Photo: Thom C
In my teen years, politics was tantamount to war, and its fragments were spray-painted in graffiti on walls and facades. Nothing escaped the violence, banality, frustration and polarisation that dominated the seventies and eighties, irrespective of whether the space was public or private. Look closely, and in many towns and villages you can still trace the crumbling, tell-tale acrid black of the ‘MLP’ vs ‘PN’ vernacular – often in the most crude of language.
There is a different war going on right now. It is posited as a war for our minds, our consciences and our souls. It is being delivered from church pulpits, confessionals, civic halls and the mainstream media – but increasingly, in that most snapshot and environmentally-intrusive of forms, the billboard.
You’d need to be a very recent visitor to Malta not to know there is a referendum on the introduction of divorce on the 28th May – Malta being the only EU country which does not allow its citizens to get divorced. With the benefit of hindsight, in a place where around 98 per cent of the population is baptised Roman Catholic and Malta’s status as a Roman Catholic state is entrenched in the constitution, we should have been prepared for some people to get hot under the collar about divorce.
Politicians first tried delaying tactics when faced with a private member’s bill and then argued about the terminology for a ‘referendum’ – abdicating their responsibilities to legislate. The referendum on the 28th May will provide citizens with the opportunity to votes ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to the possible introduction of divorce – but there is no obligation for parliament to abide by its result and draft new legislation in the event of a ‘yes’ majority.
Once the referendum was launched, it soon became obvious that there was too much at stake for any chance of meaningful ‘debate’. Someone (the Church? the politicians?) decided that divorce legislation will undermine the social glue of the nation (and its power) and mobilised its forces. Mainstream media posts were hijacked by a motley crew of online commentators incorporating the best of local talent: religious zealots, pseudo-bloggers and egomaniacs and politicians wrote open love letters to the Madonna and in code to their God-fearing constituents. Even for a place which loves polarisation and with no history of civil debate on matters of church and state, the divorce issue has rapidly degenerated into spiteful, mind-numbing diatribe. At its very best, some of the behaviour of public figures has been worthy of Monty Python; at times, it was deeply depressing and reminded us of how parochial these islands have remained.
And then the billboard campaigns were launched. In developed societies, you cannot win minds with billboards alone – particularly if the billboards are as crass as those deployed by the opposing factions of ‘good’ mobilised against ‘evil’. The usual smiling pictures of the happy nuclear family have given way to images of women with black eyes, warnings of bastard children and a Jesus with halo reminding us that he, too, is against divorce.
This morning, as I waited for a gap in the queue of parent drivers and kid-strewn mini-vans, 100 metres away from my child’s school, my son tapped me on the shoulder and pointed to another anti-divorce billboard. “Yes, they’re getting closer,” I mumbled. “Soon, you’ll have one in your class room.”
I had been very reluctant to write about the divorce issue. Many others in the blogosphere have, and still are. But that billboard reminded me again, as if I had ever forgotten, of how a small bounded society used to nanny state tactics and insular politics needs to grow up. As a society, we are still living the lie. If you just looked at the people who live in my tiny alley in Siggiewi, you will find a multicultural community of people on second marriages, separated couples with second partners, single mothers, house-sharing twenty-somethings, the token widow and the token parish priest. We don’t have divorce in Malta, but if you’re rich or happen to be Maltese but living in another country, you can still get a divorce and there is precious little that the State can do about it except to acknowledge its existence and your subsequent marriages, if you so desire. If you’ve got a decent lawyer, you could try and get your marriage ‘annulled’ on some biological, ethical basis – or even drum up false charges just to get some respite from a bad marriage. Or you can wait for this Government or the next to usher in some quiet legislation to ‘regularise separated couples.’ Because that, perhaps, may still be acceptable to the forces who have a problem with legislating for divorce in the first place.
Mercifully, we are finally seeing some attempts at parody from the web-savvy generation with cognitive surplus creeping in. There are groups on Facebook such as Divorzistan and Moviment Tindahalx (Don’t Interfere) that are doing their best to keep people grounded – or insulated from the cacophony and the rattling billboards.
Soon there will be nothing left except to read the surveys and wait for the next Photoshop opus, wherever it may come from. We stick with what we said a while ago: the divorce referendum should have been a non-issue.
It’s just a shame that we got to using the billboards in the first place, so we could treat citizens like the idiots we always assume they are, when they are asked to go to the ballot box.