Being Maltese means that at one point during your early days, a well-meaning adult sits you down and has The Talk with you. This involves said adult letting you know that your surrounding physical environment, which seems so grand and vast, is actually part of an archipelago which is rather small as countries go. It is, in fact, so tiny that a world map presents Malta as a barely visible dot near the rather posh-looking Italian boot.

As the child is attempting to come to terms with his/her country’s insignificant footprint, the talk usually progresses to Malta’s strategic geographical position at the crossroads of Southern Europe, North Africa and the Middle East.

“Ejja almenu, so at least we are small but important-ish,” reads the thought bubble on top of the child’s head.

One would think that by virtue of having such a small habitat, the Maltese, who literally tread on each other’s toes, cars and property, share a pretty common reality to each other since, well, anything that happens in one town, tends to have a ripple effect across the island.

It is surprising then to note that this is not really the case since, at times, we still manage to engage in totally different realities, especially when it comes to politics and perceptions on governance. The recent political events serve as a case in point. Politics aside, throughout the whole saga, wrongdoings and laudable actions were quite distinguishable from each other, or at least so one would think. Alas, it would seem that the obvious is not so glaringly obvious to everyone and once again, the country’s opinion is divided.

A cursory glance at the comments posted beneath this news organisation’s major articles on the current situation shows what I mean. Those of us who constantly speak about the fact that we are in the middle of a national crisis often call the other side stupid for being illogical and failing to concede that our leaders have put their foot in it. “But hang on,” their opponents reply, “kemm ħa tgħaġġbuha, ja qatta pious bigots. These alleged wrongdoings are small mishaps, if at all. And they certainly fade into insignificance when one remembers what the Nationalists did when they were in power.” Oh my, let us build the Great Wall of Malta and separate ourselves from each other, shall we?

Yet, these two different realities may not be necessarily related to foibles or ways of thinking that are characterised by stupidity or piousness. Other factors may be responsible for such contrasting viewpoints and it is quite interesting to try to understand what may be going on inside a person’s head that results in him/her forming a particular and at times extreme perception in relation to the current situation.

If we look inside the head of someone who does not believe that any wrongdoings have occurred by governing individuals, then we may find thoughts related to loyalty and trust. If you side strongly with a particular political party and have voted for a specific candidate, then erring on the side of oblivious naivety is quite possible because you have placed your precious trust in the individual and the political party.

This means that in a similar way to those caught in an abusive relationship, it can be hard to accept that your chosen candidate/s has made an intentional and spectacular mess out of things when you had so truly believed in his/her abilities and assumed his/her goodwill.

Unfortunately, it is this very assumption that acts as the Achilles heel to those individuals in power who are not as diligent and righteous as expected – this grey zone of trust is where sociopaths thrive (Kim, 2017). To top it all, while certain sociopathic behaviour may be obvious and clear, other rule-breaking leaders can still abide by superficial social graces while, at their core, pursue self-interest and Machiavellian priorities.

Having independent media sources is vital to limit the risk of galloping on with blinkers

On similar lines, a glance at the National Geographic channel will show that the animal with the brightest plumage and loudest call will often get more mating attention. As humans, we also tend to gravitate towards others who appear to be special in some way. Since many leaders tend to be charismatic, self-assured and special, many fall for the gambit of admiring these people even if we know that they may not be the purest of souls.

In LoCicero’s words: “Our behaviour is still affected by what went on thousands of years ago. It’s easier to understand why it’s adaptive and common for people to bond to powerful leaders. In Darwinian evolution, the people who bonded with the leader survived. That instinct got passed along.” (LoCicero, 2011)

It can also be noted that as long as a person is not clearly and directly affected by a leader’s actions, such as finding himself/herself in a state of extreme poverty, then s/he may prefer to cling to the safety of the sidelines and follow the leader.

This may be due to the fear of change, retribution or simply because one is passive and does not give a heck.

It is why, during this whole saga, some people have been quoted as saying: “U jien mhux l-aqwa li xorta tibqa’ dieħla l-paga!” (I’m ok so long as I still get paid!) It allows the person to take up a quasi child role and align with others who also fall in line and are in sync with the leader – this is in itself quite attractive and fun en masse.

It is, of course, a fantastic playground for the leader since not many are willing to put a halt to his/her transgression.

Lack of critical thought coined with a habit of obtaining information from just one source may also lead to the inability to appraise a situation accurately, often resulting in rigidity or overgeneralisation.

Mind you, with reference to our current situation, this may apply to those who insist that no political wrongdoings have occurred as well as to the others who believe otherwise. If one only follows the news that is broadcasted by his/her political party’s TV station, then there is a high risk of being subjected to propaganda and thus receiving censored information that may not portray a situation accurately. Leaders are aware of this and some use it to their advantage in order to ensure that the faithful remain so. Dangerous indeed. As Post (2011) said: “Controlling information and controlling dissent are part of what goes into maintaining a totalitarian state.” Having independent media sources or at least making sure to obtain information from multiple sources is vital in order to limit the risk of galloping on with blinkers.

Furthermore, thought processes may be affected by a tendency to view people and situations in a binary fashion. In this manner, a person may be perceived as being either an angel or a demon. Unfortunately, this skews the situation towards a totally different level of weirdness since it suddenly takes the tone of a holy mission or crusade. This can give rise to extremist thoughts and actions.

For instance, some had perceived Daphne Caruana Galizia as the ultimate witch/demon and unfortunately it led to a murder. Nowadays she is often presented as a saint when we all know that saints are few and far between. On the same lines, lighting a candle in front of your prime minister’s photo in a country where such practice is usually reserved for actual religious saints is well, surreal, and very much so. What’s next? Dear Leader?

Finally it has to be said that some strong views may also be brought about by individuals who think that one political party’s blunders serve as the opposing party’s victories. While this may be true, in the current situation, it may result in sadistic pleasure at things going wrong and capitalisation on the bleak state of national affairs. Sickening indeed. Unfortunately the act of experiencing the status quo is not akin to comfortably watching a horror movie while indulging in a bag of popcorn – want it or not, we are all actual participants in the movie. We are all Maltese irrelevant of what we think and who we side with.

Paulann Grech is a lecturer at the Department of Mental Health, Faculty of Health Sciences (University of Malta).