A dysfunctional society

In an age when people measure their success in life by how many likes they get on Facebook, one-third of us do not even have what we would call a really close friend.

I was struck by the recent succession of stories reported in the media which made me think what a dysfunctional society we have become.  True to the meaning of the word, the reported events inhibited the social system of the country and disrupted its normal working, contributing negatively to the maintenance of a harmonious society.

Filming up her skirt

A man was reported as having filmed up the skirt of an unsuspecting woman at the Valletta bus terminus.  He was caught in the act carrying a camera in his bag with which he filmed the tourist concerned when he came close to her. He was sentenced to probation and ordered to undergo treatment for behavioural problems.  It seems this was the first time he had done this, but I ask myself what impelled the sprayer to indulge in this amateurish voyeurism. 

Of course, in terms of sociology, voyeurism is largely a male activity normally associated with somebody who is socially inadequate and who is aroused by observing another person’s sex organs.  The man concerned is by no means unique.  A study in the UK estimated that between 35 and 47 percent of the population, mostly men, have an interest in performing an act of voyeurism.  It can be a rather short step from indulging in voyeurism to other more serious sexual disorders.

Some might think that it’s a bit of fun or a prank.  The truth is that voyeurism is a mental health disorder that has consequences both for the perpetrator and the victim. It is, of course, just another type of sexual abuse and can be as damaging as abusive physical contact.  It is also a profound indication of sexual entitlement in the mind of the perpetrator.  The victim, on the other hand, can suffer considerable shame and emotional stress.

In terms of societal action, public education and sex education in schools should specifically address compassion for the trauma of victims, safety behaviour, and articulating the lifetime consequences for perpetrators. 

Son threatens father

The second story I read was that of a 77-year-old man who had had enough of his son’s encounters with the arm of the law.  Having bailed out his son several times, the elderly man was now afraid that he and his wife would suffer physical abuse, particularly when the son threatened to break all his bones.  This not-so-attractive son had apparently terrorised his own partner two years previously.

The son is another example of somebody who badly needs help.  Sending him to prison – because that is what our so-called ‘correctional facility’ is – is not enough.  Of course, his parents too need help, because it is widely acknowledged that physical and mental abuse makes people feel helpless and isolated, apart from making them prone to numerous pathological conditions, such as depression, eating disorders, and anxiety.

Angry neighbour turns violent

The third story was that of a man who was struck by an iron bar wielded by a neighbour who had blocked the man’s garage.  The perpetrator, a tow-truck driver, was not content with hitting the man with the truck’s hydraulic jack; he even attempted to run him over.  It seems that asking somebody politely to move something that obstructs one’s garage is an affront.

Now, as if that were not enough, one of the tow-truck driver’s family members called the magistrate hearing the case in an attempt to plead with him or possibly influence him.  It seems that some people are not happy with just committing one crime, but must compound the original one with another, equally serious one.

The story shows the extent of anger in Maltese society.  A Gallup poll conducted recently showed that a quarter of us experience anger at some point or regularly.  In fact, it seems that we are the angriest people in the whole EU.  I don’t find any consolation in the finding that we share this high rate with Poland.  By the way, the same poll showed that a whopping 64 percent us worry about something at some point in the day.  This makes us stand out against the more care-free Scandinavians, but even Portuguese.

Again, sociologically, experts would tell you that anger can have significant social and emotional costs.  Hostile, angry people are less likely to have healthy supportive relationships than are less hostile people.  This anger – in homes, at schools, at workplaces, at beaches – affects people’s health, self-esteem, and productivity.  It often leads to undesirable behaviours such as road rage, domestic violence, child abuse, physical assault, and even murder.

Victim of a fake Romeo

The fourth story related to a woman who confessed that she had lost €75,000 in a scam when the 60-year-old divorcee gave away her life savings to “the man of her dreams”.  This Romeo convinced her, through a relationship conducted entirely on Whatsapp, that she was the proverbial Juliet if only she would send him money to tide him over some temporary difficulties while he waited with bated breath to meet her and romance her off her feet.  

Again, what struck me in the report was the revelation that in the last five years the Police have come across scams where 37 victims were defrauded of just under €1 million between them.  The incidence of such scams has almost doubled in the past two years.

The unnamed victim in the story is just one of thousands suffering from a social epidemic of loneliness.  Research by the Faculty for Social Wellbeing at the University found that 55 percent of us feel lonely, a big increase on the number just three years ago.  This sense of emptiness is not helped by the fact that many people feel they have nobody to lean on when they encounter problems.  In an age when people measure their success in life by how many likes they get on Facebook, one-third of us do not even have what we would call a really close friend.

This is another social problem that affects both physical and mental health.  Because it is not about being alone, but about feeling alone and isolated.  Loneliness is linked to social isolation, poor social skills, introversion, and depression.  Many sociologists would tell you that it is also a by-product of individualism – that feature of modern life which distinguishes us from our predecessors.

Playing dead

The final story concerned a number of ‘dead’ people found on the steps of Castille, all holding posters that said the Prime Minister had “blood on his hands”.   They turned out to be activists who were very much alive but playing dead. When I read the headline, I thought the reference was to the poor Daphne Caruana Galizia, whose assassination was being remembered last week.  But, no, it was another protest against illegal hunting.

Now that, at least, was an action with which I sympathised.  I am not aware that Robert Abela is a hunter and has been killing birds, but I can understand that the Birdlife activists would blame him for allowing illegal hunting.  After all, as Prime Minister, he carries the ultimate buck for all our ills.  But appeasing the hunting lobby is not just Robert Abela’s doing, since most politicians across the board butter the hands of hunters.  Offending hunters, of course, would surely invite retaliatory action of the worst type, not necessarily physical, but surely just as effective – losing votes in an election.

In this case, the story might be interpreted as showing the altruism of some people who would not want even a single bird being hurt, let alone running over a neighbour by one’s tow-truck or breaking one’s parents’ bones.   

Deep social problems

However, all these other stories attest to the deep social problems we have in the country – problems that are not addressed by the highest-growing GDP in the European Union.  On the contrary, some sociologists might reasonably argue that that same high economic growth is making things worse.  They might well have a point, given that 30 per cent of us are concerned about our mental well-being and that an unbelievable 17 per cent of our children suffer from depression, when they are supposed to be enjoying the happy-go-lucky days of childhood.

Photo credit: Arifur Rahman Tushar

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