[OPINION] The politics of dissent

Jovito V. Cariño
[OPINION] The politics of dissent
'Some would say this fear of the Anti-Terrorism Bill of 2020 is hypothetical as it is imaginary. There is nothing hypothetical or imaginary though with the story we have seen the last 4 years.'

I was already tempted to shelve this piece, aware that by this time, a huge number of articles against the proposed Anti-Terrorism Bill of 2020 have already flooded various print and online publications. Realizing on second thought, however, that an expression of dissent, written or otherwise, is as good only as the size of its member voices, I hazard to throw in my two cents into the mounting public outcry against the controversial legislation.   

It appears that the critiques against the bill come in different shapes. Some critiques, the ones I call popular, emerge organically and instantly, riding on the wave of the public uproar against the bill with a little push from celebrity influencers and the pervasive conditioning of social media. The rejection of the bill at this level is almost knee-jerk but thanks to its popular base, it spreads like wildfire, creates traction, and generates public interest. 

The next kind of critique, which I call legal, calls for the re-examination or amendment of the infirm provisions of the bill but does not reject it in toto or outright. For those who espouse this critique, the problems found in the Anti-Terrorism Bill of 2020 are purely legal by nature and, like all legal matters, are best left to the legal minds to resolve. (READ: [OPINION] Martial rule without martial law: An anti-terror bill subtext)

The third kind of critique, the one I label academic, opposes the bill but does not call into question the political culture that gave it its shape. Proponents of this critique are ready to anathemize the bill but, at the same time, are ambivalent whether or not to reject the political and ideological foundations from which the bill derived its notorious chilling effect.

The fourth kind of critique I call political since it is the one that links the contrary stance against the bill to an explicit dissent from the politics that gives birth to it. The advocates of political critique read the texts of the Anti-Terrorism Bill of 2020 as mere flexing of power by those who currently holds the reins of government which both local and global observers have described as authoritarian. While it is possible to think of law as politically neutral, that is, invulnerable to partisan politics (as in the case of Aquinas’ theory of law), this has not been the case among various authoritarian regimes across the world. In their hands, the law has become either a weapon or a shield, depending on the nature of political exigency. The dissenting sentiments felt by them who lean towards political critique stem from their deeper sense of discontent over, to use Adorno’s phrase, the current “wrong state of things.” (READ: [OPINION] Don’t pass the anti-terror bill; legalize the Communist party instead)

There could be, in other words, different ways of reading the Anti-Terrorism Bill of 2020 and the list could be longer and better than the random classification above. No one is saying one reading should get a better hearing than the other. What is important is that all these variants are allowed free play within the normative boundaries of our democratic space. The spontaneous circulation of ideas, free from any coercion or manipulation, is a necessary requisite of a functional and healthy democracy. As long as citizens can engage each other and allow their views to be challenged or examined by their fellows, there is a good chance that, along the way, they would be better attuned to where they really stand in relation to the larger context of their citizenship. 

It goes without saying that an articulate citizenry, that is, citizens disposed to negotiate and deliberate on their political views and fundamental choices, is indispensable if the ends of democracy are to be secured and achieved. These days however, our increasing dependence on social media has led many to believe that mere digital presence can qualify as surrogate of a human activity like politics which requires actual, personal, and tactile interaction among people. When Aristotle described human persons as political animals, he had in mind individuals actively engaged in cooperative projects and who counted themselves as invested participants of common pursuits. Someone whose idea of political action is limited to the placing of emojis or posting of pontificating comments certainly will not qualify as political in Aristotle’s sense of the word. (READ: Makati lawmaker blocks Facebook messages on anti-terror bill vote)

On occasion, these political activities could be disruptive especially when the balance of power tilts in favor of the political leadership at the expense of them who are the main bearers of political authority:  the people themselves. The passage of Anti-Terrorism Bill of 2020 invites this kind of agitation given its potential prohibitive impact on the citizens’ propensity and ability to dissent. When the bill is signed into law, any register of opposition will have to be weighed not against its own merit but against the will of the powers that be. It is possible hence for a tweet or an Instagram post to get one in conflict with the law if its content is deemed by the government, via the Anti-Terrorism Council, as inciting to terrorism.

Just the thought of a citizen’s natural function like dissent can be criminalized and can lead to one’s prosecution and ultimately, incarceration is frightening enough, so frightening that certain sectors would rather not raise a howl against it  or if they did, it would be in pronouncements that range from bland to blunt so as not to ruffle the feathers of the guardians of the State. Ironically, the bill intended to preempt the spread of terror has now become the mother of terror gripping the country.

Some would say this fear of the Anti-Terrorism Bill of 2020 is hypothetical as it is imaginary. There is nothing hypothetical or imaginary though with the story we have seen the last 4 years:  the culture of impunity, selective justice, summary killings, perversion of sovereignty, series of incompetence, vindictive politics. They are all on record, documented by reports of media organizations and various watchdogs. These are the tales of the change that was promised but not delivered, tales that make the Anti-Terrorism Bill of 2020 such a scary specter.  

 I do hope I am wrong but until proven otherwise, I prefer to dissent. – Rappler.com

Jovito V. Cariño is a member of the Department of Philosophy, University of Santo Tomas.