Saturday, 6 February 2010

Times: The President on the family
Thursday, 4th February 2010 by Ranier Fsadni

President George Abela's speech at the recent national conference on the family has been criticised for foreclosing what should be an open-ended discussion and for peddling myth. At least, the latter charge is true although I'm not sure he was trafficking the myths identified by the Malta Gay Rights Movement (MGRM).

President Abela made explicit that he was giving a personal view. Although he indicated his inclination to exclude homosexual unions from his understanding of both a marriage and a family, he raised the issue as a question.

He did not pre-empt discussion even on this point, let alone those concerning heterosexual couples. He was just canvassing the terrain public policy needs to review.

MGRM charged the President with limiting his definition of family to married heterosexual couples with natural children. It would have been psychologically intriguing if he had: It is public knowledge that he has an adoptive brother. But the speech explicitly uses the term "family" to refer to instances involving adoption, single parents and people setting up a new household after a broken marriage.

The speech does have serious limitations. But MGRM misidentified them. Whether President Abela believes homosexuality is unnatural, I do not know but his argument does not hinge on that myth.

He made assumptions about the nature of children, not homosexuality. He asserts human nature is such that children need both a male and a female parent and long-term stability in their parents' relationship. He calls marriage the "cradle" of the family because he assumes that heterosexual lifelong monogamy evolved out of the needs of human biology: children's need for security and long-term growth.

Of course, this view does imply that a homosexual couple cannot provide as good a home environment as a heterosexual couple but it implies the same about nuns running orphanages, not to mention single parents and others. It is not a view attributing vice to being homosexual, a consecrated celibate or a separated parent, but, rather, a statement about what, despite any individual heroism, it is possible to achieve given the needs of children. (However, he clearly believes that state and other aid can mitigate the "disorienting" impact of missing parents but not that of being raised by a homosexual couple.)

President Abela's main aim is not to condemn couples who cannot wholly meet children's developmental needs but, rather, to establish three points.

First, the family must be subservient to the needs of children, with adults ready to subordinate their own needs by making "sacrifices".

Second, not all family models can be judged equally able to provide the stability and male-female complementarity that (on this view) children need.

Third, public policy needs to define both marriage and family. This way the best model - the "traditional model" for President Abela, adapted to gender equality - can be upheld so that married adults are better able to take responsible decisions while family policy is better able to strengthen it while mitigating the weaknesses of other models.

As I read the speech, it leaves open the question of whether the introduction of divorce is advisable. Certainly, one can share President Abela's assumptions and be in its favour. The problem lies with some of those assumptions.

President Abela's account of the family's past, globally and in Malta, is a myth. The "traditional family", as we know it today, indeed even the modern secularised European family, was radically shaped by the Christian Church (and a good thing too, given what was displaced).

What "tradition" you pick also matters: What is colloquially called the traditional family in Europe and Malta probably dates, in terms of dominance, no more than 100 years or so and represents the spread of a middle-class family model across class boundaries. (Visitors to 18th century Malta found the prevalence of marital infidelity remarkable while parish priests were concerned about the rate of marital break-ups.)

Getting the past terribly wrong does not always matter for a policy-maker. Here it does. The past reveals that "tradition" has a record of diverse family forms, repeatedly destabilised by social and political development even in the distant past.

We should not be wondering whether the "traditional family" model applies to all of us but whether it can be adopted by anyone at all today. No marriage today has any real precedent in traditional society. Even those managing to live marriage as a life-long commitment cannot find in the past a model for a marriage that lasts several decades after menopause. A hundred years ago, average life expectancy was about 50. In some European countries, the average duration of a modern marriage, about 14 years, is almost the same length as the average duration a century ago, about 16 years (then cut short by death).

This does not mean that life-long marriage is today an impossible ideal. It does mean that the old ideal needs to be lived inventively. Continual re-interpretation, not once-and-for-all definition, is our lot. We might not be able to spare our children some disorientation but we can try hard to serve as models of how to deal honestly and dutifully with it.

The environment in which authenticity and marital stability are to be sought is itself highly unstable. Targeted state and other aid can be helpful; as a general principle; child-centredness sounds sensible to me. But it seems unpromising for policy to begin with definitions, especially on the basis of a mythical past and an unstable, diversified present.

The philosopher Michel Foucault (1926-84), who was homosexual, once told an interviewer that while heterosexuals had models of union to follow, homosexuals had to invent their own. Here is the memo MGRM should have sent the President: Your Excellency, we are all gays now.

[Click on the hyperlink above to view the comments on the Times' website.]

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