Sociologist from Malta

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Debating with the No movement

The setting up of a ‘no to divorce’ movement is good: debate is essential in a democracy.

Michael Briguglio
Malta Today, 19th January 2011

As chairperson of Alternattiva Demokratika – to date the only political party with a position on divorce, and a positive one at that, I must say that I am pleased that a ‘no to divorce’ movement has been set up. Debate is essential in a democracy.

As expected, however, I do not agree with the fundamental thesis of the No movement. Basically, the movement believes that the introduction of divorce will bring about an increase in marriage breakdown and cohabitation.

Such an argument is ridiculously fallacious because in Malta there is no divorce, yet separations and cohabitation are on the increase.

Hence there must be another reason why such changes are taking place, and this has nothing to do with divorce.

One factor which is influencing such change is economic stress and related situational factors. Economic hardship – for example long-working hours and lack of income in an age of precarious employment can be very stressful to couples. So could unrealistic expectations, however. This could include reasons such as having unsustainable bank loans for an unaffordable residence. Malta’s saving-spending ratios are clearly showing that we are moving towards the latter.

Yet another important reason – which is heavily undervalued by the ‘no’ camp - is the fact that people are becoming increasingly reflexive and individualised in advanced modern societies. More and more people are less tied to the traditions they inherited – whether related to religion, class, or culture – and are becoming more predisposed to construct their own biographies.

In such a context, there are reasons associated with ‘family breakdown’, such as infidelity and violence, which, though being in existence for ages, are dealt with differently in our times. In short, one is freer to move out of a relationship in such instances. Even in Malta – where there is no divorce.

In a context of reflexivity and individualisation, one might also choose not to marry, or to marry at a later age. One might have an LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender) identity. One might be cohabiting with someone else. And one might be in a marriage in which happiness has simply disappeared. In all cases, the right to happiness should never be undervalued.

The ‘yes’ and ‘no’ positions are basically at loggerheads when it comes to the right for separated persons to be given another chance to marry. From a ‘yes’ perspective, divorce can be seen as being pro-family because it permits couples to regularise their relationships. The alternative is having thousands of couples living in a legal limbo without rights and obligations. The ‘no’ perspective is against this, but, what is its stand on annulment (whether granted by the State or Church) and on people who live together after separating?

If there is to be a point of convergence between the ‘yes’ and ‘no’ positions, I suppose this will have to do with responsibility for children. Maybe sociologist Anthony Giddens can inspire us all here. He suggests that as a global society we should move towards ‘emotional democracies’ in which the protection of children becomes the primary feature of legislation and policy. Parents should be legally obligated to provide emotionally and economically for their children until adulthood, no matter what the living arrangements happen to be.

Ultimately the divorce issue symbolizes whether Malta is to form part of the cosmopolitan world of diversity, respect and choice, or whether we are to remain the backyard of Europe, allowing political, economic and cultural elites to usurp our individuality.

Michael Briguglio is chairperson of Alternattiva Demokratika.

No comments: