Prayers for Tito Sen

Miguel Syjuco
I believe discussion is how we define, refine, and rethink our convictions, to grow into fuller human beings. I believe that when we engage, our communal knowledge grows.

I. Glory be

My lord, it’s been an interesting 3 weeks.

It started, as we all know, when Sen Tito Sotto was caught plagiarizing. News went viral and sides were taken. Criticism bloomed. Debate raged. And in our messy way, we all took part in discussing this visceral clash of convictions—each side faithful to seemingly irreconcilable strategies for the future of the country we love.

Good.

Public discourse of all angles and intensity is the heart of a free society. Woe is us if any voice is silenced simply because we disagree with it. Thank goodness for the Filipino Freethinkers, the Pinoy Templars, and everyone in between.

We may not have clogged Edsa from our desks, ousted a tyrant, or even passed legislation, but we made our presence felt—with memes as placards, retweets as chants, blogs replacing slogans, and articles shared on Facebook by the pamphleteers of our age. Somehow, we were heard. Some examples:

Sotto will likely take more care now in the speeches he gives the nation.

Senator Pia Cayetano was forced to amend her own unethical and illegal lack of citations, lest she be the pot calling the oregano green.

Senator Juan Ponce Enrile now sees the need for a law explicitly protecting bloggers.

Netizens showed the importance of an Internet free of restrictive regulation.

And a much-needed discussion of intellectual property rights has begun. While Sotto’s chief of staff, Hector Villacorta, insists no laws were broken, Justice Secretary Leila de Lima disagrees. She recently told The Philippine Star: “Plagiarism is actionable under Philippine laws. It may give rise to a criminal action under the Intellectual Property Code, which imposes imprisonment and fines as penalties for infringement of any right secured by provisions of the said code.”

Through these small increments, to our concerned criticism, our leaders are responding. They may still be delaying the RH Bill, but they know we’re watching. Whether we forced their hands or they saw the wisdom, it hardly matters. This is what we did. This is what we’re doing. This is a little bit glorious, don’t you think?

Sotto, however, still doesn’t get it. What a shame.

He’s painted himself as a victim of cyber-bullying. Slandered detractors by saying they’re funded by drug lords. Played the clichéd class-card. And even threatened his critics. According to The Philippine Star, Sotto warned: “Once the cybercrime bill is enacted into law, they will be accountable for what they say or write.” When asked if he wanted retribution, Sotto said: “Once the proper time comes, they will be accountable to God for all their criticisms.”

Really? In my lifetime learning from Christian Brothers and Jesuits, I don’t recall criticism ever being a sin. (Perhaps “Thou shalt not criticize” was among commandments 11 through 15, lost when Moses dropped the other tablet?)

Sotto has also railed against “professional faultfinders,” saying they “have nothing to do but sit in front of their computers and dig for faults, when their real target is the RH bill.” Even if that were true, it’s worrying that he considers it a bad thing.

Pointing out the faults and shortcomings of our leaders is laudable from an engaged citizenry. And focusing on the RH Bill is vital to the discussion we’re having about its suitability for our society.

If Sotto can’t speak about it with authority, we’re not to blame for calling him out.

Perhaps one day the senator will understand that when debate is suppressed, and critics silenced, that’s exactly when we should worry.

Until then, let’s keep asking tough questions, of ourselves and our leaders: Is plagiarism a big deal? Is the RH Bill good or bad? Are we a religious or secular nation? How can we make our politicians more accountable? Should we hide our country’s faults, or reveal them so they can be fixed?

We may never have the answers, but the questioning will always be the point. Now, and ever shall be.

II. Creed

I believe in free speech. I believe in conversation. I believe civil discourse is still the best way to learn from, and about, each other (through books, the media, senate speeches, homilies, dinner-table talk, kwentong barbero). I believe discussion is how we define, refine, and rethink our convictions, to grow into fuller human beings. I believe that when we engage, our communal knowledge grows.

I believe you believe these things, too.

This is why Leloy Claudio and I have challenged Sotto, and a bishop of his choosing, to a debate. Our offer is sincere. The senator says his points have not been responded to; we’d like to remedy that. The senator refuses to reply to points raised by the media; this is his chance to explain. (For example, what of the other two American writers who’ve complained about his plagiarism?) And if the senator thinks the issues bear more discussion before allowing voting, why not agree to this conversation? I’ll even bring the beer.

This is neither stunt nor attempt to embarrass. Trust me, I want to be there as much as Sotto does. I’m no teacher, senator, or priest—who have regular audiences upon which to sharpen their wits and tongues. I’m no master debater or cunning linguist. (Certainly not in public.) I’m just a dude with an old laptop, who’d rather be home, smoking a bowl with friends, or stalking chicks on Facebook.

Like everyone, I’m much more comfortable in my echo chambers, among the choir to which I preach.

But I’ve volunteered, not to try to win, but because I believe it’s important to discuss, understand, and learn. Discuss, because there are questions that deserve unpacking. Understand, because both sides interpret the issues differently. Learn, because it’s simplistic, lazy, and cowardly to only consider one’s own convictions. This, like our ongoing discussions online, is the simple point of the debate. If victory were its goal, then we’d all be losing, every one of us.

We’ve offered our invitation with this constructive spirit. Like with any polite conversation, the rules are simple: no mudslinging, no Senate immunity, no ad hominem attacks. The last is particularly important, because it’s so prevalent in our country’s public discourse. It’s an exclusionary tactic of those who don’t want you to be part of the conversation, because they’d rather not be challenged by your views. It’s picking up the ball, crying out “Fuck you!” and storming off the playground to make sumbong to your friends. In the inclusive, multi-faceted Philippines that we aspire to, it has no place.

This, sadly, happened recently, with the Pinoy Templars, in an article written by Reynaldo Saavedra. He accused me of being holier-than-thou, when I baldly own my concupiscence. He said I’m falsely pro-poor, when really I’m grandiosely pro-Filipino. He denigrated me as bourgeois, as if the luck of my birth proves the lack of my dedication. What’s more, he said I’m in cahoots with my father, who Saavedra claims is a proponent of the RH Bill; the truth is otherwise.

In fact, my parents and I disagree constantly. They’re devoutly Catholic, I’m zealously atheist. My father, as a congressman, believes his conscience, convictions, and constituents demand he oppose the RH Bill. My mother, as a woman, believes in the bill’s value. And while I’m against their politics, they’re not so thrilled by what I write.

These are the same sort of differences that have divided us as a nation. But in my family we’re somehow, to my surprise, able to talk about it, hear each other, agree to disagree. (And goodness knows we’re as dysfunctional as any other family.) This gives me hope.

Yet for a country so proud of family values, we can all be so blind to the most admirable value of families: the ability to accept each other despite our differences. Without such, families (and countries) break easily apart.

This is what I often forget to fight—this blinding division. As people with different (often opposite) roles in our nation, it’s tempting to seek refuge in what’s merely affirming. Today’s online culture offers unparalleled democratization of the grand conversation (with newspapers of one bias checked and balanced by blogs and news sites of opposite persuasion), yet somehow we still gravitate to what’s self-gratifying. I wrestle with that constantly.

Take, for example, this handy propensity to cast as propaganda those views that we dislike. Some say Rappler and BusinessWeek “mirror the media machine of the Nazis.” Others call the Pinoy Templars “bigoted” and “willfully ignorant.” This is merely the cheaper, weaker tendency of public discourse. I choose to believe, perhaps naively, that the worthy strength of art, journalism, and politics lies in how they help us learn what divides, so we can one day figure out what unites.

With this in mind, let’s try this: find that dear friend who disagrees with you, and sit down and speak frankly. Debate and discuss prickly issues with employees or colleagues, teachers and students, family and household. Try to see the other side. Recognize what makes them so sure of their convictions. Convey, as calmly as you can, what makes you so sure of yours. We’ll never agree, but we may understand.

There’s immeasurable value in this.

I believe you believe this, too—however easily that faith is forgotten amid the anger and the shouting. The thing is, we don’t have to look far to be reminded: This ideal that we can live together reasonably in this world is enshrined in constitutions, inscribed in holy books, studied in history, taught in schools, theorized in coffee shops, written in manifestos, and transmitted, here and there, across the Internet.

It may be hard to achieve, but it’s not that hard to believe.

III. Contrition

Mo st critics of Sotto agree that his greatest sin is his lack of accountability. Again and again, he refused to say sorry. One blogger, Timi Stoop-Alcala, elegantly illustrated, in a decision tree, the many opportunities the senator had to rectify and apologize.

Through every step, the frustrating questions have always been: Can’t Sotto hear us? Why is he still acting this way? We want contrition, but would even settle for an act.

Personally, I’d like to give him the benefit of the doubt that he loves our country as we do, just as many in our country do love him. Perhaps that’s why he feels he doesn’t need to apologize, because “love means never having to say you’re sorry.” But Mr Sotto, that’s just not true.

However, from any bad example the good example is reflected. We find wisdom where we can.

I now realize that by parodically highlighting the contempt displayed by Sotto and Villacorta, I contemptuously matched their shortcomings and excesses with my own. I mimicked their mocking attitude and called them names to make a point, not realizing they’d already made the point so well themselves.

So in the spirit of peace and understanding, and in hope for a civil debate, I offer this sincerely:

Oh my senator, I am heartily sorry for having offended thee, and I detest all my sins because I dread the loss of proper discourse … I firmly resolve, if you do as well, to sin no more, and be accountable for what sins I may commit.

That wasn’t so hard, actually. Nobody even asked me to do it.

Mr Sotto, as our senator, perhaps you can finally do the same. It’s all we’ve ever asked.

Amen. – Rappler.com

(The author is a freelance writer. He has written for the New York Times, the International Herald Tribune, the Globe & Mail, the CBC, and various international publications. His critically acclaimed novel Ilustrado earned the Palanca Award and the Man Asian Literary Prize in 2008, and was a New York Times Notable Book of 2010, among other accolades.)

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