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.