Dr. Mark-Anthony Falzon is a social anthropologist, Head of Department of Sociology at the University of Malta, and “Sunday Times” columnist.
The reasons that follow are based on and take into account the following premises:
1. It is true that society needs to regulate for long-term kinship. This is primarily because of three things. First, kinship is associated with strong emotional bonds of attachment and commitment; second, children’s interests are best served by structures of kinship that are as transparent, stable, and long-lived as possible; and third, because of issues of property and reproduction of the domestic unit;
2. like all generalisations, the ‘common good’ argument has its risks. It is however mostly useful. It is true that voters should take into account the long-term consequences, for ‘society’ generally and not just for themselves, of their decisions;
3. a ‘realist’ approach. By which I mean not resignation or passive acceptance of undesirable things, but rather the balanced assessment of facts and the discarding of rhetoric;
4. whether or not one agrees that this issue should have escalated into a referendum, and irrespective of one’s thoughts about the obsoleteness of the question, it is one’s responsibility to vote. Politics is not about what could/should be but rather about what is. Come Saturday, the real and current question will be whether or not one thinks that Malta should legislate for divorce;
5. a belief that a fair and forward-looking society should be based on laws and structures that seek as far as possible to include rather than exclude. Social inclusion produces emotional, economic, and many other dividends.
In view of these premises I will be voting Yes on Saturday:
1. because couples whose relationships are over will split anyway, it makes sense to have strong legal systems and other structures by which these splits are properly regulated;
2. because the ‘common good’ dictates that (1) above is especially relevant when there are children, ie. that it is in the long-term interest of children whose parents’ marriages are over that their parents should split in a responsible and regulated way;
3. because a realist approach tells me that some couples will be happy for the rest of their lives and others won’t. The idea that marital bliss can be extended to everyone, and that it is possible in principle for all marriages to work, is rhetorical nonsense;
4. because I know that all the rhetoric and vague promises of ‘strengthening families’ that we have heard in these past months will be all but forgotten by Monday morning, and that couples whose marital lives are over will be left to struggle to pick up the pieces in the absence of structures and legal frameworks, as they have been condemned to do so far;
5. because I believe that it is in the interests of society that people should not be forced to go through annulment proceedings using far-flung excuses and shifty arguments, as they have done so far. This humiliates the individual and makes a mockery of justice and institutions. Such institutionalised hypocrisy and cynicism invariably spill over into the social order broadly defined;
6. because it is patent nonsense that divorce has ruined societies ‘everywhere’. The family is still very highly prized in countries where divorce is legal, and people go to enormous lengths and expense to sustain it. The notion of ‘ruined societies’ is simply another form of the little islander’s fear and incomprehension of the outside world;
7. because the ‘stable traditional families of old’ are a myth. In fact there have always been couples, significant numbers of them, who did not fit the model. It was simply a case of ignoring or labelling them as deviants and misfits, and creating poverty and social exclusion as a direct consequence. It is absolutely essential to understand that we will not be voting to regulate for a ‘new reality’. Rather, it’s a case of a fairer approach to the age-old reality of marriage breakdown;
8. because a truly pluralist society is not about privileging one model and letting everyone else do as they please, but rather about legislating sensitively to incorporate as many realities as possible. This, and not greener roundabouts and nicer roads, is the EU I and thousands of others voted for in 2003;
9. because the notion of family and kinship should be based on responsibility and integrity. There is much more of these in owning up to a marital breakup and taking long-term responsibility for one’s failings. This is especially true when children are involved;
10. because all around me I see people who, despite a failed marriage, go to enormous lengths to sustain and love their children. I also see ex-spouses who somehow find it in their hearts to accept new situations. These people, thousands of them, do not deserve a slap in the face but rather encouragement and the proper structures to sustain kinship and respect well beyond the duration of their failed marriage.
I started writing this column at the beginning of 2009. My intention then was to focus on the alliances that make governments possible. I was not new to this theme, having been researching and writing about it for over 30 years. Ever since, in the early 1970s, Jeremy Boissevain knowingly or otherwise nudged one of Fr Peter Serracino Inglott’s philosophy kids towards either sociology or social anthropology, I have been interested in how shifting social alliances impact on how this country’s economy and society ‘develop’.
My observation of how they were decisive in explaining Labour’s loss of a majority of votes at the 1981 election and the loss of government in 1987, sharpened my insights into how relatively dependent Eddie Fenech Adami’s governments themselves were on the social alliances on which they were erected. The lessons learnt indicated that in the case of Lawrence Gonzi’s governments, their dependence on alliances was total.
On January 19, 2009, I wrote: “Governments are made possible by alliances: social and political alliances, by alliances of convenience and, sometimes, of conviction, by strategic and tactical alliances, by long-term and short-term alliances. Many of the alliances that this government is built on are beginning to come apart.”
Ever in denial, online correspondents of the sort that would sooner believe what they want to believe than accept what they see with their eyes, insisted that Dr Gonzi’s government stood on solid rock. They suggested that I have “a vivid imagination”. At best, one more cautious gentleman conceded that “what we are experiencing are tiny, insignificant tremors”. See www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20090119/opinion/no-quantum-of-solace.241342.
The debate on divorce – if of ‘debate’ one may at all speak – has confirmed that Dr Gonzi’s government does not have the advantage of the classic Nationalist governments of the past. Certainly, it can no longer rely on even a semblance of cultural homogeneity among those that have so far supported it.
The University of Malta’s Centre for Family Studies asked individuals who were either married or previously married at the time of the 2005 census: “If divorce is introduced in Malta and you decide to divorce, would you consider remarrying?” The survey found, among other things, that “Educational attainment is highly related to the consideration of remarriage. Those who have a pre-primary/primary level of educational attainment are less likely to have answered positively when compared to those with a tertiary level of education”.
In other words, the researchers found that among individuals who are either married or were previously married, those with a higher level of education are more likely to consider remarrying if we had divorce in Malta. It would seem reasonable to suppose that these respondents will also vote in favour of divorce (YES).
From this alone, we cannot infer how many of those with a higher education will vote for and against divorce. Nor how those of a lower level will divide on this issue this Saturday. It would seem reasonable, however, to take this finding to suggest that those with a higher level of education are less likely to be easily influenced by the arguments of the NO campaigners than those of lower educational achievement. The survey also found that professionals, managers and senior officials are more likely to consider remarriage than respondents in other occupations. See www.um.edu.mt/news_on_campus/?a=126347.
Now, what has this to do with the shifting sands below Dr Gonzi’s feet? Consider that, traditionally, the Nationalist Party has been keen to present itself as the representative of the better educated and of those in the higher occupational categories.
The findings of the survey strongly suggest that, at least on the issue of divorce, the official views of the PN are not the views of all those in the higher levels of educational achievement and occupation.
One could, I suppose, suggest that those with a higher level education and those professionals, managers and senior officials who are not against divorce are all Labour Party supporters. If this were the case then the PN need not worry that its support base is not solidly behind the party’s stand against divorce. No joy. Everybody knows that many highly educated individuals and persons in the higher occupational categories are for divorce but are certainly not PL fans.
This strengthens my conviction that “many of the alliances that this government is built on are beginning to come apart”. Whatever happens this Saturday, Dr Gonzi will emerge weaker from it and no cohabitation law will make up for the damage, on the contrary. This campaign has distanced many thinking Nationalists from Dr Gonzi and from the “big majority of the members of the PN executive committee” that, on February 12, voted in favour of a motion declaring the party’s position against divorce (www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20110212/local/promised-referendum-must-be-held-jpo-insists.349789).
The NO campaigners have certainly not helped Dr Gonzi. Many thinking Nationalists were shocked at the primitiveness of the arguments, the language and the images with which we have been bludgeoned.
A well-known media guru very close to the PN once told me that Dr Fenech Adami never came to terms with the Enlightenment and its idea of reason. I wonder what he thought – knowing his sense of irony – when driving past posters screaming out “Id-divorzju qabża kbira fid-dlam” (Divorce, [a] big leap in the dark) and “Divorzju bla raġuni” (No reason [for] divorce).
The original of this post appeared yesterday, May 23, in Dr Vella’s regular column in The Times. You can access at it at http://www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20110523/opinion/Gonzi-and-thinking-Nationalists.366724
Although the characters in Il-Gaġġa (The Cage) are fictitious, declares the late Frans Sammut in an introductory note to his novel, the cage is real. That book was first published in 1971, 40 years ago. Meanwhile the cage has undergone significant makeovers. Now, as many of you will be reading this online, I suggest you click http://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/british/makeover and http://www.oxfordadvancedlearnersdictionary.com/dictionary/makeover , or any other decent online English dictionary, and check out the meaning of “makeover”.
The former will give you “a set of changes that are intended to make a person or place more attractive” and the latter, “the process of improving the appearance of a person or a place, or of changing the impression that something gives”. Makeovers, in other words, seem to have to do with essentially cosmetic, superficial change. Beneath the surface, some things stay as they are.
This is not the place to discuss the nature and the extent of what change has in fact taken place. I have done so elsewhere and my views on the subject are easily accessible to those that wish to engage them. Nor is it the place to discuss the suitability of the term “makeover” to describe the changes Maltese society has undergone in the four turbulent decades since Sammut gave us his first novel – certainly a milestone event in Maltese literature.
I would be the last to contest the importance of certain social, economic and political transformations that have taken place, although – as I have attempted to demonstrate in my contribution to Sultana and Baldacchino’s evergreen collection, Maltese Society. A Sociological Inquiry (1994) and in Cutajar and Cassar’s more recent reader Transitions in Maltese Society (2009) – they need to be shorn of the rhetoric of their narrative if they are to be critically appreciated. But the point remains that some important things have not changed. Some important features of our culture have survived these long 40 years.
The divorce issue has brought these out into the open. Let me be clear about this point. One should not be surprised that today a large proportion of the Maltese would not opt for divorce as a measure of last resort even if their marriage were irretrievably lost. Even if we stand at the beginning of the second decade of the 21st century. The particular sort of Catholic traditions of this country and the specific cultural conditions under which Maltese Catholics have formed themselves, are such that it would have been surprising had a majority of Maltese Catholics declared that should they ever find themselves in the unfortunate position of being unable to make their marriage work, they would consider divorce as the lesser of evils.
That many of them will not consider this option is, in our circumstances, perfectly understandable. One can disagree with them but a democrat could never, under any circumstances, dream of denying them the right to follow their conscience. Everybody is and should be free not to seek to divorce.
What is surprising – and what shows that many important things have not changed in this country in the 40 years since the publication of Il-Gaġġa – is that anyone can claim that their personal religious belief compels them to deny the divorce option to those fellow citizens who would resort to it, responsibly, if and when they were to need it. With such a position not only can one disagree but, if modern democracy is to mean anything at all, one must disagree with it. It is nothing short of fundamentalist and fundamentally undemocratic.
The crudeness and emotional cruelty of the Kristu Iva, Divorzju Le poster along our major thoroughfares suggests that indeed many of the changes of the past 40 years have been of the “makeover” variety. The most superficial of them was (is) almost certainly the great European makeover. How can one honestly reconcile the EU’s democratic ideals – firmly rooted in the soil of the Enlightenment – with the denial of the right to seek divorce by those fellow citizens that see it as a good solution to their personal problems? Indeed, how Christian is such a position?
Fr Joe Borg in his blog on timesofmalta.com said that he “was greatly disappointed by the news of the setting up of the Kristu Iva, Divorzju Le Movement”. He goes further: “The language, symbols and imagery they use is bound to be counterproductive. It builds no bridges with all those good Catholics who favour divorce because they see it – and very well it could be for them – as a good solution to their problems. The movement builds no bridges with those good Catholics who after reflecting on Church teaching, studying the local situation and researching about the effects of divorce overseas support its introduction as the lesser of two evils”.
Fr Borg recognises their appeal for “the nostalgic Catholics (…) who were described by Archbishop Cremona as a pastoral problem for the Church”. Does this mean then the Archbishop also considers Eddie Fenech Adami – who has openly taken a fundamentalist position – a “pastoral problem for the Church”?
It is difficult, in these circumstances, not to suspect that the grandiloquent makeovers we have lived and continue to live through, are not the result of the sort of reasoning with which Tancredi convinced the Prince of Salina in Il Gattopardo: “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change”. Swim on, Fredu Gambin, swim on.
This article appeared in Dr Vella’s regular column on The Times of Malta on May 9, 2011, and may be accessed at http://www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20110509/opinion/Who-is-afraid-of-Fredu-Gambin-.364371