I have had the opportunity to hear the president’s thoughts about his idea for a conference on national unity and his reaction to some of the feedback he got after he first announced it. President George Vella was not born yesterday. He does not expect a one-day conference, however erudite the interventions, to smooth over the divisions in our country. If a conference could do that, we wouldn’t have a crisis to resolve.

Nor has the president forgotten his own lifetime of campaigning hard in political controversy. Dialectic is fundamental to democracy. We have to disagree on policy and on who might be better at running the country. But the desirability of political disagreement does not justify the sort of language that is often used on social media. I get the impression the president is shocked and genuinely concerned about some of the things people are prepared to say to strangers behind the cowardly protection of their computer screen.

So neither is the conference on national unity an exercise in futile naivety, nor is it part of a fascist conspiracy to impose unanimity.

The ad campaign promoting the conference is replete with national symbolism. The poster displays the national flag and quotes the national anthem, the verse that prays for peace and unity among the Maltese.

That messaging suggests that the organisers aspire to remind us all that, beneath our superficial disagreements, we are “all Maltese” and we should cherish that fact. I think that’s shallow. National symbols have, no doubt, their own significance because they impart gravitas, they demand respect for suffering ancestors and they urge pride in belonging to a community of strangers: many people we do not know and some people we do not like.

That sort of appeal to our inner Maltese comes relatively easy in a post-colonial island. Our distinctiveness from the colonial ‘foreigner’ is folded around the rituals of the national faith (if not the fundamentals of the religious creed), around the local vernacular (a secret code of communication understood only by pure-bred natives)  and around our code of loyalty (by all means criticise your country but never in the presence of outsiders).

That approach to national identity was effective for a colony seeking its political independence. Catholic, Maltese-speaking, loyal: the ideal Maltese, recognisable a mile away even in a crowded throng at Primark, Oxford Street or a Via Condotti boutique.

But that cartoonish representation of the Platonic idea of being Maltese is itself the cause of so much prejudice and division in our country. It is fundamentally racist because it is drawn around ethnic lines justifying all manner of discrimination against people whose parents have made Malta their home. Being Maltese has its own brand of funny accent but it is incompatible with being black or Muslim or just plain different.

Being Maltese has its own brand of funny accent but it is incompatible with being black or Muslim or just plain different- Manuel Delia

Linguistic identity is also toxic. There’s a ‘pride’ of having a distinctive language which becomes arrogant and dismissive of any preference to speak another. In spite of what the law says, preferring to or exclusively speaking English is considered un-Maltese, even though English is a Maltese language in the way English is a South African, Nigerian and Indian language along with several others spoken in those countries.

This is not just about schoolyard bullying tal-pepè. Job requirements published by the government often include the requirement to speak Maltese, not as a matter of national pride or because it is material to the advertised position, but as a racialist policy to filter out the blacks who speak fluent English.

I’m not suggesting we shift away from pride in the Maltese language or the customs, the folklore and the fireworks surrounding the popular expression of the country’s most popular faith or even the national symbols of a cross-bearing flag and a faith-based anthem. Our legacy is what it is.

I’m suggesting we transcend our legacy and learn to change with the times. The inhabitants of the island that Paul of Tarsus preached to in 60AD did not speak Maltese or anything like it. The language we speak is the legacy of colonial masters from the ninth century. The ethnic stock of the idealised Maltese is a genetic jumble of immigrants, colonisers, pirates and sailors. What gives us the right to freeze our ethnic range and our linguistic abilities at an imaginary golden age of a pre-black past we are expected to pine for?

National symbols that do nothing but remind us of our divisions need to be placed in context, if necessary replaced with symbols that bring us together. Our definitions must catch up with the changing reality of being Maltese.

Being Maltese means living in Malta, whatever your faith or whether you have any; whatever your race if you even belong to one; wherever it was that you were born; as long as you’re committed to fundamental values: not imqaret or nar tal-art.

Try truth, solidarity, compassion, honesty, participation, inclusion. Try citizenship over nationality, equality over ambition, public duty over personal profit. Try children before churches, the lives of people drowning before political popularity, the life of a journalist over the greed of her corrupt murderers.

Digging for the meaning of being ‘Maltese’ builds a wall to exclude those who are not. It is a process of negation: by definition divisive. If it’s unity you’re looking for, think of yourself first as human. Then you might realise everybody else is.

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