Wednesday, 19 September 2012


How many times have you heard someone say something and disagreed with the contents of that person's statements? How many times have you nurtured a view that differs from that of an entire group of people? Did you ever express your disagreement? If so, what reaction did you get? Was there a debate that led to the taking of some vote? Was there any negotiation in order to reach a compromise? Or were you considered as "odd", "crazy", "stupid", or "disloyal" when you mentioned your differing beliefs?

Whilst reflecting about the issue of dissent within Maltese society, I almost immediately developed the impression that most people in Malta are not brought up to challenge or question the positions taken by various authority figures. Although Maltese schools are excellent at promoting cut-throat competition as well as the memorising of a staggering amount of details, relatively little attention is devoted to analysis and debate of several phenomena. Such an educational system leads to a situation whereby countless individuals could quote Shakespeare or read a balance sheet, but are then usually totally unwilling to express an opinion that could be regarded as a threat to the preservation of the social and political status quo.

Dissent is probably as old as the human species. I believe that ever since human beings were able to get together to make plans regarding the best way forward for a community, the clash of a number of individual wills must have always existed to a certain degree. Whoever has a knowledge of history will surely be aware of people such as Martin Luther or Giordano Bruno. Such individuals challenged the institutions that they belonged to and Bruno was even killed for doing so. 

As a phenomenon, dissent is probably best understood when analysing the relationship between an individual and the organisation/s he or she belongs to. Throughout life, most people would normally drift in and out of various organisations. These organisations could range from one's family to school, the workplace, a religious group, and even a political party. It is fairly difficult to move ahead in life without being involved in some type of organisation. Fr Mark Montebello, a Maltese Dominican friar as well as one of the country's most prominent philosophers, has analysed the relationship between the individual and the organisation/s he/she belongs to. Indeed, in 2010, Fr Montebello published a booklet entitled The Redemption of Anarchy (Il-Fidwa Tal-Anarkizmu) which sheds a great deal of light on this matter.

As organisations grow, they tend to develop a set of rules. Depending on the organisation's views regarding change, its rules could become extremely rigid. In such situations, the group's members are expected to accept all the rules without showing any hesitation or doubt. The organisation's objectives would normally become associated with certain people who mould the group's identity on the basis of their personal beliefs. Everyone else must simply suppress any differing views and toe the line to avoid being labelled as a "traitor".

It is no secret that whenever one belongs to an organisation, certain benefits or rewards are expected. If, however, the organisation feels threatened, measures could easily be taken to ensure that the person challenging it no longer enjoys the fruits of membership. With reference to Fr Montebello's aforementioned booklet, he wrote that "The individual in Malta and Gozo, especially the one who wants to function within an organisational setting, would still be considered as forming part of the social and political structure as long as he/she does not behave in a way that challenges the supremacy of the values that are held as sacrosanct by the organisations to ensure their preservation. Indeed, till today, the organisations in Malta and Gozo still give more importance to their own welfare than to the individual's well-being. Whoever poses a threat to an organisation's ability to achieve this goal would be pushed out from the organisation and excluded from membership" (pp. 14 - 15).

During last year's divorce referendum campaign, I still clearly remember that when divorce was being discussed within a small Catholic group, any views in favour of divorce were crushed by the conservative group leader in a very dogmatic way. There was no real debate. And it seems that those individuals who held differing views were eventually pushed out of the group.

When it comes to the working world, each company could be perceived as an organisation with its own culture and rules. In those companies where there is very little co-operation or unity among the workers, there is often a great deal of fear to express dissent. Even though many employees would easily grumble or complain about certain work-related practices or issues in hushed tones, the pressure to obey together with the fear of being fired from the company would usually lead to the repression of dissent. Taking another look at Fr Montebello's booklet, he wrote that "In Malta and Gozo you would come across many people who would - in a private setting - talk very openly. But when you invite them to write something in a newspaper, to sit for an interview or to participate in a public discussion to express their views...they refuse to expose themselves due to the fear of exclusion, which could affect them directly or their loved ones" (p. 31).

Turning to Maltese politics, one could also identify some examples of the ways in which dissent was handled. In 1998, when Dom Mintoff voiced his disagreement with many of Dr Alfred Sant's policies, he was called a "traitor". Apart from being accused of treason, Mintoff was also brushed aside by many people within the Labour Party.
During the last few months, Dr Franco Debono was also accused as "mad" and as a "traitor" following his various criticisms of the work of several Nationalist Party Members of Parliament. With reference to a recent article that was published on the maltastar website, Dr Debono summed up the way in which he was being treated as follows: "if you don’t obey the rottweiler comes barking at you. The scheme goes like this: either you obey and shut up or else you have to face the rottweilers. Simple. If you shut up and be quiet we keep you comfortable. If you don’t shut up there are no rights. It’s useless invoking rights. My message was: I am not afraid of the rottweilers. I am invoking rights. I want meritocracy not favours from Gonzi".

To conclude, there is still a lot of work to be done in Malta and Gozo so that more people could learn how to deal with dissent in a healthy way. The educational system must surely devote more time and energy to the teaching of skills that would allow countless individuals to question a number of things in order to build a better society. Organisations should make a genuine effort to become more inclusive and to avoid the rush to crush dissent or to expel any members who have differing viewpoints. If dissent helps to improve the workings of the organisations which make up a society, it is definitely something that should be encouraged more regularly.


1 comment:

Mark Montebello said...

An interesting article of someone who is doing some serious thinking. That's what happens when we share our thoughts and inner feelings, be it about dissent or whatever is important to our lives. This is all about recapturing a sense of community which respects the freedom of individuals to the full. Well done.