Monday 23 May 2022

Is it possible to have progress without regress?

This article first appeared on Malta Today

When you carry out your errands on foot, the chances are you will catch glimpses of things which you would otherwise never have noticed if you were dashing around with your car, fighting traffic and looking for that elusive parking spot.

This week, I chanced upon a relatively ordinary scene: an elderly woman standing in the doorway of her typical traditional townhouse, with her “antiporta” half opened, chatting and laughing with someone who seemed to be an old friend or neighbour, who happened to be passing by. As I walked passed, I overheard them exchange delighted greetings, asking about each other’s families and each other’s state of health.

Something about that image and the snippet of conversation seemed like a moment frozen in time, and it took me back with that type of “whoosh” sound effect you hear in the movies; I suddenly had a flashback of Malta as it used to be years ago. It was a Malta where we all knew one another, where neighborhoods remained unchanged for decades, and it was not unusual for extended families to all live in the vicinity of one another. In fact, communities were so tight-knit that I know people who have the marvelous skill and ability to rattle off the family trees of acquaintances with the precision of professional genealogists, pointing out who is married to whom, tracing each family back for several generations.

But, a decade from now, will it be possible to have such familiarity and inside knowledge of other people’s backgrounds? I very much doubt it. Neighbourhoods are changing beyond recognition, houses which have been in the same families for years are being torn down with the same regularity as marriages are breaking down, while new anonymous multiple dwellings are sprouting up with the same regularity as the emergence of new relationships and blended families.

As the saying goes, I suppose it is the price one pays for progress, but I always wonder whether a changing, more modern society necessarily means we need to discard everything, even the things which are worth saving? Does moving forward for our country necessarily mean that we must lose everything else along the way, or is there the possibility of discarding that which was insular and narrow-minded, while still retaining that which is sound and valuable?

The question I am posing is basically: is it possible to have progress on several much-needed fronts, without resorting to regress on other, equally crucial issues?

For example, there are things about Malta in the past which I would never want to go back to: such as the social taboos which prevented people from escaping a horrendous, dysfunctional marriage or from ‘coming out’ and being true to their sexual orientation for fear of what others would say. I remember a time when even getting out of a long engagement just before the wedding was so frowned upon that people went ahead and got married anyway, knowing it was a grave mistake and that they were marrying the wrong person, because it seemed easier than causing what was considered a scandal by jilting the bride or groom, and letting everyone down. There were often privately-expressed cries of anguish confided to close friends, to the tune of, “but everything is ready, how can I possibly back out now?” (and by everything that would mean not just the wedding preparations, but the couple’s future home as well, down to the last set of matching towels). So the wedding inevitably went ahead, and the marriage would, of course, be doomed before it started.

The tight lid enforced by a disapproving, judgmental society led to many living a lie, pretending everything was OK when in fact, behind closed doors, there was abuse, distress, great unhappiness and emotional trauma, as people were forced to conform and do what was expected of them. The casualties of this social conformity were often innocent victims, the children and spouses of those who often led double lives, so in the end, someone was bound to get hurt anyway. But the grip of social mores was so tight that it had everyone in its stranglehold, not least because the Church’s rigid hold on the island was likewise unquestioned. To question the Church, to rebel against it, to refuse to always bow down to what it said was considered the height of blasphemy – and I am speaking about a mere 40 years ago.

Like any small, confined community, cut off from the mainland, Malta of the past was stifling and claustrophobic for anyone with a free spirit, which explains why so many preferred to leave.

These were the days when female attire was strictly monitored and scrutinized, when having one too many boyfriends automatically made you a slut, when busybody neighbours felt perfectly entitled to report to your parents on your every move, because they felt it was their duty. A woman by herself did not even dare entire one of the typical working men’s clubs found in many villages.

At the local village grocer where you had to ask for each item patiently one by one, as the rest of the women gossiped about you to your face with open curiosity, there would be a conspicuous shift in the air on the rare occasion that a sheepish man, feeling distinctly out of place, walked in – “serve him first, it doesn’t matter”, the women would chime in – and the shop owner would do just that. Shops were the female domain, and a male presence made everyone uncomfortable. I thought of this recently at my local supermarket where the number of men doing the shopping for the family (or for themselves if they live alone, newly separated and having to cope with domestic chores) is equal to the number of women.

It seems incredulous to me now, but when at the age of 26, I went to the bank because I wanted to buy a TV set on hire purchase in my own name, the clerk looked at me as if I had three heads, and the bank manager had to be called out as the rest of the staff looked at me with open astonishment. In 1987 you see, an unmarried woman could only take out goods on hire purchase on her father’s name, even if she was in full-time employment. If you were married it would be on your husband’s name. Pointing out that I was neither married, nor living under my parents’ roof, I could practically see their brains exploding in unison.

Oh, and leaving home to live alone, or to live together as a couple without a ring on your finger, was the ultimate disgrace one could inflict on one’s entire family (followed closely by having a child out out of wedlock). That’s right, this was only 30 years ago.

So in this respect, thank God for progress.

But because nothing much had changed for many long decades, when it finally came, the progress was similar to a pressure cooker suddenly reaching boiling point and blowing its lid off with the steam. At first there was nothing, and then since 2011 with the divorce referendum passing, everything came at once.

Compare this to the US for example where the social changes came gradually and not without much upheaval – social acceptance of divorce came in the late 50s, civil rights for blacks in the 60s, women’s liberation in the 70s, more awareness of gay rights in the 80s and the acceptance of gay divorce by an American President took until 2012 when Obama finally endorsed it, despite previously only being in favour of civil unions.

These dates are important for everything to be put into perspective – they are indicative of how long it took for Malta to start discussing let alone implementing certain civil liberties because for decades the island seemed to be a place where time stood still and stubbornly refused to change. These changes have brought about a more tolerant, relaxed society where (on the whole) no one really cares any more what others do in their private life. That has been a change for the better, I think.

But in our mad rush to catch up with the rest of the world in areas where we were lagging behind, sometimes I think we have equated this type of progress (which was needed) with the need to shun everything else which makes us who we are. I do not see the two as being mutually exclusive: in the sense that living in a modern Malta where society, Church and state do not interfere with the private individual’s life, does not mean we cannot also live in the type of Malta where family connections are still valued, where community still counts for something and where we stop and and ask whether our neighbours need our help.

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