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.

The Malta Independent on Sunday - - DEBATE & ANALYSIS - Mark A. Sam­mut

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

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