoughts.
Mr Azzopardi’s argument seems to be that we should not dehumanise anybody, no matter what they might have done, because every “person is a person”, and no person deserves to be turned into a “monster”.
Peppi Azzopardi is proposing the idea that each one of us is a person irrespective of our deeds. Even if we do something horrendous, we are still a person, we never lose our “personhood”. And as persons we still have our dignity, we still belong to humankind, and we still deserve to be heard. Essentially, we cannot be killed with impunity (whether the killing is physical or moral).
That these ideas are one of the pillars of our modern civilisation can be seen from the fact that we take war criminals to Court. We do not summarily execute people known to have committed genocide: we take them to Court and they are given a fair trial. This is the most eloquent statement that our civilisation respects every person’s humanity, even if he is accused of the most heinous crimes against humanity. Ultimately because humanity – being human – is an inalienable characteristic of every member of the human race and nobody can be de- humanised.
Whoever has a modicum of culture knows that the past is replete with the dehumanisation of certain groups and certain individuals representing the “Other”. The past is replete with scapegoats on whom people projected their dark side and all that was despicable in themselves. The past is also replete with lynching and terminating f membership of the human race for certain individuals and groups.
In the past, such dehumanised people were considered sacer –a Latin word close to the Hebrew qadosh, which can be translated as “sacred” but does not mean “holy”. Sacer meant “set apart”: somebody who because of his/her actions stopped forming part of humanity, was set apart from the rest of humankind, and thus could be killed with impunity. In other words, an individual’s action could change the essence of that individual’s being. One’s deeds – a crime – could change the essence of one’s being, and from a human (with all the rights that that entails), one became a de-human, a “monster”.
A parenthesis. Unfortunately, today, we have not completely abandoned this mentality. There are still members of the human race whose membership of pro- tected life is denied because of their actions, or, to be more precise, their lack of action: the unborn human being’s life is not protected in most countries of the world because s/he has still not done anything. So a great paradox of our times is this: the modern criminal is not dehumanised, while the modern unborn child is dehumanised.
But let us put that parenthetical consideration aside. Mr Azzopardi has proposed a profound argument to the Maltese public and he has shocked many: being a person does not depend on what you do, but it depends on... being a person. A person is always a person. The proposition itself is its own proof.
Mr Azzopardi has not only shocked the country but has also found himself in a paradoxical situation. He has Truth in his hands, but at the same time he has nothing, because the truth he has found is self-evident: a person is always a person. Being self-evident, it is very difficult for people to bear it without raising exceptions or trying to contradict it.
The power of Mr Azzopardi’s message lies in the fact that he boldly asserted the self-evident tautology that every person – even a bad person – is a person. If it all feels like we are going round in circles, it is because what can be shown cannot be said. This is why he has nothing in his hands: because he cannot find the words to express the great truth he has found. He is trying to use language to convey something that is higher than language. This is the big problem the arch-communicator (Peppi Azzopardi) has unwittingly found himself embroiled in.
Mr Azzopardi seemed to intuit this circularity, and therefore the danger of being misunderstood, but he nonetheless felt he should repeat the message. The timing (coincidental?) was interesting: while Prime Minister Muscat had only recently been waxing lyrical about the rights of robots, Peppi Azzopardi was inviting the Maltese to consider the humanity of people society finds uncomfortable.
This is the quintessential instance of anthropological Christianity: seeing Christ (the Archetypal Man) in every stranger’s eyes, or acknowledging the humanity of all people irrespective of what they might have or might have not done. Mr Azzopardi has taken a praiseworthy anthropologically Christian position.
This does not mean that I am of the opinion that the interview should be broadcast. First of all, I do not know its contents, and secondly the interview per se is immaterial. What is material is Mr Azzopardi’s simple proposition that every person is a person. It is so self-evident that it should be understood by everybody. And yet it is not.
My Personal Library (27)
Felipe Fernández-Armesto’s So You Think You’re Human? (2012) explores the history of our thinking of who/what is and who/what is not human. It delves into questions such as whether artificial intelligence will mean that we have to extend human rights to robots and whether primates that are very close to humanity should somehow enjoy more rights than other animals. It is a highly intriguing book which persuades the reader that the exploration is not over: we still have not found a proper and satisfactory definition of what is Human.
This does not mean that I am of the opinion that the interview should be broadcast