Sociologist, activist, local councillor, drummer from Malta

Friday, July 09, 2010

Censoring (post-) modernity

Michael Briguglio
The Times Friday, 9th July 2010

So the Civil Court has decided to uphold the ban on the play Stitching because, among other things, it presents values "somehow incompatible with Maltese civilisation".

Sometimes I wonder why Malta joined the European Union. A colleague sociologist, Noel Agius, was right when, some years ago, he predicted that Malta's EU accession would lead to a fundamentalist backlash by those against Maltese society joining the modern (or is it post-modern?) world.

I believe that no artistic production should be banned, provided there are clear guides such as age classification and warnings on content shown. On the other hand, I am firmly in favour of educational reforms which enhance the reflexivity and responsibility of individuals, such as the teaching of comprehensive sexual education and the values of tolerance and respect. A difference should also be made between art and the spreading of hate such as that of the neo-nazi type.

Indeed, if the decision of the Civil Court on Stitching were to be applied consistently, then, we might as well close down our film-theatres for showing films full of violence and explicit content. We might as well ban MTV for showing provocative videos and empty bookshelves for having books that are deemed "incompatible".

Maltese society, like all others, has its contradictions and I am not surprised that conservative, fundamentalist, traditional, liberal, progressive, modern and post-modern discourses clash with each other and, at times, even form strange bedfellows. It is refreshing to see that erstwhile political adversaries Fr Peter Serracino Inglott and Alfred Sant have similar views on censorship. Both these intellectuals represent the modernistic trend in their own respective camps, miles away from the petty-insular mediocrity of many others whose job is to retain the status quo.

Yet, it is more than obvious that the Nationalist and Labour parties and the Church are ultimately structured in a way where traditionalists have the upper hand.
All have their own rebels and internal contradictions, yet, when it comes to struggles in areas such as civil rights, they ultimately succumb to the dominance of traditionalist and conservative discourse.

In this regard, my reading of the usage of the term Maltese "civilisation" by the Civil Court is that "civilisation" refers to the dominant interests of the dominant institutions in Malta. Ultimately, such institutions are jealous of others entering their fields and will attempt to retain the status quo until it is impossible to do so. Hence, the state is not a "neutral" arbiter of different interests but, rather, a condensation of conflicts which, ultimately, has winners and losers. Various civil rights in Malta are henceforth not part of the agenda of the state.

It is disturbing that state institutions should decide what is acceptable and what is not within the arts. This is reminiscent of dictatorial regimes - from North Korea to Iran - whose state structures aim to create a monolithic conformist identity, devoid of freedom.

In advanced modern societies where individuals are reflexive and characterised by plural identities, such imposition from the state is unacceptable. Ultimately, such state imposition will change through "action-oriented" and "structural" factors among others.

In the first instance, the active struggle of movements and individuals committed to change is of utmost importance. Examples here include the Greens, progressive elements in the public sphere (among intellectuals, the press, etc.), enlightened minorities in major parties, the Front Against Censorship and other progressive NGOs. Given the spread of fatalistic values in Malta, support of such forces is of utmost importance. If one is really for civil rights, such as the abolition of censorship, it is useless nagging while doing nothing about it.

Do we honestly believe that the conservative, inward-looking, traditionalist majorities in the Nationalist Party and the Labour Party can bring about such changes? One cannot expect the PN to do this if is alone in government, given its internal dominance of traditionalist values. But the same can be said of Labour, which, albeit having a larger "progressive" minority than the PN and more "modernistic" rhetoric, is ultimately a hotch-potch of different interests which can win an election but - if alone in government - will most probably keep everything as it is, save for institutions, preferred business partners and so forth. On the other hand, Alternattiva Demokratika - the Green party is clear and consistent in its position for the modernisation of censorship laws as befits a modern democracy.

The second important factor that can lead to a change in the way state institutions act is the spread of values that prioritise self-expression. These can lead to major ruptures and implosions within dominant conservative and traditionalist institutions.
Whether such changes take place through sudden shifts and breaks in society or through longer generational change is difficult to predict, though it seems that, as far as many societies go, economic development is one important factor that can lead to a change in values.

All in all, it seems that Malta has joined the European Union but, in various aspects, has remained in the middle ages.

The author is chairman of Alternattiva Demokratika - the Green party.

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