[Bodymind] Where's the impartiality, Senator Osmeña?

Dear Senator Osmeña:

The Senate admittedly has its own idiosyncratic customs and practices which can often render its proceedings unintelligible to average citizens like me. However, would you agree that it is reasonable to expect that any hearing be based on normal standards of transparency and truth (at least, in the most accurate version of it as is humanly possible)?

Because, boy oh boy, Senator Osmeña, you sure behaved recently as if you disagreed.

I am referring to the first hearing of the Committee On Education, Arts And Culture held Tuesday, May 20, 2015, to discuss Senate Bill 2147, entitled, "An Act Recognizing The British School Manila," sponsored by Senators Trillanes, Pia Cayetano, and Loren Legarda.

I am not saying the above hearing could not legitimately consider the facts surrounding Liam Madamba’s suicide, but did you purposely want it to descend into a circus of partiality and lack of transparency of purpose, or was this just a function of incompetence since you were only the acting chairman of the committee?

For example, you allowed Senator Bongbong Marcos to interrupt, badger, and insult Mr Rod D. Peñalosa who, if he had been allowed to continue his testimony, would have been far better trained and far more experienced than Mrs Trixie Madamba to speak about the whys and wherefores of suicide. Mr Peñalosa is a mental health professional who has worked as a counselor in at least two schools. He was willing to share his clinical experience of the students he had worked with. (READ: Suicide: A note to every Filipino)

I cannot understand why you behaved as if Mrs Madamba’s testimony were more important and more deserving of uncritical acceptance than Mr Peñalosa’s.

I have no doubt that Mrs Madamba loved and loves her late son, but she understandably tends to see everything through the prism of her own sorrow. However, in such fraught circumstances, it becomes doubly important to attempt to discern the truth that lies beyond the inevitable emotion, the truth that is to be found in fact-based, scientifically sound evidence.

For this reason, I cannot help being disappointed that you, as acting chairman of such an august body, would allow respected members of the mental health community to be treated as terribly as Senator Marcos treated Mr Peñalosa, a professional far more qualified to talk about the completed suicides, attempted suicides, suicide ideation correlating to a teacher’s behavior and/or a student’s personality – unlike Mrs Madamba who can claim only anecdotal experience of dealing with her children.

In addition, a mother’s experience of dealing with her children is not a guarantee that she knows how her son behaves and comes across when not with her. There are many mothers who have no clue that teenagers – even her very own children – behave differently with different people, and mothers who think their children behave outside the house the same way they do inside are quite often simply in denial.

But it was not only Senator Marcos who behaved shamefully, which I shall discuss in a later column.

Today I will focus merely on two examples of your own questionable behavior:

Example 1: You accepted everything Mrs Madamba presented at face value. You did not question, attempt to qualify or further explain to those present at the hearing anything Mrs Madamba said. It’s almost as if the script had been agreed even before the hearing started, including a slide tape presentation of Mrs Madamba’s points (this makes your refusal to read out Issabella’s prepared statement during the second hearing an even more glaring example of the preferential treatment you gave Mrs Madamba).

Mrs Madamba shared: “There is a research professor in America and her name is Dr Brene Brown. She maintains that shame, which she defines as the intensely painful feeling that we are unworthy of love and belonging, is lethal and it can happen in an instant. She says that the cure for shame is to show empathy, to take the student's perspective, stay out of judgment and connect with people on what they are feeling.”

Your unconditional and unquestioning acceptance of this single study, by an American researcher based on American student behavior in an American academic environment, seems utterly dismissive of the possibility that there might be any other research at all, much less research resulting in different conclusions.

It also reflects an attitude akin to a colonialist mentality, suggesting that Filipino students brought up with Filipino values behave no differently from their American peers. There appears no room in your world view for Asian values, Filipino identity, and all the other characteristics that distinguish us as a race from Americans.

You then allowed Mrs Madamba to crucify Ms Natalie Mann and pinpoint her behavior as the reason Liam committed suicide. Where is the proof of that? More extensive studies, more in-depth interviews, and perhaps the testimony of an expert and scholar who has knowledge of students in the Philippines should carry more weight than a snippet of information purported to come from Dr Brown. (READ: Family of fallen BSM student mulls charges vs teacher)

You gave Mrs Madamba so much slack so she could share her pain and Liam’s as yet unproven trauma experienced in the hands of Ms Mann, yet you did not extend the same courtesy yourself, or require it of other senators, when questioning Mr Peñalosa or Mr Simon Mann, who soldiered on despite your antics.

By the way, your attempts at humor, saying, “The Committee will take Mr Bautista’s presence as a hostile witness” (page 54) or even “Please stay there because we will refer to you and the Committee will pay your legal fees if you answer in our favor (page 57)" do nothing to compensate. In fact, if I were Freudian, I might even hypothesize that they were further proof of your bias. I am also curious what your reaction might have been if Messrs Mann or Bewlay had attempted such tepid jokes.

You may claim that Mrs Madamba is the victim here, given what she has lost.

I have two answers to that:

Answer 1: Yes, compassion and mercy are much desired, perhaps especially when meting out sentences. BUT, impartiality and transparency, when determining who really is at fault for Liam’s suicide, are far more important.

A digression: I personally feel assigning blame is not helpful to anyone

However, using Mrs Madamba’s grief as reason to be more partial, more gentle to her and to behave like a pitbull when questioning or responding to statements by Mr Mann, Mr Peñalosa etc, is not seemly…unless you want the Senate to become even more like Maalaala mo Kaya and other teleseryes that treat the victim as always righteous and victorious in the end. (READ: More lessons from plagiarism and suicide)

Answer 2: Even if we descend to your level and focus on victimhood, it boggles the mind that you cannot see that it is not only Mrs Madamba who is the victim in this sorry situation.

Other victims include:

Mrs Margaret Ver who has been misrepresented as a violent mother for slapping her daughter (page 66). Mrs Ver told me in 3 successive interviews that she did not slap her daughter. She is willing to be questioned about this and about any other aspect of Liam’s suicide you choose in any arena you choose; that is, another hearing, a Q and A, or the glare of media the way others have done.

Another victim is Issabella Ver. On (page 95), you say: “Now those are commonalities – both kids (referring to Liam and Issabella) became hysteric or hysterical.” She too is willing to testify in any arena you choose about this and about any other aspect of Liam’s suicide.

It is shocking that you admitted Issabella’s private email to Mrs Madamba as the sole evidence for concluding that Issabella behaved hysterically. First of all, I read the email and Issabella never described herself as hysterical or, indeed, used the word at all.

Secondly, one of the major reasons Issabella emailed the Madambas was because Mrs Madamba asked her to do so. Issabella says that she wrote the email that way because she “was driven by strong emotions and it's what I felt at that time.” She also feels that for Mrs Madamba and you to publish that “private email was intrusive and allowed me to be represented as someone who cannot change and be rational about something that tragic.”

(Note: Issabella wrote a more rational but accurate report of what happened on February 6. It was handed to you during that second hearing but you refused to have it read out loud.)

In addition, she wanted to comfort Liam’s parents. This perhaps shows how people – and who knows, maybe even teenagers – sometimes use words with more drama to describe their feelings. Sometimes this is done to comfort another as Issabella did; sometimes it may be done to convince a teacher that someone feels more badly about plagiarizing than he actually does.

In both cases, it is not a desire to tell the truth but a desire to please the reader that drives the choice of language. That is why taking Issabella's email out of context and without further enquiry can lead to a total misconception of the truth.

I would have thought a Senate hearing wouldn’t simply accept what one witness said as gospel, but would investigate the background, the context, and get the views of other people. Otherwise, why not dispense with the hearing and just get newspaper clippings, tweets and Facebook postings?

It is now my turn to be an itty-bitty bit biased. So be it. This is an opinion column and not a Senate hearing.

Next year is a particularly important election because that is when we vote for our next president. Surely a senator running for Congress or endorsing a presidential candidate will get much more media play if they can generate "sexy" headlines/stories in which they star.

Senator Osmeña, helping a poor defenseless mother inconsolable over the suicide of her child plays much better to the crowd than being the impartial chairman at the hearing of Senate Bill No 2147. Even more so if said Senator Osmeña puts arrogant Brits in their place rather than merely allows someone to read out Issabella Ver’s statement which presents an alternative narrative to Mrs Madamba's.

I can give other examples of your shameless pandering to Mrs Madamba, but I am hoping, however, that the examples above are sufficient to make you feel the need to explain why on earth you behaved like Mrs Madamba’s ambulance chaser rather than the evenhanded (acting) chair of the Committee of Education, Arts and Culture as you were supposed to be? – Rappler.com