Sacred cows: #AlDub, Heneral Luna, and the fear of criticism

It seems that Filipinos’ attention online is divided between two phenomena: #AlDub, the heavily orchestrated, un(?)requited love story played out between living Ken doll Alden Richards and Lucille Ball protegee Maine Mendoza; and Heneral Luna, the Little War Movie that Could, the film that sparked nationalistic fervor, birthed armchair historians, and convinced droves of the upper middle class to watch a local movie out in public.   

And the clamor makes perfect sense. The tension-filled, cocktease-type way Eat Bulaga choreographed the #AlDub story can be very addicting; and Heneral Luna’s blunt, unapologetic take on how Filipinos have been screwing each other over from the beginning is absolutely delicious to a people that need to feel justified for feeling bitter about their own country. Both are indulgent. Both are triumphs of viral marketing. The people behind them deserve to pat themselves on the back. 

However, there is another, more worrying thing these two have in common: they have become sacred cows. Tweet something bad about #AlDub and prepare for online annihilation by hundreds, if not thousands, of young folks brandishing lengthy hashtags like weapons. Write a less than sparkling critique of Heneral Luna on Facebook and expect to be accused of a) not being smart enough, b) not being pro-Filipino enough, and/or c) being anti-mainstream for its own sake/pa-cool/hipster hipster.

From fans to fanatics

True, the touchiness of some #AlDub fans may be par for the course at this point. Filipinos have long been hashtag brigadiers for many showbiz tandems, from #KathNiel to #DongYan, and have made Twitter’s trending topic box their sports arena of choice. 

But the level of some #AlDub fans’ self-absorption is still alarming, as in the case of Lea Salonga. The Broadway star's vague tweet on shallowness, devoid of any #AlDub reference, led to tons of #AlDub fans barraging her with snippy retorts. It’s one thing to get mad at direct criticism, and it’s another thing to assume the worst in people and attack them since everyone else is attacking. 

What this paranoia reveals is a very unhealthy aversion not just to differing opinions, but to the mere act of voicing these differing opinions. Salonga didn’t even mention #AlDub and already people were intent on letting her know that speaking anything remotely ill of their beloved couple was hurtful, was a damper on their happiness, was a clear infringement of their human rights. How dare she make thickly veiled passive aggressive vagaries…supposedly! If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all!

The Luna police state 

The Heneral Luna phenomenon is a little more interesting (and unnerving) to observe. For a film that centered on a man who stood up for what he believed in, a film that vilified people who readily murdered anyone who didn’t agree with them, it’s the ultimate irony that a lot of its fanbase gets very, very salty when they come across any talk of the film’s weaknesses, or do not wholly agree with the film’s brand of nationalism.

For the most part, the heart of the rabid Heneral Luna fan is in the right place. They want a better country, so they hope to get more people to watch this film so that they too can get incensed enough to incite change, whether on a personal or a national scale. The problem is that in some cases, this desire to get people to watch is also paired with the desire to prevent any discouraging talk that may counter their advocacy. 

This kind of activism could work if, say, the talk they’re countering is factually, unequivocally wrong. The Heneral Luna fans' battlefield, however, is mainly in the realm of opinion, and they are treating the opinions they don’t agree with as if they were bombs in need of diffusing. 

Yes, it’s true that some opinions can be dangerous (e.g. vaccination causes autism; artificial contraceptives cause cancer), but the question of nationalism that Heneral Luna revolves around, among many other themes, is something far more complex and abstract, a mixed bag that includes culture and history and politics and philosophy – all of which is always up for discussion. 

And it goes without saying that questioning the film's more technical aspects – dialogue, direction, plot, cinematography, etc – should also be freely done. (Come on, people! It's a film! Anyone should be free to criticize art! More to the point, anyone should be free to critcize anything!)

In other words, Heneral Luna – the film proper and its impact – can certainly be up for debate. You should police medical malpractice, but you shouldn’t police people for saying what they didn’t like about a movie.

In fact, a friend recently mentioned that he was afraid of posting about Heneral Luna on his Facebook timeline for fear of getting cyberbullied, and this thinking is not limited to him. Is this what progress looks like? Is the stifling of speech the price we have to pay to get people passionate about our country? 

Yes, Heneral Luna was a hard-ass, and using him to encourage others to be committed to what they believe in can be effective, but just because the film's protagonist was an unapologetic asshole still doesn’t give you license to be hateful and self-righteous.

Forever hold your peace?

All in all, this “you’re either with us or against us” attitude prevalent in both cases is troublesome. Ultimately, it grossly discourages others from expressing themselves. It creates a mindset where it would be far better off not to speak up if your opinion isn’t like everyone else’s. And in case you needed reminding, that is never a good thing. 

It’s honestly a little painful to have to write this essay, to feel compeled to explain something as basic as why it’s wrong to stifle different opinions. It’s also frightening to realize, especially in the case of Heneral Luna, how easy it is for people who are otherwise quite familiar with the intricacies of discourse to suddenly reduce themselves to cyberbullies. When has anything ever been strictly black and white? When has any phenomenon ever lacked in differing perspectives? When has it ever been healthy to rabidly insist on your opinion at the expense of someone else’s? 

Yes, it is natural to feel affronted hearing something negative about something you love. Part of loving something is feeling the need to protect it. But then again, if you truly love something, you’d also be confident enough to know that mere criticism wouldn't change how you feel. 

If you’re so afraid of criticism that you would go out of your way to call these critics stupid, or heartless, or selfish; or strongly chastise the website or paper that published the critique for giving that critic an outlet, then doesn’t that say much more about you than it does about them? Fear is borne out of insecurity. If you’re truly secure about your passions, then why not counter criticism with solid arguments instead of bullying and ridicule? 

Speak up, I can’t hear you

Admittedly, #AlDub and Heneral Luna are just the latest examples of the Filipinos’ childish struggle with criticism. From Pope Francis, to Manny Pacquiao, to whoever we’re voting for in 2016, we are a people who just love having sacred cows. Is it our constant need to have a savior instead of saving ourselves? Is it our tendency to handle our pride with kid gloves? Whatever the reason is, it’s evident that ending this habit will be good for us.

Filipinos keep complaining that we’re too complacent, that our country is going nowhere, that our history keeps repeating itself. That’s partly because we keep having the same conversations. We keep building echo chambers out of reinforced steel. And should there be a new topic to talk about, it only becomes valid if the opinion on it is one and the same.

The first step in progress is communication, in allowing for everyone to respectfully discuss a matter, and not shut down unfamiliar opinions. If we’re not brave enough to hear something we don’t want to hear, how can we be brave enough to change our lives for the better? If we can’t stomach our opinions getting shaken up, how can we stomach our world getting shaken up? Because one thing’s for certain: the path to a better Philippines is going to be hard and tortuous. Your comfort zone will have to be obliterated. Progress is not convenient. But stagnation is. 

Yes, it feels really good to belong to a large, self-congratulatory group. And it also feels good to defend that group; it creates a satisfying sense of purpose. But it’s when you try to scare people off from saying what they think that the line needs to be drawn. You need to ask yourself: Is your cow truly sacred, or is it your comfort and pride that you’ve placed on the altar? – Rappler.com

Marguerite de Leon

Marguerite Alcazaren de Leon heads Rappler’s Opinion section, and is (happily) wrangled into voice over and hosting work. She has been with Rappler since 2013, and also served as its social media producer for 6 years. She is also a fictionist.

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