Soyez Realistes (Be Realistic)

There’s been a little hullabaloo in my favorite unibersidad lately.  A few weeks ago, Department of Budget and Management Secretary Butch Abad, exiting from a forum at the UP School of Economics, was met with a vigorous protest by activist students and teachers.  Their call was to make Abad, and all those associated with the unconstitutional Disbursement Acceleration Program, accountable.

Many, foremost from the School of Economics itself, were quick to react to the incident.  It was called “violence” against Abad, an outright “attack”, “abusive”, and, in what appears to be the trending term that the protesters have themselves gleefully appropriated, the acts of “hooligans”.

Two things, before we get swept away by emotion and etiquette.

First, whether you agree or not with how the activists manifested their anger is one thing.  But a more fundamental question to ask one’s self (for this bears upon the aforementioned) is if there are truly neutral venues for dialogue.

This is what Abad and friends, including those at the School of Economics, are banking upon for two reasons.  First, that Abad can come to the UP, defend the DAP and their other policies, and come away unscathed by any negative feedback (in whatever form) because hey, this was just a dialogue and he is just exercising his freedom of speech.  Second, the assertion of venues for neutral dialogue is needed by the SoE because it needs to save face for the treatment their guest received by claiming that the protest isn’t part of UP spirit, UP is only all about the “free traffic in diverse ideas” and, well, apparently nothing else.

Holding the “free traffic in diverse ideas” as a neutral phenomenon and fetishizingly sacrosanct, I think, sets a potentially dangerous example to the people whose mind we are supposed to be molding.  What we may end up with are students who stubbornly cling to ideas, no matter how erroneous or backward, all in the name of “free traffic”.  Worse, they may end up fearing or resenting debate and correction, asserting that as the university’s “lifeblood”, their “free traffic” must not be fettered, in the same way that Abad was granted “free passage”.

Of course we need to openly discuss, and indeed debate, ideas.  But is that the end all and be all of a university, especially UP, which is supposed to be the National University whose commitment is for national development and to the needs and aspirations of the Filipino people?

In any case, is there really still any room for debate regarding the DAP (which Abad reportedly talked about in the SoE forum)?  I don’t think there is, for many of our fellow citizens who have been shocked and continue to be sickened by the pervasive and uninhibited corruption inherent in the pork barrel system.  There certainly isn’t any for the Supreme Court.  So why echo Abad’s defenders who keep saying that oh, hey, c’mon, he just wants to have his say.

Second, the statements of many of these defenders, especially those written on blogs and as opinions by commentators, felt to me like they were talking down to a bunch of kids who were acting up.  The youth of those involved has, on purpose or not, played a role in how they have been castigated, complete with shame-on-yous and finger-wagging.  That the protest also bogged down to violent mob rule was a picture almost immediately lapped up, not least by the media;  it was a picture that made sense, that, as if by virtue of their youthful energy, of course they will immediately turn physically nasty with nary a thought.

That the youth are full of vim and vigour, passion and exuberance, and arthritis-free joints and painless backs is something that the old guards can readily concede.  But that the youth can actually think for themselves, study, decide and act out of their own volition is something that’s a little too hard for them to swallow.  Otherwise, why imply that some of the protesters were “misled”, or that the protesters’ stance lacked “evidence-based and reasoned arguments”?  One columnist even expressed disbelief that these were even UP students, implying two things at the same time:  that UP students are either impotent or apathetic, or both;  and that non-UP “outsiders” automatically turn violent every chance they get.  Needless to say, both assumptions can be described as anywhere in between a great disservice to or fatuous stereotypes of the groups being pertained.

Are young people who can analyze, decide on their own and act with conviction so threatening that the bogey that they are trampling on the “free traffic of ideas” needs to be raised to keep them in line?  So who is trampling on the “free traffic of ideas” now?

In any case, this is no new thing as this is played out every day in Philippine education.  Every semester I get some students (not all, thank god) who can memorize but not analyze, who are grade-conscious but not socially conscious, who can repeat word-for-word what I said in the classroom but can’t theorize about events outside of it.  And I’ve noticed that their numbers have been increasing.  I get exasperated, yes, but I keep in mind that these are the products we get with a system that rewards conformity and suppresses critique.  This is what we get when we applaud the “free traffic of ideas” only, but step back in horror when our youth actually choose to do something about it.

When we set an example to students to have ideas, but not dangerous ones;  to act, but don’t step on any genteel toes;  when we shame those who end up doing the latter;  when we admonish them to keep within the polite bounds of a dinner party or a social hall (parliamentary rules whenever applicable), and we reify these as if these are the only arenas where history is made, then we would have failed in molding the next generation to be instruments of genuine change.

Instead, we should encourage, nay, push, our students to realize the potential of their own thoughts and actions, to go beyond their comfort zones and cum-laude standings, and to imagine a radically different – and better – world that is achieved not by shaming down, but by speaking – and more importantly, acting – up.

*The quoted phrases come from the UP School of Economic’s official statement, as well as that of UP President Alfredo Pascual.  They can be found here (http://www.interaksyon.com/article/95741/statement–a-blow-to-ups-honor-econ-profs-condemn-student-hooliganism-vs-butch-abad) and here http://www.up.edu.ph/statement-of-university-of-the-philippines-president-alfredo-e-pascual-on-the-incident-involving-department-of-budget-and-management-secretary-florencio-b-abad-in-up-diliman/

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