Friday 03 April 2020

Conservative voices should not be shut down

This article first appeared on Malta Today

I’m very much a liberal, firmly believing that the rights of others to conduct their private life as they wish is no business of mine, and does not detract from my own rights in any way.

But, because I truly believe in freedom of expression and the right of everyone to hold diametrically opposing views, I think we are treading on very dangerous ground now if, every time a conservative voice dares to express a dissenting opinion, they are shut down.

To me it seems that Malta has come full circle, and exactly in the same way that those who dared to think “differently” to the status quo in the past used to be shunned and looked upon with undisguised contempt, now those who would like to hold on to traditional norms are being similarly ostracised. How did we come to this point?

I remember a time when the very idea of leaving your husband or wife, living together before marriage, heck, even leaving your parents’ home to go live on your own without being married, was considered to be not only downright shocking, but something which brings disgrace and shame to your family. Having a child out of wedlock would often get you thrown out of the family home. Divorce was only spoken about as something which happened “abroad” and TV shows like Dynasty and soaps like The Bold & the Beautiful where people moved casually on to their second and third marriages were avidly watched with the same curious fascination one would watch a documentary about some exotic tribe.

Those who are under 30 might be astonished to learn that this was the mentality up to a mere 35 years ago, which is why their parents, who are probably in their late 40s or 50s, often shake their heads and mutter that Malta has gone to the dogs. It will probably also help them to understand the appalled reaction of those who are in their 60s and older who have seen such drastic changes in their lifetime and who have had to grapple with the sudden shocks and jolts and complete upheaval of Malta’s social fabric. Having lived through all these changes myself I can empathize with the bewilderment of those who are my age and older. On the other hand, having spent at least 20 of those 35 years constantly biting my tongue so as not to offend the religious sensibilities of others, it came as a real relief when the changes happened. If I did dare voice an alternative view, the reaction would be a complete attempt to shut me down: “this is Malta, we are Catholic, that is just the way things are here, you have to adapt.”

In the end, of course, social change was knocking at our doorstep and the attempts to keep the doors closed could not last forever. There was a certain inevitability about it; it was bound to happen, especially with EU membership, the broadening of our horizons through travel, and more exposure to international media. Malta could not remain the cocooned island where time stood still and everyone had to be a church-going Catholic or else.

But because the attempts to keep ourselves barricaded against change lasted so long, when the changes did come they felt like a tsunami of turmoil which burst through the gates with enormous force. The turning point in 2011 when Malta voted Yes for the introduction of divorce, was followed in quick succession by the Ciivil Unions Law, the right of gay couples to adopt, the law on gender identity, the morning after pill and now gay marriage.

It has been a virtual whirlwind for many people in a very, very short space of time. For those who have benefitted, it has been great: people are on their second marriages, new children born out of their relationship walk down the aisle with Mum and Dad and no one bats an eyelid. Gay couples throw fantastic weddings, and everyone congratulates the happy couple without a second’s thought. A child is born to an unwed mother and it barely causes a flicker because there are just so many in the same boat.

But looking at all this with a stunned gaze are those who have now found themselves inexplicably on the fringe: the conservative voices who want Malta to stay as it once was. Those who believe that marriage should be between a man and a woman, who believe that only a straight couple should be allowed to adopt, who do not believe in divorce, who do not want to live in a world where someone can change their gender. Even though I may not agree with their stance, I believe it is very wrong to shut these voices down, or to make them feel uncomfortable for believing what they do. I believe there is space enough for everyone to have their voice heard without fear of being censored and that also includes having a political party which represents their views.

In fact, PN politicians such as Michael Asciak and Tonio Fenech are right in taking a stand and asking whether the PN has lost its raison d’être. The beauty of a democracy is that everyone’s beliefs can be represented by those whom they elect to speak for them, because otherwise we are at risk of having parties which are all at the same. One must also bear in mind that conservatives span the whole political spectrum and are not simply limited to those who vote for the Nationalist Party.

Having said all this, however, we do have the right to call out blatantly wrong statements intended to create alarm. So no, David Agius, the wording in the new Marriage Equality Law will not prevent anyone from saying “Ma” or “Pa”. Despite this heatwave, let’s at least try to keep the debate from becoming too silly.

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