16 October 2011

Social conservatism


If there's one country in the Western world where historical events can be directly linked to current cultural attitudes, then that place has to be Italy.

This is particulalry most striking when you look at how other places have managed to pull well away from their darkest days (see, for instance, Germany and Spain below). When you look at culture and society in Italy, instead, I'm afraid you can clearly detect the whiff of where a certain far-right ideology stemmed from.

Let's start with homophobia.

Italy is miles behind even when compared to what the UK used to be like in the caveman days of Section 28 and Margaret Thatcher. Just to give you an idea, last week's newspapers reported that the first university LGBT society in the whole country, something that has been run of the mill for years anywhere in Europe, was finally being set up at a campus in Rome - in the year 2011.
And it's no wonder, given that the country's news bulletins are peppered with violent episodes of intolerance (with the trend looking alarmingly on the increase) as well as tons of homophobic bile regularly spurted out by senior politicians (with the neanderthal-like and superpopulistic Northern League carrying the flag).

With the possible exception of the so-called Bible Belt in the US, no other country in the Western world would routinely put up with senior government ministers regularly and publicly referring to "fairies", "arse bandits" and "dirty queers" without even witnessing a minor public outcry.

For instance, check out this gem from Senator and Minister for Constitutional Reform Roberto Calderoli: "Being an arse-bandit is a capital sin and whoever votes in favour of pro-civil partnerships legislation will end up burning in the flames of deepest hell". Lord of the Rings or what?

Still, not a patch on the words of the mayor from the Northern city of Treviso, literally calling for the "ethnic cleansing of queers" ("pulizia etnica per i culattoni").

The list is so depressingly long that a whole blog could be devoted to those dumbfucks.

Fact is, too many people in Italy view anything remotely un-macho with profound suspicion. Take your average bigoted attitude anywhere in the West. Multiply it by ten and that's how freakishly intolerant Italy is.

In late 2006, Italy was going through a brief interlude away from Silvio Berlusconi's right wing coalition. The short-lived centre-left government headed by Romano Prodi timidly started debating the possibility of watered-down civil partnerships (back then known as 'Pacs').

Around that time,  I was working at a major steel-making plant in Lombardy. I remember asking a room of 9 self-professed left-wing workers (all proud members of unions and so on) what they thought of the government's Bill. The reply was overwhelmingly one of total disgust. "This is the end of the family", was the response of all of them but one.

Flabbergasted by such levels of bigotry, I challenged them by simply asking "why"- as in how is allowing two same-sex people to have some very basic rights going to signify The End of The Famiglia Italiana? And, I swear, I can't remember a single coherent answer. "It just will", said one. "You won't be able to see it straightaway, but if gays are allowed to impose their own lifestyle, family as we know it will just collapse", proclaimed another.

Remember that was from the gob of left-wing people, chaps I would normally agree with on most matters from the Iraq war to workers' rights. You can only imagine what a religious bigot or a right-winger would have come up with.

No wonder homosexuality continues to be completely illegal. Italy is the only country in Western Europe were the law doesn't recognise same-sex relationships, not even one bit and not even in the form of cohabitation or partnership.

After all, homophobia is just the ugliest manifestation of the overall bigotry which is at the core of Italy's social fabric.

Italians generally struggle to believe that a person could sport tattoos without ever having done time or dabbled with hard drugs. "Madonna mia! You have a tattoo!" is the routine expression of disbelief, even amongst the young. And let's not get started with men wearing earrings or earstuds. They're up to no good at best and dirty homosexuals at worst. Automatically, of course.

Last but not least, let's take a look at the sickening levels of sexism that reign supreme in the country. Which should come as no suprise, given that for 17 years large numbers of Italians have repeatedly cast their vote in favour of Silvio Berlusconi, the 75-year-old Prime Minister notorious for bunga bunga parties, disgustingly sexist jibes (i.e. calling Angela Merkel "an unfuckable lard-ass", says Brad Pitt) and a pathological obsession for teenage girls (more recently, he suggested that his party should be rebranded "Forza Gnocca!" or "Go Pussy!").

Put succintly, Italy is the land that feminism forgot.

To start with, the country is the second lowest in Western Europe in terms of women on corporate boards, but it also fares appallingly bad when it comes to parliamentary representation, gender wage gap, as well as labour conditions, the majority of casual workers being females. Incidentally, you may want check how many Italian "wealth creators" would be willing to take on a young female employee. The chances are even slimmer than in other countries.

Remember that Italy is the country where divorce was only legalised in 1974 and that, up until that point, men were often free to abandon their wives with the latter enjoying very little legal protection.

And this is the humongous contradiction. On one side, Italy is completely tangled in pseudo-religious hang-ups, with the Vatican sticking their nose in every single time something threatens to undermine their very singular notion of catholic rectitude. On the other, any sense of decorum that you'd expect in a catholic country seems to have gone out of the window when it comes to entire chunks of Italy's contemporary culture.

Italy is the country where sex education is not allowed on the school curriculum (and even innocent booklets on contraceptives distributed amongst Year-11 students were enough to cause the Vatican to go apeshit and order their removal), but then soft porn is basically the order of the day on daytime television.

Just try watching any Italian TV channel and you'll get the gist very quickly. It's basically the televised version of the Daily Star, a collection of trashy programmes crowded with scantily-clad females whose only contribution amounts to uttering the phrase "e ora, la pubblicità" ("and now, the adverts") - the idea being, of course, that your average Italian viewer would not stick to the same programme were it not for the half-naked piece of meat in the corner.

This applies to most TV shows from football programmes to variety shows; any excuse to parade legs, tits and arses. It's "
a constant stream of soft porn from morning until night on our TV screens", according to documentarist Lorella Zanardo, "the real difference between Italy and other European countries is that women's bodies here are really shown as objects irrespective of the programme you're watching. It's the only thing on offer" (see this excellent link in English).


Yet, move across the Mediterranean and you'll find a radically different picture.

Forget the so-called Gallic shrug. The Spanish will shrug their shoulders like there is no tomorrow. In fact, that is probably the one bit of body language that can sum up your average Spaniard like nothing else.

Put simply, most people in Spain don't give an absolute flying fuck about anything. But literally, anything. And while this may present a hefty list of negatives, it also carries the clear advantage of a society that has mastered the most authentic form of tolerance, that is to say genuinely not caring.

Most amazingly, it was only 35 years ago that Spain woke up from one of the most oppressive and medieval-like dictatorships. Until Franco finally fucked off to hell, Spain could have given the Taliban a run for their money.

Look at this short selection. Women weren't allowed to freely open a bank account, they could not become judges, or testify in trial. They could not even become university professors and, even in the 1970s, a woman fleeing from an abusive husband could be arrested and imprisoned for "abandoning the home" (abandono del hogar).

Which is why extra kudos to the Spaniards for moving away from all that medieval nonsense. Sure, pockets of conservatism do survive (especially in the areas known as España profunda), but on the whole, most Spaniards wouldn't even notice if a man or a woman were that way inclined, if your hair was long, short, blue or pink, if you had tattooes plastered all over your body. In fact, they'd probably remark "que chulo!", "how cool!", and that is especially true of the newest generations.

Unlike Italy, the land where if you don't wear a suit you're automatically a tramp, the Spaniards are supremely informal when it comes to dress sense, to the point that if you do wear a suit you will get some dimwit asking you if you're off to a wedding or something.

Interestingly, this exponential rise in social tolerance coincided with the rapid collapse of catholicism in the country. A survey from last year revealed that 75% of people between 15 and 24 consider the catholic approach to sex "obsolete" and that the church is no longer an influence on their lives. Staggering, if you consider that only two generations ago, Spain was as hardcore catholic as Italy or Ireland.

And so, witness the roll call of social reforms that took place in the last few years. In line with public opinion largely in favour of equality, in 2004 the freshly elected Socialist Government led by José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero passed a double bill legalizing both same-sex adoptions and same-sex marriages.

In fact, legislation on gay marriages in Spain is now much more advanced than in many other countries. It's on a par with Scandinavia and the Netherlands as it goes beyond the concept of civil partnerships as currently in force in the UK, France or Germany.

And it's not just a matter of law. A person's sexual habits really doesn't seem to bother anyone but a few Franco-nostalgics and, unlike Italy (where the very few LGBT bars stand a good chance of being set alight), all major Spanish cities are home to vibrant gay-friendly areas.

But that's not all. Recent years saw a bill on "express divorce" also passed, as well as more relaxed rules on contraceptives and abortion. In 2009, the morning-after-pill was made available over the counter without a doctor's prescription and, causing the Vatican more fits of hysteria, parental consent was abolished for girls aged 16 to 18 who choose to terminate a pregnancy.

However, like I said at the start, most Spaniards may not be particularly in favour of those measures, but they would certainly be against bans and restrictions. Not because of any ideologically inspired liberal inclination, but because most really seem to have interiorised the notion of "live and let live" and "it doesn't bother me" which, some may argue, is possibly the most quintessential form of tolerance (see this excellent link in English).


It would be difficult to dispute that the whole of the UK has come a long way in terms of social attitudes in the last few decades.

For a long time, Britain was home to the very singular contradiction of spawning the most aesthetically daring subcultures and youth movements in the Western world, from mods to glam rockers and from punks to goths, while still witnessing the most brutal episodes of violence and bullying against anyone daring to be different. Jarvis Cocker nailed it right on the head in the lyrics of Pulp's Mis-Shapes:

"Mis-shapes, mistakes, misfits, we'd like to go to town but we can't risk it
Oh 'cause they just want to keep us out.
You could end up with a smash in the mouth just for standing out, now really...

This is still partly true and not just in rural areas. Britain being by far the most aggressive place out of the four countries covered on this blog, there are still regular news reports of homophobic attacks or "ultraviolence" against anyone perceived to be different.

The cases from the last few years are countless, but one of the most shocking and most brutal was the murder in 2007 of Sophie Lancaster, a 21-year-old "goth" from Lancashire who was beaten to death (with her boyfriend also left severely injured) purely for looking "alternative".

Like Sophie's mother said, "The thing that makes me most angry is that it is seen as an isolated incident, maybe the seriousness of what happened to Sophie is isolated, but attacks are far from isolated. Just because you follow a different culture you are targeted; you are seen as easy pickings."

And so this is the thing. In my humble opinion, an open-minded Brit is possibly on average the most open-minded person on earth, but the trouble is there are still plenty of braindead dickheads who are so thick that would still quite happily get a criminal record just out of sheer intolerance for anyone who may look "a bit queer".

The battle for public opinion has clealry been won by those advocating tolerance. Just compared with ten years ago, when the country was still host to openly homophobic laws like Section 28, a majority of Brits are now in favour of same-sex marriages and an equal age of consent. However, homophobic crime is officially on the rise, and when episodes of homophobia take place, they are particularly vicious if not outright deadly (see this, this and this to get an idea) - in a way that you don't really see in most other Western European countries (with the exception of Italy, see above).

However, when it comes to stamping out homophobia, the British trend is certainly a positive one. Civil partnerships (though not marriages) were legalised in 2005 and, while only 25 years ago Conservative MPs would publicly declare "If you want a queer for neighbour, vote Labour", any such move would now end the career of any mainstream politician overnight. Witness the pathetic display of Tory grandees pretending that they never supported Section 28 (a 1989 law basically saying that homosexuality can be "learnt" hence schools should refrain from talking about it).

Similarly, for all the tons of bile spurted out by the troglodite press commonly known as the "tabloids", there are commendable compaigns underway to stamp out homophobia in football, anti-LGB bullying in schools and so on.

On to general behaviour and social attitudes, British society is certainly on the tolerant side of the spectrum when compared to most European counterparts.

Most people on the continent would remark upon seeing adults as well as people in managerial positions casually sporting tattoos or wearing earrings. Quite simply, the British are unlikely to judge people on the basis of such things.

As for abortion, UK legislation (up to 24 weeks, one of the most liberal in the world) would probably make the Vatican excommunicate anyone on British soil. Similarly, when it comes to contraception or sex education.

Frowning upon pre-marital sex is virtually confined to what are deemed the few "religious nuts" and, if anything - to put it plainly - "shagging around" is considered absolutely normal and virtually free of hang-ups and social constraints in a way that very few other Western cultures can even begin to comprehend.

I remember when I was at Uni, for instance, witnessing how the Erasmus people were marvelling (or despairing, in equal measure) at the totally "free" pulling politics as they take place amongst most of their peers from the UK.

Equally, however, the Brits also top leagues for sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), something which some observers put down to losing inhibition through copious boozing.


The Germans also score on the more liberal end of the spectrum. 

Now, while you should bear in mind that the southern region of Bavaria is considered, in common with Austria, a lot more conservative, on average the Germans share a lot more traits with the Dutch and the Scandinavians when it comes to social attitudes.

And so, for instance, the Germans are not particularly bothered by form or appearance, certainly not in any way comparable to Italy.

You will be blown away by the number of different subcultures on display, not just in clubs and venues, but also on the tube and on the street without anyone batting an eyelid. Club culture is massive and -intriguingly- so is the number of squats and buildings occupied by anarchists and "proto-punks" (for want of a better word) broadly tolerated by the authorities.

Equally, the country (especially big cities) is also generally tolerant towards same-sex couples or any life style that may be perceived outside "traditional" canons.

Civil partnerships were legalised by the Schröder government in 2001 and several federal states have since taken steps towards the end of any inequality between same-sex unions and heterosexual marriages. In particular, in the summer of 2011, the Senate of Hamburg presented a legislative initiative at Federal level (Bundesratsinitiative) to treat civil partnerships as equal to marriages - all of which is in line with every opinion poll showing the Germans' widespread liberal approach to the matter.

Abortion is one matter where Germany seems to be anchored to more traditionally religious approaches. While the old DDR legalised it first in 1972, when reunification took place in 1989, restrictions were placed including a cooling off period and a "reason of distress". Either way, abortion is currently not covered by public health insurance except for women on low income.

However, and this is to cover the Brits' most typical obsession when talking about anything German, it is worth taking into account what a staggering progress the country has made given where it was sixty years ago. Whereas Italy and Austria cannot say to have completely shed some of their ugliest bits, Germany has certainly managed it one hundred times over.



No comments:

Post a Comment

You're welcome to leave comments and contribute. Just don't be a loser and be civilised. Remember: it's not cool when your role models are Jon Gaunt, Jeremy Clarkson or any substandard tabloid hack.