Constructive conversations in the time of Duterte
“The Philippines is deeply divided. One only needs to read the comments on online news articles and social media posts to realize this.”
This sums up the sentiments I often hear from some friends. Is this something new? This seems inevitable in a country with acute poverty and inequality. Fragmentation has been part of our history. But where does the discomfort come from? Why do people suddenly sound so affected?
Perhaps, the anxiety stems from the intensity and multiple expressions by which social polarization is played out every single day. Beyond the usual statistical analyses of socio-economic inequalities, fragmentation has become very intrusive.
One wakes up to emotionally-charged memes conferring one Senator or the President with new labels, which fuel the defensive mood, if not anger, of those who embrace these leaders and the values they represent. That some materials are a product of sheer malice devoid of any factual basis conflates the already spiteful atmosphere. In this situation, how does one convince fellow netizens that online propaganda confuses rather than sheds light on critical issues?
Even the complex drug problems and human rights (HR) violations have created a polarizing situation. HR advocates have gained a caricature status as defenders of criminal activities despite repeated efforts to explain that a person can respect human rights and still be against the systemic drug trading.
This is probably an unavoidable offshoot of a policy model that equates radical change to quick-fix solutions, which ignore our sense of social responsibility for fellow human beings. But the tendency to espouse this perceived bold approach is not something that has come out of nowhere.
Failed by the rhetoric of elitist democracy, many people now feel trapped in two contrasting images that the President has effectively shaped.
One scenario is that of a chaotic life run by society's powerful bullies (drug pushers, oligarchs, criminals) and regulated by feeble state institutions.
The other portrait is an orderly society governed by a supposedly strong state - with obedient citizenry, free of criminals and drug addicts whose human rights are dispensable.
What many people overlook is that in this second idealized situation the state can become the single most powerful bully that is able to deprive its citizens of the most fundamental of human rights - the right to life.
Obviously, the reality is more complicated than this projected dichotomy. Yet, even among those who offer explanations, a dismissive tone frames the narratives. Some analyses express how the political energies of Duterte adherents are informed by flawed vision or distorted political agency.
However, we witnessed how, during the campaign period, grassroots organizations and individuals in poor communities pooled their resources together to produce tarpaulins for Duterte. This showed the level of investment that they put in his candidacy.
After the elections, it was unsurprising to witness the jubilation among those who worked hard for President Duterte to win. There seems to be a renewed optimism among those who are able to associate themselves with Digong; among those who have felt marginalized and muted by decades of elitist ‘imperial Manila’ rule.
At this point, it is important to acknowledge this euphoria, and probably the fleeting sense of empowerment, expressed by many Filipinos. We need to understand what animates the collective zeal and how it can lead to more productive conversations.
Recognizing this enthusiasm, however, does not mean giving up on the importance of articulating contrary views on extra-judicial killings and other policy issues. After all, principled opposition is vital in our fragile democracy. (READ: #NoPlaceForHate: Change comes to Rappler's comments thread)
Unless we are able to constructively engage with fellow netizens many of us would most likely remain vulnerable to demagogues who peddle black-and-white views about our intricate political conditions.
“But how do we deal with the bullying tendencies of Duterte’s overzealous allies?” I was once asked.
Engaging with President Duterte’s followers is no easy task especially for those who consider their arguments as naïve or fallacious.
“A lot of Duterte fans resort to ad hominem attacks”.
This is a usual complain from people who criticize his supporters. However, online statements require some contextualizing in the larger social milieu.
At a time when paid professional trolls can dominate the social media, people with vested political interests readily sow confusion and create mass hysteria around certain issues and personalities. Every netizen has to be more critical of the information being received and shared through personal online platforms.
Being a reflective netizen also entails seeing online comments as a mediated public engagement. To an extent, there is a class dimension to how some people appropriate the cyberspace. One writer even noted a statement from a Facebook user during the campaign period, which illustrates a class-oriented angst.
“You know what, you cannot understand us. You cannot understand poor people because you're elite. You cannot understand...why we keep on bashing Mar and LP and Binay. Hey, it's all we can do. We don't have any weapon against your money or guns that's why we resort to cyberbullying. Para kahit papaano, makabawi kami.”
Yes, some individuals see cyber bashing as a conscious political act. We rarely see it that way. If and when we do, we tend to dismiss the hidden emotions and focus on the rants.
Perhaps, part of the challenge arises from the need to reflect on how our own ways of knowing and responding either facilitate or undermine an open and meaningful communication. Unless we are able to constructively engage with fellow netizens many of us would most likely remain vulnerable to demagogues who peddle black-and-white views about our intricate political conditions. (READ: Social media user react to #NoPlaceForHate campaign)
The social scientist Andrew Sayer explains the importance of treating humans as sentient beings. For him, this not only urges us to interrogate people’s capacity to act but to gaze at their vulnerabilities as emotional beings.
To understand someone, Sayer argues, is not necessarily to agree with her or him. In our diverse country, the effort to understand someone goes beyond discussing the (in)ability of one person to reason out or offer an intelligent opinion. It compels us to examine how our divergent ways of knowing are situated in a highly inequitable society with complex power relations. It entails rediscovering the sentiments and hopes that we share with the individuals we normally call "Dutertards" or "Yellowtards".
In revisiting our shared aspirations, it is crucial to intently listen to what others have to say. In the process, we ought to recognize the limits of social media and explore other spaces for constructive conversations. As we unmask the destructive character of online bullies and nameless trolls, we also need to analyze how the traditional media and other avenues can generate common goals or further intensify polarization.
Ultimately, President Duterte has a huge role in addressing the deepening polarization and in creating an environment where everyone feels welcome to express dissenting opinions. One can only hope that the President and his devoted allies realize that in democracy, governing demands a lot of listening to the varied voices in our unequal society. – Rappler.com
Redentor Recio is currently pursuing a research on development planning and governance in contested urban spaces.
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