1. Denying Discourse

    There are a number of traits inherent in Senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago’s worldview that I object to; among them her denouncing of any belief contrary to hers and her proclivity for hate-mongering and insult-laden ranting. The impeachment trial has brought her many faults into sharp-focus, at least for those who look past the inherent entertainment value of her screeds and weigh the value of the content.

    If anything Senator Santiago has fully embraced her role as the loose canon of the Senate, and the Impeachment Court; playing and pandering to the less introspective elements of society, obscuring whatever intelligent and incisive commentary she has amid a cascade of blithering, blathering, and bombastic pronouncements. She has, in fact, become a court jester, a sad figure who relies on the volume and cadence of her voice to attract attention, rather than the probity of her opinions. Sad, because she offers a valuable viewpoint to the proceedings and public discourse at large.

    One of my favorite 20th century thinkers was Tony Judt, a man who lamented the deplorable levels to which public discourse has fallen in the West. Unfortunately, we in the East (and especially the Philippines) too often adopt the less admirable qualities of Western democratic discourse. We have a discursive problem, one that Judt described as, "Our discursive disability: we simply do not know how to talk about things anymore." While he was referring to our proclivity to reduce any discussion into economic components, the guiding idea remains the same: We are no longer capable of discussing. Our culture has become one where we are talking on differing levels, with different foundations for opinions, and with conceits that inform the idea that “I am right and everyone else is wrong.” The sense of self-righteous superiority that fills the air can become oppressive. People talk at length, but say little. We are not longer strangers passing in the night, we are strangers shouting to the side, failing to listen, learn, or explore (even respect) alternate world-views.

    Judt continued to discuss the breakdown in social imagination: "A closed circle of opinion or ideas into which discontent or opposition is never allowed - or allowed only within circumscribed and stylized limits - loses its capacity to respond energetically or imaginatively to new challenges." The side-effect of an elected representative of the people haranguing and denouncing any opinion contrary to hers is in fact creating an atmosphere of circuitous thinking, it denies the validity of any contrary opinion. The reducing of public discourse to snide commentary, insults, and ‘cute’ names is a disservice. When a Senator, one of the highest elected officials in the land, contributes on a daily basis to that reduction it is a travesty.

    Quite frankly, I care little for the reaction of Attorney Aguirre to Santiago’s rants. He broke court decorum, he essentially kicked mud in the eye of the Senate Impeachment Court. But, between a Senator referring to other elected officials and representatives of the Filipino people as gago (in essence, attacking other members of Congress and deriding the Filipino people whom they serve) she was creating a situation where-by someone was going too react to her ‘trolling’ and provocations. Let’s not pretend that there wasn’t good reason for him to act the way he did, there was. And the fact that there has been little blow back on the bully is disheartening. More to the point, the fact that the stance of the Senate has been to refuse to reel her in and attempt to add some decorum to the proceedings gives insight into how the Senate views this exercise. Or even how the Senators view the position that they hold. Between Sotto cracking jokes, Drilon playing the role of lead prosecutor, Joker Arroyo blithering on about half-baked conspiracy theories, and Santiago basically mocking the entire proceedings with her actions we have a very good idea how they view their position and responsibilities. This holds true too for the failures of the prosecution and the tactics deployed by the defense and their client throughout these proceedings. By the way, Judt commented on conspiracy theorists who go off half-cocked with nonsensical storytelling: “Those who assert the system is at fault, or who see mysterious maneuverings behind every political misstep, have little to teach us.”

    Eventually someone has to stand up to a bully, and Santiago has always been a bully. She relies on the sanctity of her elected position to bolster her opinions and shield her actions from criticism. Yet, by acting the way she has, she is inevitably (and consistently) debasing the august position that she holds. In no shape or form should it be acceptable for a Senator of the Republic of the Philippines to continually go off half-cocked hurling insults, ridiculing the intelligence and education of Filipinos who hold contrary opinions (as she has the last few days), and treating the position she holds as license to bully and deride.

    Miriam Defensor-Santiago is not the cause of our discursive issues in the Philippines. But she is a consequence, one that continues to sow the seeds for reductive and ill-formed discourse in the Philippines. Judt’s book from which I quoted is called Ill Fares the Land. I cannot think of a better description for the state of discourse in the Philippine sphere than that.

     

  2. Ok, this has been bugging me for a while…

    As much as I appreciate an organization such as Rappler and what it is attempting to achieve, its focus on breaking stories down according to ‘mood meters’ is kind of misguided. It actually also acts as another pointed commentary on public discourse in the Philippines.

    This ‘crowd-sourcing’ of emotional responses does little to further discussion, it has the unfortunate by-product of reducing discourse to almost unimportant binary considerations. Is everyone happy? Is everyone saaaad? How many are happy? How many are saaaaad? How are we feeling today?

    Look, how people feel should be far less important than what they think about an issue, or a story. Yet it is the emotions that our media loves to exploit, it is their baser feelings on which they thrive. Feelings drive clicks, reblogs, comments, views, and subscriptions. Tony Judt, in his book Ill Fares the Land, commented on this global degeneration of public discourse: “Demagogues tell the crowd what to think; when their phrases are echoed back to them, they boldly announce that they are merely relaying popular sentiment…professional politicians now claim to listen to vox populi in the form of instant phone-in votes and popularity polls on everything from immigration policy to pedophilia. Twittering back to their audiences its own fears and prejudices, they are relieved of the burden of leadership or initiative.”  

    The fact that we can draw a comparison between journalists and crowd-leveraging politicians is not necessarily a good thing (ok, it’s never a good thing). Journalism is as much a socially and culturally important calling as government service. It is an awesome responsibility, this vast trust that is imbued in the words of a journalist, that should not be abused. Nor reduced for purposes of segregation and emotion-mongering.

    Again, I like Rappler. I like what they are doing. I like the fact that they are owned by journalists who are attempting to hold themselves to the highest standards of journalistic ethics and integrity. I am just uncomfortable with this focus on the feelings of people. Primarily because the corollary is the attempt to elicit emotional responses as opposed to focusing on the stories themselves. Like Tony Judt, I worry that media is becoming more focused on reflecting the feelings and attitudes of the people as opposed to being leaders in crafting and challenging us to look at the issues of the day in new ways.

     

  3. "

    Most people don’t feel as though they are part of any conversation of significance. They are told what to think and how to think it. They are made to feel inadequate as soon as issues of detail are engaged; and as for general objectives, they are encouraged to believe that these have long since been determined.

    The perverse effects of this suppression of genuine debate are all around us. In the US today, town hall meetings and ‘tea parties’ parody and mimic the 18th century originals. Far from opening debate, they close it down. Demagogues tell the crowd what to think; when their phrases are echoed back to them, they boldly announce that they are merely relaying popular sentiment. In the UK, television has been put to strikingly effective use as a safety valve for populist discontent; professional politicians now claim to listen to the vox populi in the form of instant phone-in votes and popularity polls on everything from immigration policy to pedophilia. Twittering back to their audience its own fears and prejudices, they are relieved of the burden of leadership or initiative.

    "
    — 

    - Tony Judt, Ill Fares the Land.

    Why do I feel like our public discourse (to charitably call it so) sometimes mimics the worst aspects touched on here? Among them, a lack of discursive thought; general appeals to the emotions of the audience; a prevalence of fear based discussion; the dominance of talking heads offering singular ways of viewing the world, with little space left for questions and answers (in other words, education). 

    I think that discursive failure is represented by this rise in ‘mood’ meters and the instant reflection of public reactions. It’s reflective and circular, raising passions and eroding discourse. Then there are the talking heads, the pseudo-intellectuals, who not only fail to explore questions, but even ask them. Instead, they present a unified, and usually simplistic, world view; offering their ‘takes’ as the be all and end all of interpretation. Heightening yet again, inflaming in other words, sentiments and passions. Which, inevitably, lead to page views, site hits, viewership ratings, and even book sales. 

    Discourse fails in the face of intellectual rigidity.