Soyez Realistes (Be Realistic)

The situation we are in is unmatched by anything in living memory. There is a lot of uncertainty and fear. And as the physical spaces we move around in become more limited, many of us have turned to cyberspace to ask questions, to seek solace, and to let out frustration and anger.

And frustration and anger abound: anger at “hoarders,” at those who “don’t obey” the quarantine order, anger at the government and its handling of the crisis. In social media we see the intensification of “call-out culture,” plenty of name-calling and non sequiturs, and lots of (and I will use the Filipino word here because the closest possible English translations just do not cut it) pangangantiyaw. This observation goes across the whole political spectrum. I admit, even I have felt and acted as such.

It’s a tension-filled time. With all this uncertainty, we look for something to control, and we seek reinforcement coming from a sense of a community. Social media – posting, commenting, and replying to each other on its various platforms – is especially primed to give us that.

There is one very challenging lesson that anthropology has taught (indeed continues to teach) me, and that is, you have to listen: listen well and listen closely. Anthropologists frequently encounter the dilemma of the informant saying one thing, but apparently meaning something else. But it isn’t as simple as lying or deceit, or some form of false consciousness. As anthropologist Vincent Carapanzano (also drawing from novelist George Eliot) wrote: “Talking is surely ‘puzzling work,’ as are understanding and interpreting.” It is not only in the segment of “understanding and interpreting,” but talking itself, from the beginning, can already be fraught with puzzlement. It’s a condition of only having a limited number of words to describe an unlimited range of human experiences. In trying to get something across there is a gap between what one wants to say and what one actually says. It’s here, in these underlying concerns, motivations, anxieties, and desires that we have to focus upon.

I think about this as I work through the din that is social media at the moment. For progressive forces, this should cut both ways. First, do we really listen to die-hard, digging-in, government supporters? As I indicated above it seems that even the hardiest activist has not been immune to lashing out and using poorly chosen terms to refer to them. Another slant I’ve seen is to write them off as “trolls,” fake accounts, or just overall basket cases.

Both views are dismissive and will get our organizing nowhere. It’s simplistic to say that, for example, the recent online drive to shut down DDS Facebook pages is a fight between real, live, good people and paid government hacks. Because, even if these pages as such are indeed propaganda machineries, we mustn’t forget that there are still real, live people on the other side who are just as invested in being “good.” And here is where listening will serve us, for I am willing to bet that their ideas of being “good” will have overlaps with ours.

And having mentioned this recent campaign, this is the second point. How do we treat our own pronouncements and critiques, as well as those coming from like-minded others? Are these finally signs of the proverbial chaos under heaven? That is a rhetorical question of course because whether it is or it isn’t is a currently unforeseeable outcome of political acts. Which is why we have to step as carefully as ever and to listen as intently as ever.

For example, and to put it bluntly, I noticed a certain glee in the almost-cat-and-mouse pursuit of shutting down Mocha Uson’s page and other associated pages. When one was unavailable or had already been shut down, there were others down the list. To be clear this is not a defense of those pages; false news and all the harm they cause must be stopped. But – and I emphasize this strongly – we must be brutally reflexive and self-conscious about the possibility of anger being displaced in ways that are counterproductive for the longer term.

To continue with this example, I wondered about the speed of the online mobilization against Mocha and others, and why this speed has not been being matched when it comes to concerns that have more amorphous villains: neoliberal policies, agrarian reform, the issues of the urban poor. I can only speculate that this is because Mocha and their pages are clear, easily delineated entities that can be marked as the enemy.

I suppose some can say, what is the harm in that? At least, objectively, gains have been made. Alright, but our proper dialectical reading should not stop there. For one thing, the flipside of looking for someone to blame is looking for someone to exalt. Let us take regard for Vico Sotto as an example.

Again, to be clear, in the same way that the observations above are not meant to absolve the purveyors of malicious online claims, this is not meant to devalue the acts of the mayor of Pasig City. But as I wrote in a candid Facebook post, it was interesting that his acquiescence to the national government’s order banning tricycles went (deliberately?) unnoticed by his admirers. There is a possibility that this overlooking may be borne out of their disappointment that he had given up a fight with the “ultimate” enemy, that is, the Duterte regime. But as I argued further, that move was actually far cleverer not just because he seemed to be choosing his battles well, but because he (wittingly or not) rejected the very frame of argument that his opponent and the conditions were forcing upon him, that is, the frame that this is a conflict between one set of popular policies versus another set of popular policies. We can only learn this sort of political savvy if we go beyond extolling political messiahs and smugly going after political scapegoats.

The political possibilities that the Covid-19 crisis presents us is, like the illness, potentially unprecedented. And so the challenge to really listen well is just as massive. Listen to others: going beyond the baldly Duterte-centric shows of support, what else does this online discourse on “discipline” tell us? How has it become the central signifier for a not-discountable number of our fellowmen? Listen to ourselves: our cheers at our gains should not be self-feeding schadenfreude. Neither should they be rushed, self-fulfilling claims to being on the right side of history. That is still to be worked towards; the lockdown will be long, and it remains to be unpredictable. (davaotoday.com)

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