Hastings. A man stands on the edge of the bastions. Across the moat, spectators goad him to jump. Who or what to blame?

It’s a Rorschach test: the image of those spectators is an inkblot in which everyone perceives their own picture of what’s wrong with society.

For some, it’s a capitalism that sacrifices empathy on the altar of money. For others, it’s a broken education system that fails to teach critical thinking and emotional intelligence. Others blame Facebook and its tribalisms. And, according to one reader’s post, the problem is, apparently, ħamalli.

No one’s immune and I guess it’s a Rorschach test for me, too. But, basing myself on the footage uploaded by this newspaper, I don’t see spectators lacking in critical thinking. Nor card-carrying capitalists too focused on making money: we saw, after all, the spectators who stopped and engaged, not those who looked away and just kept going.

It’s evident that none of those doing the talking saw – truly saw – a person in distress. They saw a spectacle to be filmed: a performer on the bastions. What they saw – that is, thought they saw – was an attention-seeker wasting the time of the police. That explains one of the oddest comments: that the man should be given the beating of his life once the police got him down.

Why so angry? The man on the ledge was their own Rorschach inkblot. They ‘see’ attention-seeking everywhere in a society where grabbing attention is now part of the pecking order on social media and in the economy. And where even social protest and dissent is routinely dismissed as attention-seeking.

A hundred hours of lessons in critical thinking wouldn’t have changed that. This was a shocking error of perception, not of critical processing. These spectators thought of themselves as not fooled by appearances. They prided themselves on not being taken in. And their reaction was rational given the perception: they never thought he’d actually jump.

One person who spoke up probably did have doubts and tried to suppress them: “If he really wanted to jump, he’d have done so already.” Maybe he was reassuring himself. No one contradicted him.

Some say this incident would never have happened 10-20 years ago; they say it’s a sign of Malta’s civil deterioration over the past few years. But these spectators were passing through school 10-20 years ago, precisely when we think such an incident was unimaginable because Malta was a different world.

It was indeed. A decade ago, social media had not yet reshaped our imaginations. Suicides were – by common agreement – not reported in the mainstream media. Peppi Azzopardi was still on our screens, every Boxing Day, inviting us to contemplate the various faces of suffering and asking his signature question: “How can you not telephone [and donate]?”

The schooling system couldn’t have prepared these spectators for what they witnessed last week. How to teach what was taboo? What is unimaginable? What is enabled by a technology whose ramifications for behaviour were not yet understood?

To address the unknown and unfamiliar, we need to educate the young in how to deal with uncertainty and the uncomfortable- Ranier Fsadni

Cultural developments have long roots; they germinate unseen when we think we’re safe. In the light of the near tragedy, the curricula should indeed change. Children need to know more about their brains, how social media can change them, how to read persons in distress, what to do and who to call when you find a person in crisis.

But a new curriculum can only address the troubles we know about. It cannot address what as yet remains invisible, germinating now but flowering after the current cohort of school-age children enter the workplace.

To address the unknown and unfamiliar, we need to educate the young in how to deal with uncertainty and the uncomfortable. How many of us would have known what to do had we seen the man on the bastions? Or heard that man saying “If he really wanted to jump, he’d have done so already”?

The people who stopped to goad and film have come in for criticism. But what of those who said nothing? Or kept going by?

Perhaps some rushed straight to Hastings or phoned the police. Perhaps others stopped and wondered what to do and then lacked the confidence to speak up. Others might have been confident that the institutions would take care of everything or that someone else would surely have called the police by then.

No education in empathy with a distressed person can fill the gaps that such questions raise. They point to a different set of generic skills and civic virtues.

One is an axiom of civic responsibility: we may be a society of strangers and individualists but,  when we suspect danger, it’s on us to sound the alarm. We cannot assume others will do it for us.

Another is training in leadership and persuasion.

What is striking in the film footage is the absence of any dissenting view, which was either cowed or suppressed. It takes calm authority to speak to a gathering of angry people and persuade them (or enough of them) that they might be tragically wrong. In such a setting, no lessons in empathy will make up for lessons in leadership.

The schools cannot do it on their own. They can teach civic engagement, emotional intelligence, critical thinking and leadership all they want. If we have a public culture where politicians feel free to set the online armies on free opinion and independent civic leadership, why should independent thinking and leadership flourish elsewhere?

Let’s peer once more at the Rorschach test. It’s not Malta doing the goading. It’s Malta on the ledge.

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