For civil society, the year has ended in a curious way, given how it began. This time last year, civil society protests had brought down a disgraced prime minister. Civil society never looked more vigorous, the case of freedom of expression never stronger. 

Yet we end the year with some civil society organisers wanting to see a blogger and broadcaster – the historian Simon Mercieca – censured by his main employer, the University of Malta. 

Mercieca’s public interventions are as much part of civil society as those of any other opinion-writer, blogger or activist. In the demand that he be formally stigmatised, one part of civil society is turning upon itself. 

Given what follows, here’s the health warning. Mercieca is a university colleague I enjoy bumping into. Then again, I enjoy bumping into his critics. (So, I’ve no idea what that amounts to, other than that, if it hadn’t been for the pandemic, I’d have had another bumper year.)

Mercieca is in no danger of being disciplined or censured by the university. It’s because the demands are backed by flimsy reasons that it becomes worth asking how intelligent people could find them plausible. 

Some background. Mercieca’s blog, Facebook page and TV programme, are generally critical of mainstream, middle-class, liberal opinion. He is a harsh critic of Adrian Delia’s opponents within the Nationalist Party; he has given space to a range of critics of how Western governments have reacted to COVID-19; and he believes Yorgen Fenech is the victim of a frame-up. 

That summary doesn’t capture the invective against the Caruana Galizia family, the public inquiry, and Jason Azzopardi; or his tendency to see hidden connections where many people would see none. But remember, this isn’t about whether he’s right. It’s about whether the university should disown him. 

Can he be offensive? Yes, like his critics — but that’s protected speech. Is he a self-proclaimed Trumpian? Yes, so are millions of other American and European voters, all with political views that democracy can live with. 

Does he see the hand of George Soros financing his critics (which they’ve emphatically denied)? Yes, but then some of the critics have suggested he’s financed by Fenech, which Mercieca has emphatically denied. Some of those who call him a conspiracy theorist also suggest – without a shred of evidence or hint of irony – that he’s a Mafia associate. If he’s sometimes been over the top, so have his critics. 

Besides, hype comes with the territory of blogging. A blog post is not scholarship. It’s opinion written fast, furiously and frequently: fast brain-food, deep-fried in cortisol, dipped in dopamine. 

It’s mistaken to draw conclusions about Mercieca, the university lecturer, from the tone or content of his blogs. It’s like concluding that the late Peter Serracino Inglott must have sermonised when he lectured on philosophy, given that he was also a priest. 

A university should not set itself up as arbiter of what’s permissable to say

The critics want the university publicly to distance itself from Mercieca. It’s all in the name of protection: the university’s own reputation, from having such a controversialist on its staff; of his students; and the general public from his ‘misinformation’ on COVID-19. None of these reasons survive scrutiny.

If what Mercieca says about COVID-19 (or let others say on his blog or programme) really does endanger public health, the health authorities should be able to tell, and they have the instruments to take action. If Mercieca does have Mafia connections, pass them on to the police.

The university should not second-guess what other authorities are in a better position to establish. As for its standards and reputation, it already has the necessary filters: peer-review of Mercieca’s many publications, student reviews of his classes, international audits of his department’s students’ knowledge including the topics he teaches, etc.

How come his critics can’t see this? I think the issue has two main sources.

First, there is a misapplied principle. In insisting that the university disciplines one of its academics for his public statements, they mistake a university’s corporate identity for something it’s not. A university is not like Pepsi, Mercedes or Google.  Corporate discipline for public speech – a good general principle –doesn’t apply here.  

A university’s output is diversity of ideas. Noam Chomsky’s ideas about the US as a malign imperial power coexisted, in MIT, with its military financing. Everywhere, top scientists work in the same institutions that employ stern ‘deconstructionists’ of science. 

And yes, even academics in top universities sometimes engage in harsh public polemic, sometimes with only doubtful facts to back them. It’s frequent enough to have been studied (by other academics).

Once someone is writing within the boundaries permitted by law, a university should not set itself up as arbiter of what’s permissible to say. Who decides Marxism is acceptable but not populism? Who decides when nationalism becomes ‘fascism’, given that scholars disagree? 

And if one academic is censured, in the future everyone who escapes censure will be assumed to have official endorsement.  

Second, the flourishing of civil society was bound to see a radical diversity of opinion across the political spectrum. It couldn’t be otherwise when, every hour, YouTube alone uploads thousands of hours of new video. 

That opinion is bound to create its own platforms. The first created were liberal. But it shouldn’t be a surprise that other political perspectives followed, including ones hostile to the general views of Daphne Caruana Galizia – not when such hostility, during her lifetime, could be found in the base of both major political parties.

The reaction of liberal civil society has been to be overly influenced by CNN. How that media organisation has treated Trump has come to legitimise how his supporters, nationally and worldwide, are treated. 

Trump has been condemned by CNN as being a menace to public health and to good governance. Social media platforms have censored (or demonetised) his supporters, while establishment figures have lined up to condemn him. In such conditions, it is easy to think the same should be done, on principle, to an unapologetic Trump supporter in Malta. 

It’s a mistake. The fact is that CNN and the social media companies have played a partisan game, full of demonstrable Democrat propaganda disguised as a battle in the public interest. It’s a dangerous game to play in the name of an open society. It can be exploited by ruthless political operators for authoritarian purpose.

A society with a range of loud political voices, expressing themselves vigorously, isn’t a sign of pathology. It’s a sign of vigour.

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