Ordering our outrage

It has been difficult to avoid succumbing to the atmosphere of anger and despair that has developed in the wake of the havoc wreaked by Typhoon Yolanda, internationally known as Typhoon Haiyan, especially when, by most accounts, relief and rescue operations led by the present administration have been and continue to be slow while thousands of people starve, sicken, suffer, and die in the devastated areas of Visayas. The frustration and resentment have been particularly pronounced among users of social media, who, prior to the current crisis, had already been up in arms for weeks on end over the Priority Assistance Development Fund (PDAF) scam involving several legislators and its most prominent—thus, most hated—face, businesswoman Janet Lim-Napoles, and had more recently been in anguish because of the effects of the 7.2–magnitude earthquake that had hit Bohol, Cebu, and their neighboring provinces.

Even after we had heard from our relatives in Kalibo, Aklan, which, though not as badly ravaged as other places, has certainly seen its share of death and destruction, I continue to feel weighed down by elemental helplessness, and it has been tempting to yield to the impulse to contribute to the rapidly rising tide of recriminations that I have observed among my colleagues, friends, and other contacts. There can, after all, be no denying that the response to Yolanda so far signals immense, perhaps criminal, failures on the part of the government, both at the local and national levels, in terms of disaster risk reduction, mitigation, and management, and therefore scrutiny and censure are more than called for. (In line with this, I would particularly like to know whether charges of treason would prosper against local officials who, despite being safe and sound, chose not to reach out to their constituents, but to ensconce themselves in Manila and issue statements to the press.)

The problem with social media, however, is that it can perpetuate a vicious cycle of validation rather than allow for catharsis: when we vent in Twitter, Facebook, or similar platforms, there is a distinct possibility that our fury and despondency may not drain away to create a space for clear, intelligent thought, or convert itself into energy for deliberate, effective action. Instead, it may simply go round and round and round, accumulating intensity and power while destroying our ability to ask ourselves what has so provoked our emotions and to consider if our reactions are still commensurate to the matter at hand. I do not wish to suggest that indignation cannot be productive—a cursory survey of our history as a people would prove otherwise quite easily—but any expression of such ought, I believe, to be accompanied by a strong sense of proportion, of responsibility: the best instances of criticism contain within them not only an invitation to dialogue, but also a commitment to it. Engaging in vituperation helps nothing and no one, as this reduces us to mere cogs in a mindless machine of rage.

If we are to converse on Yolanda and its aftermath in a manner that is meaningful and can lead to vastly improved disaster response in the future, I suggest that we begin with the following considerations:

First: Yolanda was one of the most powerful typhoons in the recorded history of the world—the fourth strongest, in fact, according to the Joint Typhoon Warning Center in Hawaii. While the Philippines is battered by about 15 to 20 typhoons each year, it does not seem reasonable to suggest that this has given us sufficient experience to face a monstrous weather event like Yolanda, which had one-minute sustained winds of 315 km/h, a speed that would enable one to traverse a traffic-free EDSA from end to end in less than five minutes. Prior to November 8, when it first made landfall in Guiuan, Eastern Samar, it is difficult to imagine any individual or institution being able to extrapolate from available data and set a baseline for preparations that would be good enough. How does one prepare a nation for a natural disaster of this magnitude?

The initial plans that had been made—and it must be acknowledged that plans were in place—were based on assumptions that Yolanda, precisely because it was so unprecedented, easily blasted, ripped apart, and destroyed. The excruciatingly sluggish pace of the response is not necessarily a function of ineptitude, but it is definitely a function of lack of information: how can one plan when one does not know the reality on the ground? And how can one know what is out there when communication lines, roads, bridges, seaports, and airports are out of commission, wrecked, or otherwise unusable owing to safety and security concerns? Such situation has begun to be addressed, but repair and recovery work takes time. Anecdotal information may come in from several sources, but these reports still need to be collated, arranged, and made sense of from a broader perspective to facilitate the conduct of aid that is as efficient as can be, in light of prevailing constraints.

Second: Much of the rage that I have seen (hardly representative, admittedly) appears to be based on the heavily sensationalized—or, to use John Crowley‘s term, “catastrophized“—stories and images of agony that the media, especially parachute journalists like CNN celebrity anchor Anderson Cooper, can capture: as of this writing, various news entities have collectively served up seven days of post-apocalyptic poverty porn for the combination of the 24-hour news cycle and Web 2.0 that has proven so menacing to journalism and so soporific to the general public. The latter was something that cultural critic Neil Postman had warned about as early as 1985, in his book against television, Amusing Ourselves to Death:

In both oral and typographic cultures, information derives its importance from the possibilities of action. Of course, in any communication environment, input (what one is informed about) always exceeds output (the possibilities of action based on information). But the situation created by telegraphy, then exacerbated by later technologies, made the relationship between information and action both abstract and remote. For the first time in human history, people were faced with the problem of information glut, which means that simultaneously they were faced with the problem of a diminished social and political potency.

Cooper et al. may not be malicious—a contentious point that I will leave on the table for now—but that does not mean they are not guilty of imperial and imperious condescension: a number of commentaries, academic and popular, have underscored the problematic, even racist, rhetoric of Western media when their reporters cover Third World events, as in the case of the 2010 earthquake that struck the Carribean nation of Haiti. Here, for instance, is Rebecca Solnit on the coverage of that specific tragedy:

The belief that people in disaster (particularly poor and nonwhite people) are cattle or animals or just crazy and untrustworthy regularly justifies spending far too much energy and far too many resources on control — the American military calls it “security” — rather than relief. A British-accented voiceover on CNN calls people sprinting to where supplies are being dumped from a helicopter a “stampede” and adds that this delivery “risks sparking chaos.” The chaos already exists, and you can’t blame it on these people desperate for food and water. Or you can, and in doing so help convince your audience that they’re unworthy and untrustworthy.

As well, it may be useful to remember that no less than the United States of America hardly seemed like the global superpower it styles itself to be following Hurricane Katrina, as evidenced by this timeline, or by this clip, in which Cooper interviews Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu:

(None of the foregoing, by the way, should not be understood as a tacit defense of broadcaster Korina Sanchez, who I understand has been pitted against Cooper in many discussions given her reaction to the coverage of CNN. As far as I am concerned, Sanchez, given that she is the wife of Department of Interior and Local Government Secretary Mar Roxas, should not be associated with any outfit that purports to report news.)

Third: Whenever we are moved to slam the government, we must remind ourselves that “government” is not a faceless, monolithic entity or an arena populated entirely by corrupt, greedy, and incompetent officials who are hell-bent on looking after their interests, preserving their prerogatives, and perpetuating their political careers at the expense of lives.

The government is also made up of the tired, hungry, overworked, and utterly courageous police officers, soldiers, doctors, nurses, drivers, pilots, clerks, technicians, engineers, and aid workers who are contributing to the relief effort. The government is also made made up of people who have lost their possessions, their homes, their relatives, and their friends to Yolanda, and yet they are out there in Eastern Visayas, sifting through the ruins of various cities, towns, and barangays, to save who and what they can. The government is also made up of people who need to know that we completely support what they are doing, and that our appreciation and gratitude for their vital work are boundless.

Finally, the government is also made up of us—we who are, in ways large and small, inextricably bound to and complicit with the system as it exists, and if said system needs to be renovated, refurbished, or razed to the ground so as to establish a better one, then this could be the moment to seize and to shape, not by way of ire-driven status updates, but by sustained, collaborative action beyond the screen, in the real world for which the digital one, for all its attractions, will always be a poor substitute.

Within the reach of our arms*

Good afternoon, everyone.

This is a literature class, which is to say that we are primarily concerned with literary texts, but I have always tried, to one degree or another, to situate our discussions squarely within the so-called real world—to underscore that, the “talismanic world” of the work of art, to borrow a phrase from the poet Marjorie Evasco, is not a self-contained space detached from, and therefore irrelevant to, our daily lived experience. Whether I have been successful is a matter of debate, of course, though my hope that I have been so, however marginally, springs eternal.

By now, I am sure that you have heard about the tragedy that took place last 15 March 2013, Friday: 16-year-old Kristel Pilar Mariz Tejada, a first-year student at the University of the Philippines (UP) Manila, apparently took her own life by ingesting silver nitrate, a toxic, corrosive substance. Unable to pay the tuition fees for her education, Kristel had had to take a forced leave of absence in observance of UP Manila regulations, and this has been identified as the event that likely triggered her suicide.

Perhaps the only authority on the motives behind such a deadly decision by Kristel is Kristel herself, but we can be certain that her passing, far from a painless one, should never have happened.

As we are not members of the UP Manila community, or indeed of the UP system, there would appear to be no reason at all for us to contemplate her suicide beyond the performance of the obligatory tongue-clucking and head-shaking that the daily pornographic coverage of hardships, misfortunes, and disasters has tended to reduce us to—a performance that we have probably already rehearsed a number of times over before moving on to other matters. “What,” you may ask, “does Kristel or her death, heart-breaking as it is, have to do with me?”

What, indeed?

One aspect of Kristel’s death that has so far not received much serious scrutiny is the possibility that she might have been afflicted with clinical depression. Depressed people are not always suicidal, but depression is definitely a significant risk factor for suicide, which should be understood as a fraught phenomenon that cannot be shrunk down to a single cause.

We have abused the term unto meaninglessness, but depression is not just about being melodramatic or “emo”—it is a serious issue that requires professional attention and care. We may be more used to asking for intervention only for physical illnesses, but we must remember that we are not our bodies alone: our minds need nurturance as well, and as embarrassing or as distasteful as it seems to us, there should be no shame in acknowledging that we need the support and the expertise of others when our mental health is compromised.

Depression is defined by the World Health Organization (WHO) as follows:

Depression is a common mental disorder, characterized by sadness, loss of interest or pleasure, feelings of guilt or low self-worth, disturbed sleep or appetite, feelings of tiredness, and poor concentration.

Depression can be long-lasting or recurrent, substantially impairing an individual’s ability to function at work or school or cope with daily life. At its most severe, depression can lead to suicide. When mild, people can be treated without medicines but when depression is moderate or severe they may need medication and professional talking treatments.

Depression is a disorder that can be reliably diagnosed and treated by non-specialists as part of primary health care. Specialist care is needed for a small proportion of individuals with complicated depression or those who do not respond to first-line treatments.

If you suspect that you are suffering from depression, I urge you: please reach out for help as soon as possible. Should you feel uncomfortable talking to your family members or to your friends, there are other ways to get assistance.

On campus, you may wish to approach our counselors or our chaplain. Off campus, you may consider contacting the following organizations:

If you know anyone whom you feel may be depressed, then I ask that you bring up the foregoing options gently and carefully—force will do no one any favors.

Allow me to emphasize some parts of the WHO definition: depression is a common condition that can be treated even by non-specialists. In 2004, the Philippines was found to have 4.5 million cases of depression, nearly 6% of the total national population at the time, and the highest rate in all of Southeast Asia, no matter how much we may like to think of ourselves as a happy people. Unfortunately, according to the Department of Health (DOH), for every 90 Filipinos who suffer from depression, only one-third seek help. The remainder, either ashamed to ask for aid or unaware that there is something wrong with them, simply suffer through the symptoms. DOH assistant secretary Paulyn Jean B. Rosell-Ubial has observed that health care professionals, not to mention the general public, need greater literacy in matters of mental health, and that the stigma surrounding mental illness needs to be reduced.

There exists no evidence that the situation has vastly improved over the past nine years; our country was ranked among the least happy in the world late last year, for example.

The numbers are likewise grim with regard to suicide—in fact, Rosell-Ubial considers depression leading to suicidal behavior to be a major public health problem. Just consider what took place during the first quarter of this very year: last January 3, a 28-year-old woman attempted to kill herself by jumping onto the tracks of the Metro Rail Transit at Shaw Boulevard Station. A few days later, a man hanged himself from a nylon cord inside his rented shanty in Tondo, Manila. In early February, a 21-year-old female student fatally stabbed herself with a kitchen knife in her bedroom in Quezon City. A few weeks later, a car executive leapt to his death from the tenth floor of condominium building in Makati.

These incidents—which we know about only because they caught media attention; others may have not—reflect the disturbing upward trend in the number of deaths by suicide in the Philippines: according to data culled from the National Statistics Office (NSO), the suicide rate for men from 1984 to 2005 rose from 0.46 to seven out of every 200,000, while the rate for women over the same period rose from 0.24 to two out of every 200,000. Dr. Dinah Nadera, a psychiatrist and an associate professor of the University of the Philippines Open University who has been working on a suicide prevention strategy, has said that suicide rates have been climbing particularly among young people. Philippine Daily Inquirer cites Nadera as saying that the increase in suicides is particularly pronounced among young people aged between 5 and 14 years, and between 15 and 24 years, while InterAksyon.com quotes her as stating that the greatest proportion of suicides are committed by people who are between 20 and 29 years old. In other words, you and your peers are, statistically speaking, among the most vulnerable.

On a related note, the WHO reports that around one million people worldwide kill themselves every year, which means that one person commits suicide every 40 seconds.

It is all too easy to make fun of the idea of mental illness—to say that people who are afflicted with such disorders are simply maarte, pathetic, or weak. The mentally impaired or ill person is often a figure that draws ridicule rather than understanding or compassion. For instance, shortly after the woman whom I mentioned earlier jumped onto the MRT tracks, disrupting mass transit services along the southbound line for over an hour, some online commentators railed at the woman’s lack of consideration, as her suicide attempt had inconvenienced a number of passengers, while others suggested that she could have resorted to more effective, that is, more lethal, means. Look as well at popular representations of mental illness on television, in film, and even in our political institutions.

To my mind, this appallingly facile dismissiveness is rooted in part in the notion that mental health is a purely private realm that each person is expected to administer and manage by himself or herself. But we fool ourselves with such thinking. Why do we keep track of diseases like hypertension, diabetes, cancer, or HIV/AIDS? Because we realize that these illnesses are indicative of larger social problems, which is to say, public problems, among them poverty, malnutrition, lack of education, inferior health care infrastructures, and the generally inequitable distribution of resources. By the same token, the inability to imagine alternative futures that are more compelling than death, which I think is at the heart of suicidal ideation, should not be understood as symptomatic of merely individual, idiosyncratic misery, but of wider structural issues that need to be addressed. The personal, as the feminist saying goes, is political. There is, then, a need to re-evaluate and re-vision not only our attitude towards mental health, but also our attitude towards the society that we are part of.

The fact that you are here today, able to afford several times more per academic unit than Kristel ever could—she had been charged, and could not cover, PHP300 for each one—is as obvious a sign as any that you are beneficiaries of immense privilege. To have been born and raised in privilege were not things that could have been chosen and should not be things to feel guilty about. The crucial question has to do not with privilege as such but how one is using it.

Ensconced behind these immaculately white walls, with nearly every amenity imaginable at your disposal, and safe even from direct sunlight—one could conceivably spend his or her entire day here without having to be hit by a single ray—it is easy to lose sight of the bigger world that we inhabit. One reason that you are required to take subjects such as this—subjects outside your field of specialization, and subjects frequently thought to be bothersome and extraneous, and occasionally, “pa-major”—is to mitigate such a situation by showing you that there are many ways, critical and creative, to define yourselves and to make your lives matter beyond the narrow constraints of the careers that you wish to carve out for yourselves once you graduate. The raison d’être of this school, after all, is not to become a leading employee factory, reliably and efficiently churning out skilled workers term after term, year after year. Incidentally, I am willing to bet that, ten years from now, at least a third of you will be engaged in something that has no relation whatsoever to your present course—just think of how you, as a child, used to answer the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” and you will understand why I am so confident about my wager: your degree is not your destiny.

I would like to believe that all of us are interested in making the world a better place—that such an aspiration can, sadly, strike us now as a cliché does not drain away its potency or its urgency. We do need to make a better world, and I don’t mean better only for ourselves. As comfortable and as prosperous as each of us can become, we will not truly have accomplished anything if we fail to think of and uplift others, for we are all intimately, intricately, and inextricably connected. We ignore, tolerate, or abet systemic injustices at our own peril, for the day will surely come when these same injustices are visited upon us.

Our university declares that it develops achievers for God and country, and these words should not be taken as empty ones used for decorating classroom walls, official documents, and promotional materials—these words constitute a challenge for us all to take on the responsibilities of social transformation, to swear to ourselves that, in the words of the novelist Thomas Harris, “The world will not be this way within the reach of my arm.”

There is something deeply and fundamentally wrong with a nation when more and more of its people, especially its young people, are killing themselves, and such is the desperate state of our nation. The world, as we know it today, cannot—must not—be allowed to remain the way it is within the reach of our arms.

* This was written as part of an introductory discussion on poetry and its capacity to bear witness to human suffering. (Slightly edited on 20 March 2013, 12:42 AM GMT +8.)

Awards and Abuses

Promised dinner at a nearby fast food restaurant, around a dozen male street children from the Vito Cruz area let themselves be whisked off to the Multi-Purpose Hall of the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) by two young men one April afternoon.

The boys were going to play a game, and the instructions were simple: at the appointed time, the kids would enter a makeshift enclosure in pairs and the objective of each, in emulation of professional wrestlers, was to eject his opponent from the ring. As the children began fighting, the men acted as commentators, egging the combatants on.

Awards and Abuses (Contemporary Art Philippines Magazine Issue 24)

Although the wrestling appeared to be no more than rough-housing at the outset, it quickly escalated: the blows became more forceful; the contenders were suddenly all inside the arena; and one of the boys, twelve-year-old Marco Ramirez (a pseudonym) , found himself trapped in a corner, attacked by several assailants.

Rather than attempt to bring the situation to order, however, the men continued to yell their lungs out.

Alarmed, an audience member jumped into the fray, trying to distract the kids by offering his own body as a target for their aggression. Another hit the lights, plunging the hall into darkness. A third shouted at the commentators, denouncing the proceedings as exploitative.

As the frenzy subsided, someone cried out for a first-aid kit: while all the children were sore, if not bruised, from the experience, Ramirez had sustained a wound on his foot.

Precisely what had the boys gotten themselves into? They have said that it was never really explained to them, but they had participated in Criticism Is Hard Work, a performance piece staged by poet Angelo Suarez and visual artist Costantino Zicarelli for the opening day of Tupada Xing: Social Contract. Organized by the Tupada art collective, it was also known as the Tupada Action and Media Art Fourth International Action Art Event 2007 (TAMA ’07).

Five years later, artist Alwin Reamillo, the viewer who had loudly decried the piece as exploitation, is still outraged. “You don’t do that in a performance,” he said in an interview, believing that Criticism, which he compared to a cockfight or a dogfight, was a case of child abuse. Republic Act No. 7610, the Special Protection of Children Against Abuse, Exploitation and Discrimination Act, defines “child abuse” as the maltreatment of a child, habitual or otherwise, including “any act by deeds or words which debases, degrades or demeans the intrinsic worth and dignity of a child as a human being”.

[Read the rest of the article in Issue 24 of Contemporary Art Philippines magazine or here.]

Explanation required, Mr. President

My position regarding what has become Republic Act No. 10175, the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012, has not changed since I first went over the Senate version (Senate Bill No. 2796) several months ago: I maintain that it is a deeply flawed law that will not be able to properly address the problems it was ostensibly designed for, including, but not limited to, libel, cyber-bullying, and cyber-prostitution. Of course, back in February, I was content merely to air my anxiety, because I was fairly optimistic that the ill-conceived bill would not prosper, such optimism—or maybe I should say, with the benefit of hindsight, naïveté—being largely rooted in my reluctance to entertain the notion that the denizens of officialdom would act, to use a time-honored phrase, like a bunch of drooling incompetents.

It seems opportune to raise yet again the important question of whether our leaders understand what goes on in cyberspace, even as they attempt to engage the wired middle and upper classes—certainly not the general public, in view of extant data on the level of Internet penetration, not to mention access to electricity, in the country—by establishing and using all sorts of online properties, such as web sites, blogs, and social media accounts.

The massive outcry against the anti-cybercrime law, which, as of this writing, includes four separate petitions filed with the Supreme Court by various groups, has found the apparatchiks of this administration scrambling to defend the decision of President Benigno S. Aquino III to sign it into law. For instance, at a press briefing yesterday, September 27, Presidential Spokesman Edwin Lacierda, urging critics to wait for the pertinent Implementing Rules and Regulations (IRR), said that “freedom of expression is not absolute”, and that the law “[attaches] responsibilities in cyberspace”—pronouncements that are not without merit and would be difficult to disagree with, but tend to come across as incongruous at the very least, considering that Lacierda, along with other Palace functionaries, has been known to happily heckle political opponents—transport strike organizers and participants, say, or former Chief Justice Renato Corona—using his Twitter account, and could more convincingly serve as an exemplar of irresponsible online behavior than the opposite, especially because, by virtue of his position, he is supposed to speak with the voice of the Chief Executive.

Similarly irresponsible, as well as disingenuous, are the arguments advanced by Presidential Communications Development and Strategic Planning Office (PCDSPO) Undersecretary Manuel L. Quezon III, who, in response to blogger Jon Limjap’s tweet that the law, presumably on account of its provisions on libel, could be used “to silence political critics online“, replied that Limjap’s “sweeping” statement “ignores the [C]onstitution and its guarantees“, adding that the Act contained nothing that “any columnist hasn’t had to live with since time immemorial“. I would have thought that the following patently obvious things need not be said: first, the Constitution will not prevent—and in fact allows—the litigious from threatening to file or actually filing lawsuits, as Quezon himself knows from experience, whatever the courts eventually decide; second, the majority of people online are not columnists and have had no journalistic training, though pretenders do proliferate; and third, just because a particular state of affairs has persisted “since time immemorial” is not a reason to maintain said state.

None of the foregoing is to advocate that a kind of exceptionalism be observed with reference to cyberspace and the various activities that go on it it, as The Philippine Star columnist Federico J. Pascual seems to believe, rather strangely, of those against the anti-cybercrime law. I do think that there is much that deserves to be regulated online, although that requires a separate discussion. The process of law-making, however, ought to be undertaken with intelligence, sensitivity, and no small amount of caution. Given the disturbing implications of the Act in its current form, a severe shortage of precisely the aforementioned qualities may well be afflicting Congress and Malacañang, and now time, energy, and taxpayer money must be spent, if not squandered, in the fight against a law that, as Cocoy Dayao has pointed out, could have been crafted “far, far better“, and would therefore have been a more efficient use of national resources.

It is interesting to note that, according to a recent report, Aquino did not exercise his veto power over the Act because the office of Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa, Jr. prepared a legal memorandum recommending the law for signing. Perhaps Ochoa or Aquino might be prevailed upon to release the contents of this memorandum to the public,  in order that the rationale behind the approval of the Act by a President who has repeatedly asserted his commitment to freedom and transparency might be understood by the people it will affect—the so-called bosses in whose interests he claims to work, and to whom he now owes a clear explanation.

On Youth and Social Media: A Deck of Practical LOLcats

Fresh Look: The Role of Youth in Nation Building
Public Relations Student Society of the Philippines
August 29, 2012, 1:00-4:00PM
NTTC-HP Auditorium
University of the Philippines Manila

[SLIDE 1] Members and officers of the Public Relations Student Society of the Philippines, fellow speakers, students, teachers, and friends, good afternoon.

I’m from The Pro Pinoy Project, and we run a commentary web site that we envision to be a kind of global community center for all things Pinoy. I’ve been asked to speak a bit about “how the youth is utilizing social media […] in nation-building and how it is used as a medium to promote nation-building in social youth”. As the title of my presentation indicates, I’ve decided to structure my talk today around a series of image macros that are called LOLcats, which ought to be familiar to you. For the benefit of those who might not be, a LOLcat [SLIDE 2] is a picture of a cat accompanied by text that is usually wrong in terms of grammar and spelling—at least in standard English. In kitty English, which has its own rules too, the caption is perfectly correct.

Lest you be tempted to not take any of this seriously, LOLcats have already become the subject of critical academic attention in the form of a dissertation submitted to the London School of Economics. Media planner Kate Miltner, who wrote the study as part of the requirements for a Master of Science degree in Media and Communications, says, “Even if LOLCats were just a collection of silly cat pictures, they would have value simply because they, as [one of my study participants] said, make life easier. [SLIDE 3] But, as this study has shown, LOLCats are much more than that. They are a venue through which people express their emotions, connect to their loved ones, and define group identity. This not only gives them value; it makes them important.”

According to Miltner, the LOLcat is widely considered to be the “archetypal Internet meme”, and its enduring appeal, if nothing else, makes it remarkable, considering how short-lived its siblings tend to be. The LOLcat has been around for nearly a decade, and its origin can be traced at least as far back to the 2005 tradition of “Caturday” that was propagated by users of the imageboard 4Chan, the source of numerous other Internet memes. The main idea that I would like to put across with my use of LOLcats today is that the Internet functions as both a condition and a limit for human ingenuity, especially when we consider the Philippine social media situation—an idea that I will build on over the course of this presentation by making six key points. I don’t imagine that any of them will be especially original or surprising, but there is value to be had in reminding ourselves from time to time about what we already know—even, perhaps especially, the patently obvious.

[Read the rest in The Pro Pinoy Project.]

Towards a better cinema

Cinemalaya: Indie na Malaya?
UP Diliman Mass Communicators Organization Applicants Batch 2012-A
24 August 2012, 1:00-4:00 PM
College of Mass Communication Auditorium
University of the Philippines Diliman

Good afternoon to everyone.

Before I proceed to the remarks that I have prepared for today, allow me to read out in full the statement that our group, the Film Desk of the Young Critics Circle, issued in response to the controversy that is the reason for this gathering:

We, members of the Film Desk of the Young Critics Circle (YCC), join the film community in condemning the recent disqualification of Emerson Reyes’s entry, MNL 143, from the 8th Cinemalaya Independent Film Festival.

The organizing committee of Cinemalaya, composed of competition chair Laurice Guillen-Feleo, festival director Nestor Jardin, and monitoring head Robbie Tan made the move following a dispute with Reyes over his insistence on casting Allan Paule and Joy Viado as his leads in a love story—these choices, the committee claimed, “were not suitable to the material” and allegedly ran afoul of its concern with “competence, suitability to the role, and greater audience acceptability”.

Given that Tan has stated in an interview that he believes Paule and Viado to be “very competent” actors, the decision he reached with his fellow committee members registers as idiosyncratic at best and disingenuous at worst: Surely persuasive performances would garner precisely the “acceptability” sought after?

The strength of the indignation against Cinemalaya that Reyes’s disqualification has caused would seem to indicate that a number of grievous problems have been festering, unaddressed and unresolved, long before the current conflict.

Run by The Cinemalaya Foundation, a non-stock, non-profit, private entity that professes to be “committed to the development and promotion of Philippine independent film”, the annual Cinemalaya Independent Film Festival supposedly aims to stimulate the creation of “works that boldly articulate and freely interpret the Filipino experience with fresh insight and artistic integrity”. The matter at hand serves to strain the credibility of such projection, illustrating as it does the sad fact that the deplorable, cynical practices of commercial cinema, exercised with an eye on the bottom line, are hardly exclusive to it, regardless of what the legion of evangelists of independent cinema would have us believe as gospel truth.

What this unfortunate incident points up is just how fraught the endeavor of “independent” filmmaking is: production outside the dominant studio system—the main, and sometimes the sole, marker of independence—does not mean production in a space of pure, absolute freedom where lofty artistic aspirations are realized. And certainly it does not mean production that is somehow exempt from being contained and disciplined by the complex matrix of funding organizations, competitions, festivals, and awards, the mechanisms of which can guarantee the makers of a film continuous, ever-increasing flows of prestige and largesse—provided, of course, that the film advances specific agendas, colludes with particular interests, or follows pernicious habits purveyed by reactionary quarters who have managed to cling to power.

In view of the foregoing, the inability of much independent cinema at present to proffer a plurality of viable visions for remaking both cinema and society may well be telling.

Lest the situation devolve into unproductive name-calling and hate-mongering, as it has already begun to in social media, the YCC is calling for thoughtful, informed, self-reflexive engagement with the issues so that the necessary and arduous process of change can begin to take place. Cinemalaya as an institution must find the will to hold itself to the highest standards of transparency, integrity, and accountability if it wishes to remain relevant, but it is not indispensable to filmmaking. Neither does the responsibility of transformation belong to it alone: rather, it belongs to all of us who care about cinema and wish to cultivate an environment where emergent filmic and critical practices can flourish with vigor.

Taking into consideration the briefing that I was given for this forum, I understand the task before my fellow speakers and I to be that of grappling with two interrelated critical terms, the first being “independent cinema”, and the second being “creative freedom”, and in so doing, I seek primarily to contribute questions to what I hope will be constant processes of rigorous, challenging, and exciting exchange between and among us, travelers all in and through the dream-worlds of film.

A Manila Times article, published shortly after the dispute between Reyes and the Cinemalaya organizing committee flared up, quotes The Cinemalaya Foundation chairman Antonio “Tonyboy” Cojuangco, Jr. as saying, “Cinemalaya was organized in 2004 when the regular movie industry was in the doldrums. I remember the numbers—an average of 15 locally produced commercial movies down from about 50 or 60 [on] average during its peak. Most of these movies had predictable plots and people were kind of avoiding [them in favor of] the foreign films, [of] the blockbusters. Now you have to give credit [to] the organizers as they came up with Cinemalaya to change the approach to movie making here in the Philippines.”

Self-congratulatory remarks aside, the statement of Cojuangco encapsulates rather neatly the problems that are often said to plague the Philippine film industry—ones that are supposedly caused, or at least exacerbated, by “mainstream” production companies, and ones that “independent” film artists and groups, formally organized or otherwise, claim to be able to address and resolve. That the label “indie” continues to be uncritically bandied about in certain circles as though it were a covetable badge of honor would seem to require that the obvious be stated, if not underscored: working beyond the walls of the decadent city of cinema founded and guarded by commercial outfits and media conglomerates is a guarantee of absolutely nothing insofar as the results of one’s labors are concerned, no matter how sincere the desire to create something of worth—or, in the case of the Cinemalya festival, a joint activity by The Cinemalaya Foundation and the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP), to encourage efforts at such.

Beneficiaries of the growth in support mechanisms, which include workshops and competitions, and of advances in digital technology, which have reduced the costs of production, “independent” filmmakers have certainly been wildly prolific over the past several years: during the previous year, for instance, more than a hundred films were released all over the country; only 29, about a quarter of the total, were “mainstream” productions. Melodramatically pronounced by director Joel Lamangan as “clinically dead” in 2006 owing to the steep decline in the number of movies being made, the state of the industry as a whole could probably be said to have changed since then, but whether the change is a positive one is another matter altogether: “independent” titles are not necessarily less trite, less formulaic, or less self-indulgent than “mainstream” ones; the pervasiveness of works that appeal chiefly to prurience—these digital productions, which can be classified under the categories of “adult romance” and “same-sex romance”, made up over a third of all the films that were exhibited in 2011—does not appear to be an inspiring development, for example.

Mere separation—geographical, professional, or economic—from “mainstream” infrastructures does not automatically exempt an individual or an entity from reinforcing and perpetuating the assumptions and relations of power that allow these infrastructures to function as they do, because the aforementioned assumptions and relations of power are hardly exclusive to the studios of Star Cinema, Regal Entertainment, and the like; instead, they are diffuse, constitutive of the entire deeply fraught and hotly contested social world that we call cinema. If there is anything to be learned from the ruckus that erupted around the barring of MNL 143, I suggest that it is this: there is no space of pure film into which we can conveniently escape. Regardless of how “malaya” or benevolent a specific structure and its gatekeepers purport to be, there will always be material and symbolic boundaries that cannot simply be transcended, and recognizing this is vital if we, as creative agents, are to fully and fruitfully use our energies and exercise our faculties in defending cinema against instrumentalization—the fantasy of utter “creative freedom” is attractive, but absurd.

It is not enough to take The Cinemalaya Foundation and the CCP to task and insist on reform—in the interest of fairness, representatives from both institutions have mentioned that they are exploring the possibility of making changes in how the festival is run, though I cannot say that I am especially optimistic about it at this juncture. We must demand as much from ourselves: as students, teachers, critics, artists, scholars, and patrons of film, as participants in the production of knowledge and legitimization, we are always already implicated in, and therefore responsible for, the situation of cinema—there is no “outside” where we can carve out and take up a tenable critical position. The burdens that we must prove equal to are that of restlessly and relentlessly re-viewing, re-imagining, and re-making those conditions and practices that debilitate, oppress, and repress, including our own current understanding of the enterprise of “independent” filmmaking, and the roles that we play in it.

The recently concluded eighth installment of the Cinemalaya festival bore the title, “Full Force”, and the combative connotations of such an appellation, flimsy though they were in the face of the gusts and rains brought by Typhoon Gener on the night of the awards ceremony, were buttressed by a statement that Guillen-Feleo gave to the Philippine Daily Inquirer on the fourth day of the event: “I wonder why all these people who called for a boycott, who protested festival policies, are all here at the CCP right now.”  Whatever she meant by this, to my mind, she made a point worth reflecting on, repeatedly and at length.

Other questions that I would like to propose for further thought and discussion, now and later, here and elsewhere, are as follows:

  • What is “independent” cinema?
  • Who and/or what is it independent from, and to what extent, if any?
  • Why does it require such independence in the first place?
  • For whom and for what purpose does one engage in the production, distribution, and reception of “independent” cinema?
  • What is the difference that “independence” makes?
  • Can, does, and should “independent” cinema perform the function of a foil or an alternative to “mainstream” or “commercial” cinema?
  • What other purpose or purposes does it serve, and why?
  • What are the values that we uphold, the forms of filmic and critical practice that we reward, and the sorts of rewards that we aspire to acquire as members and stakeholders of the film community?
  • What are the complicities and compromises required by such aspirations, and at what costs do they come?
  • What kind of cinema do we want, and how can we work together in order to attain it?

This is by no means an exhaustive list, and any answers we can come up with will only ever be provisional; I trust that the ethic and the imperative of incessant self-inquiry are clear. As significant as this symposium might be, we will have just heated the otherwise cool air circulating through the present venue, in which we have voluntarily confined ourselves for three hours, if the dialogue—which ought to encompass not only the wrongful disqualification of MNL 143, but also the difficult, intricate predicaments that such a flash point illuminates—ends here: the distinct danger of lapsing into silence and complacence, particularly because the pertinent issues have lost the mediagenic immediacy that is regrettably valorized in our milieu of instants, is one that we should be aware of and guard against in our quest for a better, more robust cinema: “independent”, “mainstream”, or otherwise.

Thank you very much.

Book blogging ethics

What follows is a modified version of a talk that I gave as part as one of the speakers for the Book Blogging Ethics panel of the 2nd Filipino ReaderCon, which was held last 18 August 2012 at the Filipinas Heritage Library. My fellow speakers were Kai Agito and Blooey Singson, and the facilitator was Tarie Sabido. My sincere thanks go to Honey de Peralta and her team, especially Chris Mariano, upon whose suggestion I was invited to be on the panel.

Good morning to everyone. I should probably begin with a small disclaimer: as much as I love books, and as much as I enjoy blogging, I am, unlike my fellow panelists, not exactly a book blogger. Nevertheless, I hope to be able to contribute something of value for the purpose of our discussion today.

Because the idea of ethics, which is to say notions of right and wrong conduct, really only makes sense within a given social context, I believe that it is important for us to begin by trying to understand what we might call the Philippine virtual ecosystem. I am using the word “ecosystem” deliberately to emphasize that we, as bloggers, read, write, and interact within a complex network of relationships, which we might not always be aware of.

Many grand claims have been advanced for the Internet and its denizens, but what are the real circumstances in which we find ourselves? I will be citing some figures, taken from various studies, in an attempt to offer some perspective. Please take note that these are not pieces of the same puzzle—the studies I will mention were undertaken at different times and have different objectives and methodologies—and therefore cannot be put together to form a wholly coherent big picture. Still, it is a useful exercise to juxtapose them with each other so that we can gain some insight into a world whose potential is now and again being hyped.

First, let us take a look at some of the findings from Digital Philippines 2011: Yahoo!-Nielsen Net Index Highlights:

  • 30%: The total percentage of Internet users in national urban Philippines. This means that, if we peg the Philippine population at 90 million, at least 63 million Filipinos are not online. There are many reasons for this, but naturally the costs constitute a major factor—our power rates, for instance, are among the highest in Asia—as well as the poor state of our infrastructures.
  • 66%: The percentage of Internet users whose place of access to the Internet is via the Internet café. Private connections, while on the rise, are still not very common. Where one accesses the Internet may affect what kind of content one consumes; the most preferred types, incidentally, based on the same study, are entertainment-related: music, videos, images, and games.
  • 82%: The percentage of Internet uses who visit social networking sites whenever they go online. Social networking is the top activity among Filipinos, in fact.

The next set of figures come from Wave 3, a study on social media that was released by Universal McCann in 2008.

  • 90%: The percentage of Filipino Internet users who have read a blog at least once. Kindly take note that there is no indication of regular reading. To paraphrase the pertinent question, it was, “Thinking about using the Internet, have you ever read a blog?”
  • 64.9%: The percentage of Filipino Internet users who have started a blog at least once. Just like the previous item, there is not indication of regular writing, and the question was similarly worded.

This figure is from Philippine Trust Index, a 2011 study by communications consultancy firm EON Inc.:

  • 37%: The percentage of Internet users who say that they trust blogs, vis-à-vis other forms of media, such as radio, newspapers, or television—the last of which is the most influential and most trusted.

Now let’s take a look at some figures from the 2007 National Readership Survey [PDF] commissioned by the National Book Development Board (NBDB).

  • 92%: The percentage of Filipinos who say that they read. This looks high, but it actually represents a slight dip from 2003, the year of the previous survey, and the decline is largely attributable to the National Capital Region, despite having a high concentration of bookstores, libraries, and publishers.
  • 96%: The percentage of Filipinos who read non-schoolbooks (NSBs). This 96% is taken from the 83% who say they read books, by the way. The most popular book among Filipinos is the Bible, which was named by 67% of respondents, and the next most popular type are books on romance or love: about 33%.
  • 58%: The percentage of non-schoolbook readers who prefer reading in Tagalog. English comes in at 40%.
  • 26%: The percentage of non-schoolbook readers who always or often notice whether a given book has good reviews, as compared to those readers who sometimes, rarely, or never notice such. The question of bad reviews wasn’t raised, but it seems safe to assume that the figure would be about the same.

I am sure that these are depressing data for everyone. Based on the aforementioned figures, if you are a blogger who writes in English—which I suppose is most of us here—and if you tend to discuss books—again, likely the majority in this room—then the odds are that you are not communicating with a great many people here at home; due to infrastructural and cultural constraints, you will be unable to do so for quite a while. Certainly, if we are going to wage the “reading revolution” that NBDB Executive Director Andrea Pasion-Flores called for during her opening remarks, we will not be able to do it online—at least not just online. Perhaps it is activities like the Filipino ReaderCon that will have a more meaningful impact.

None of this is to say, however, that we should abandon blogging; only that we develop a healthy sense of proportion about its reach and influence. Besides, because cyberspace is still a kind of frontier territory for the Philippines, those of us fortunate enough to be in it now have many opportunities for exploration and innovation—for blazing the trails that others can follow. One the advantages of being part of a small community in which we are separated from each other by only a few social degrees is that we are still capable of fairly quick self-correction and self-regulation, for example.

In view of the prevailing conditions, what are some of the prospects and challenges that we face as bloggers, especially when it comes to behavior?

I will be making a fairly obvious point, but it has to be made anyway precisely because its obviousness leads people to overlook it: The Internet is a public place. Again: The Internet is a public place. (I like to compare it to a plaza, though one of infinite size.) If you can’t walk up to someone and tell him or her something to his or her face, then you probably shouldn’t be saying it online either. One of the more peculiar features of the Internet is its highly mediated character, which may be inimical to critical thought and compassion. People on Twitter and Facebook have gone absolutely insane over Robert Blair Carabuena, for instance: I have seen one Facebook page displaying his contact details and calling for his death.

We have to remind ourselves that there is always someone watching—that there is always a human being beyond the screen. Even if we can delete material that we regret posting, watch out: Google Cache, Internet Archive, or some other site may have already stored a copy of it. As the 2010 film The Social Network tells us, “The Internet’s not written in pencil […], it’s written in ink.”

One interesting case which you may wish to examine in your own time are the exchanges that were born out of a difference of opinion between two bloggers over a presentation made in April last year at iBlog7, an annual blogging summit. I will be naming names, because, as I have said, the Internet is a public place.

Earth Rullan was one of the speakers at this event, and her presentation was entitled, “Blogger Etiquette: How to be a Blogger with Integrity“. She is a lifestyle blogger with a fairly high profile, at least if the fact that she was chosen by Neutrogena as one of its brand ambassadors for a campaign back in 2010 is any indication. Faith Salazar—we know each other, though we are not related—was in the audience, and asked Rullan during the open forum what Rullan thought about bloggers who, after being tapped as endorsers for a given brand, jump ship to a competitor brand after their contracts expire. This was a pointed question, because Rullan, after her Neutrogena contract had expired, teamed up with a friend to join a contest for Pond’s in March 2011. Salazar later posted her take, “On Blogging Etiquette, Product Endorsements and Integrity“, in her blog, setting off a contentious, as well as enlightening, series of discussions that continue to be relevant to all of us today, particularly when money or an equivalent is introduced into the situation.

With regard to reviews, the writing of which I imagine to be the primary occupation of the book blogger, let me first say that these are absolutely vital to the life of a book. Reviews are not only judgments, but also invitations to dialogue—not so much with the author, however instructive that could turn out to be, but with other readers. Whether agreement is generated is unimportant: the point is that a book, out of all the millions and millions of books churned out in practically every part of the earth today, has been read and is being talked about. The kind of work that book bloggers do, then, can have significant effects on what will be written, published, and read in the future, and must be undertaken with a strong sense of responsibility.

In an essay, American poet and cultural critic Wayne Koestenbaum says that he looks at reviewing as a species of advocacy for the kind of literature that he loves: “Writing a review takes enormous work. I cannot imagine summoning the energy I didn’t feel that I needed to save a book from certain death, to wedge it into a crowded marketplace, to support a kind of writing that I esteem.” This, he adds, should not mean new titles only, and I agree with him: why not review old works, or books that you have encountered before? After all, to review means to view again.

Of course, practicing reviewing as advocacy doesn’t entail confining the body of your writing to the books that you like. Negative evaluations have their place as well, and are as necessary as positive ones. Whatever you may think of a work, provided your response to it is honest, thoughtful, and clearly argued, there is no reason to prevent yourself from expressing an opinion: few things are more dangerous than self-censorship. Let the author or your readers react as they will; should your piece turn out to be especially provocative, the resulting consensus or conflict could prove to be extremely educational—if not about the book itself, then at least about the quality of the minds that react to your review: the latter is indispensable in deciding which people are worth your time and energy to engage.

While once-and-for-all answers to questions of ethics are difficult, if not impossible, to find, I have found it useful to refer to the highest ideals and best practices of media with regard to my own blogging. (I do not wish to suggest that journalists invariably adhere to the code of ethics of their profession, or that bloggers are journalists—those are fraught issues better talked about at another time and place.) But perhaps constant self-assessment is the most helpful way to arrive at the right decisions—to my mind, it is definitely the most essential step. Questions we must each grapple with include: What are the values that I stand for? What courses of action are available to me? Which courses of action are consistent with my values? This process of self-assessment is crucial, because the actions of one blogger can reflect, for good or for ill, on the entire community.

Thank you.