Shattering the silence: An open letter to the Philippine writing community

From the moment that sports blogger Jaemark Tordecilla brought to the light of public attention the fact that Alfred “Krip” A. Yuson had plagiarized an article by GMA News Online sportswriter Rey Joble, entire portions of which appeared in a piece under Yuson’s name in the April 2011 issue of Rogue magazine, we, members of the Philippine reading public, have followed the issue avidly and with great concern as to its resolution.

Our interest is rooted primarily in the fact of Yuson’s prominent position in the cultural matrix. As Tordecilla pointed out in his exposé, Yuson is a Hall of Fame awardee of the Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards for Literature, arguably the most prestigious literary distinction in the country. In addition, he has authored and/or edited several publications in different genres, has won recognition for his work at home and abroad, evaluates the output of other writers for the purpose of competitions and workshops—not least among them the annual Silliman University National Writers Workshop, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year—teaches with the Department of English at Ateneo de Manila University (ADMU), and helped found organizations like the Philippine Literary Arts Council (PLAC) and the Manila Critics Circle (MCC). Finally, many of the texts that he has produced have found their way into the classroom as standard readings, which likely secures a place for him in the canon of Philippine literature.

It need hardly be said that Yuson’s stature as a writer, teacher, and gatekeeper affords him not only great power, but also a commensurate degree of responsibility. We believe that he has shown himself undeserving of the one and unequal to the other by virtue of how Yuson has thus far dealt with the matter in Tordecilla’s blog and in his own weekly The Philippine Star column. In these responses, rather than simply acknowledging the offense and apologizing for it, he offers up excuses—his advanced age, deadline pressure, and exhaustion, among others—deployed in rhetoric that belies his claims to contrition.

Moreover, Yuson seeks to confuse the issue by invoking the fraught relations between author and editor, in spite of the fact that his engagement with these relations, as well as with the concept of plagiarism, lacks the self-reflexivity, rigor, and intelligence required in order for it be tenable or acceptable. That he would resort to such subterfuge and at the same time admit that he had deliberately omitted any indicators that he had lifted material from Joble, like reportorial credits and purportedly “clunky” quotation marks, is breath-taking in its audacity and impunity. Surely integrity ought not to be incinerated upon the altar of aesthetics.

It is in this regard that we commend GMA News Online for its decision not to renew Yuson’s contract as editor at large. It is in the same regard that we profess ourselves disturbed and outraged by the deafening silence with which the writing establishment has met this controversy. The plagiarism of Yuson does not involve him alone: to the extent that he is representative of—because deeply imbricated in—the larger world of Philippine letters, his act also necessarily implicates the figures and structures that make up that world. The prevalent reluctance, nay, refusal among Yuson’s peers to openly condemn him would seem to indicate cowardice at best, and complicity at worst. Neither speaks well of our writers, journalists, scholars, and institutions—and may even be symptomatic of a more deeply entrenched cancer of corruption in our cultural sector.

What is certain is this: allowing the scandal to fester in a season of indifference would be tantamount to a virtual relinquishment of any moral authority and credibility that the Philippine writing community may have.

In view of the foregoing, we, the undersigned:

Condemn the act of plagiarism that Yuson committed. We reiterate what is generally accepted knowledge in journalism and the academe: plagiarism consists of misrepresenting the work of others as one’s own, and is considered a heinous violation of ethical standards. Furthermore, when one lifts information or material from a source without the appropriate quotation marks, formatting, and documentation, one has already committed plagiarism, and no amount of laziness, carelessness, or forgetfulness can be admitted as an exculpatory factor. We also denounce Yuson’s attempts to evade accountability for his actions by forwarding arguments that, as the Center of Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR) has pointed out, tend toward the legitimization of plagiarism. Finally, we decry Yuson’s callous and cavalier treatment of Rey Joble and the effort that he put into his work as a sportswriter.

Challenge the members of the Philippine writing community to make an unequivocal stand against Yuson’s plagiarism. At the very least, we expect Rogue magazine and The Philippine Star to emulate GMA News Online in its commitment to integrity. Associate Justice Maria Lourdes P. Sereno, in her dissenting opinion on the Supreme Court decision to exonerate her colleague Mariano del Castillo from charges of plagiarism, argues that when entities involved in the intellectual life of a culture uphold guidelines against plagiarism, these bodies “are not making themselves out to be error-free, but rather, they are exerting themselves to improve the level of honesty in the original works generated in their institution”. It is true that valuable questions have been raised about the very notion of originality from various fields of inquiry, but we contend that the specificity of the situation at hand calls for no such questions, and would invest it with more profundity than it deserves.

Enjoin the institutions of Philippine letters to cooperate in order to educate their constituents and the wider public about plagiarism. Contrary to Yuson, plagiarism is not a “blooming buzzword” but a chronic problem, which many a teacher will no doubt confirm. Recognizing and avoiding plagiarism is a matter of acquiring particular skills, which, as this incident would seem to illustrate, are not taught as well or as widely as they ought to be. The need for these skills will become especially urgent as our society becomes increasingly knowledge-based. We presume to suggest that Ateneo de Manila University, unfortunately entangled as it has become in various plagiarism disputes, take the initiative in bringing students, teachers, writers, readers, and institutions together to work through this admittedly complex matter. Regardless of who takes the lead, however, Yuson’s offense constitutes a teachable moment for us all, and should not be allowed to pass from our cultural memory unremarked and ignored for the sake of a spurious harmony.

(SGD.) Karen Connie Abalos (SGD.) Mark Angeles (SGD.) Genevieve Aquino
Planet Philippines; Illustrado Magazine; University of the Philippines Manila Kilometer64 Poetry Collective University of the Philippines Los Baños
(SGD.) Reginald S. Arceo (SGD.) Philip Jorge P. Bacani (SGD.) Noel Sales Barcelona
Alumnus, De La Salle University-Manila Lawyer Editor-in-Chief, INANG BAYAN
(SGD.) Johnalene Baylon (SGD.) Brian Brotarlo (SGD.) Manuel Buencamino
Writer Writer Opinion columnist, Business Mirror
(SGD.) Karl Bustamante (SGD.) Asia Flores Chan (SGD.) Liberty Chee
Editor, Marshall Cavendish International Singapore Alumna, De La Salle University-Manila Graduate Student, National University of Singapore
(SGD.) Charles Edric Co (SGD.) Adam David (SGD.) Cocoy Dayao
Alumnus, De La Salle University-Manila Writer Editor-in-Chief, The Pro Pinoy Project
(SGD.) Christa I. De La Cruz (SGD.) Erica Clariz C. De Los Reyes (SGD.) Karlitos Brian Decena
Graduate student, University of the Philippines Diliman Alumna member, Heights; Fellow, 6th Ateneo Institute of Literary Arts and Practices (AILAP) National Writers Workshop Journalism student, University of the Philippines Diliman; Contributor, Firequinito.com
(SGD.) Johann Espiritu (SGD.) Elise Estrella (SGD.) Anna Razel Estrella
Alumnus, De La Salle University-Manila Private citizen Alumna, De La Salle University-Manila
(SGD.) Jesser Eullo (SGD.) Katrina Fernando (SGD.) Karen Mae Frondozo
Faculty member, De La Salle University-Dasmariñas Copy editor Graduate student, University of the Philippines Diliman
(SGD.) Russell Stanley Geronimo (SGD.) Lolito Go (SGD.) Ronald F. Gue
Alumnus, De La Salle University-Manila; Fellow, 48th Silliman University National Writers Workshop Kilometer64 Poetry Collective Alumnus, De La Salle University-Manila
(SGD.) Marie Rose G. Henson (SGD.) Ken Ishikawa (SGD.) Leonides C. Katigbak  II
Alumna, De La Salle University-Manila Private citizen Fellow, 6th Ateneo Institute of Literary Arts and Practices (AILAP) National Writers Workshop
(SGD.) Jabin Landayan (SGD.) Gomi Lao (SGD.) Dean Lozarie
Teacher Creative Director Journalism student, University of the Philippines Diliman
(SGD.) Aleck E. Maramag (SGD.) Alessandra Rose F. Miguel (SGD.) Francis T. J. Ochoa
Alumna, De La Salle University; Fellow, 48th Silliman University National Writers Workshop Alumna member, Thomasian Writers Guild; Fellow, 6th Ateneo Institute of Literary Arts and Practices (AILAP) National Writers Workshop Assistant Sports Editor, Philippine Daily Inquirer
(SGD.) Jonathan Corpus Ong (SGD.) Wilfredo B. Prilles, Jr. (SGD.) Nikki Erwin C. Ramirez
Alumnus, Ateneo de Manila University; Sociologist, University of Cambridge City Planning and Development Coordinator (CPDC), Naga City Co-founder, NullPointer.ph
(SGD.) Marck Ronald Rimorin (SGD.) Del Camille Robles (SGD.) Orlando Roncesvalles
Writer; Blogger Alumna, De La Salle University-Manila Blogger, FOO Law and Economics
(SGD.) Gerry Rubio (SGD.) Joanna Ruiz (SGD.) Faith Salazar
Publication Consultant, The CSC Statesman, Catanduanes State Colleges Editor, Ateneo de Manila University ISBX Philippines
(SGD.) Jaime Oscar M. Salazar (SGD.) Maria Teresa M. Salazar (SGD.) Chris de Pio Sanchez
Graduate student, University of the Philippines Diliman Alumna, De La Salle University-Manila Consultant
(SGD.) Vincenz Serrano (SGD.) Nik Skalomenos (SGD.) Angela Stuart-Santiago
Ateneo de Manila University Private Citizen Writer; Blogger
(SGD.) Jamila C. Sule (SGD.) Ergoe Tinio (SGD.) Martin Tinio
Teacher, On-Um.org; De La Salle University-Dasmariñas Marketing Associate, Adarna House Analyst
(SGD.) Jaemark Tordecilla (SGD.) Xenia-Chloe H.  Villanueva
Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism UP Quill; Fellow, 6th Ateneo Institute of Literary Arts and Practices (AILAP) National Writers Workshop

April 28, 2011
Philippines

[NOTE: The signatures for this open letter were solicited from 9:00 PM (GMT +8) on April 26 until 5:00 PM (GMT +8) on April 28.]

*

[via Interlineal]

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Ruins and monuments: A collective statement on the plagiarism of Krip Yuson

Alfred "Krip" A. Yuson

“Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.”

—T. S. Eliot, “Philip Massinger

While we may be growing old, straining under the constant pressure of deadlines, and feeling overworked—and who, in truth, does not?—we may not be as jaded as we think we are: when blogger Jaemark Tordecilla of Fire Quinito exposed the fact that multi-awarded writer Alfred “Krip” Yuson had plagiarized entire paragraphs from an article by GMA News Online sports reporter Rey Joble for a piece that was published in the current issue of Rogue Magazine, we must admit to feeling no small degree of disappointment and outrage.

We find that we can only agree with Tordecilla when he concludes his post with, “Fuck that. We deserve so much better.” That such a sentiment has to be articulated in the first place is almost as dismaying as the wrongdoing itself, of course, because Yuson is no callow wordsmith, and therefore should be no stranger to the concept of intellectual honesty. Insofar as the realm of Philippine letters can be conceived of as a game, Yuson is one of its most prominent professional players, which even the most cursory survey of his curriculum vitae would show: he is the author and/or editor of several books in different genres, has won both local and international recognition for his work, evaluates the output of other, younger writers in competitions and workshops, and is a faculty member of the Department of English at Ateneo de Manila University.

[Read the rest in Interlineal.]

The sense of shame

The near-universal celebration of the beginning of another Gregorian calendar year is charged with the prospect of living one’s life over—a prospect both tantalizing and dangerous. I do not wish to argue against submission to the rigors of self-recreation or the enjoyment of its resultant pleasures; instead, I would like to underscore that each of our lives consists of inextricable, sometimes invisible, connections to various others, human or otherwise, which the idea of beginning again tends, in all its attractiveness, to obscure.

That the Roman god after whom this month is named has two heads, one gazing into the past and the other into the future, should serve as a potent reminder that while the “new” year could indeed be a doorway into a space of different possibilities, one cannot simply step outside or transcend the flow of history to start from absolute zero. One cannot, at the midnight stroke of the clock, discard what had come before and exempt oneself from responsibility over previous words and deeds.

Of particular concern to me in this season of aspiring toward renewal are the stock exhortations to forgive and forget, to let go and move on—I refer here specifically to life-changing harm that is inflicted on the level of the personal and in the realm of the everyday, harm that falls outside the ambit of our legal system. Such sentiments are not, perhaps, entirely objectionable, but a milieu that conceives of the act of pardon as a reflex response is morally bankrupt. Not only does it breed a sense of entitlement in those who wound others—which would be all of us, at one point or another—but also it cultivates a culture of impunity within which the heart is stripped of the ability to feel and relationships are drained of value.

Forgiveness should not be granted without conditions, for if we fail to require that the offender muster the courage, the honor, and the decency to redress the hurt that he or she has caused, we secure for ourselves a well-deserved future of further and deeper injury. Ought not the wrongdoer first demonstrate that he or she deserves to be forgiven?

Let this not be mistaken as an endorsement of mere confession, which, even—perhaps especially—in the sacramental sense, is little different from the sort of narcissistic self-display that is encouraged, nay, clamored for, in increasingly absurd degrees by contemporary life: the act of exposing oneself as having inflicted damage against another is to state the obvious. Wallowing in the mud of one’s transgressions is a variant of masturbating in public and should be dealt with accordingly. It is not, however purportedly brave or risky, the same as apologizing and making amends. Nor do I advocate vindictiveness or the holding of grudges on the part of the offended—I suggest, rather, that it is possible to move past the hurt and live well without holding the offender free of accountability.

The remarks of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu are illuminating in this regard. In Kerry Kennedy’s Speak Truth to Power: Human Rights Defenders That Are Changing Our World, the retired cleric says that forgiveness does not involve pretending that things are other than they are, or trying to paper over the cracks. Bygones, he points out, will not just be bygones, for such have an incredible capacity for always returning to haunt. Instead, forgiveness means that the wronged and the culprits of those wrongs acknowledge that something has happened—that both recognize that ghastliness has occurred. I would add that the perpetrator should be prepared to accept that forgiveness is not deliverable upon demand, that certain acts admit of no reparation, though that does not, of course, justify refusing to try.

While brooding over a botched mastectomy, Handel, a priest and surgeon in Jeanette Winterson’s Art & Lies, observes that it is unusual for Catholics to feel shame. The ticket, rather, is guilt, which, if a distressing state of mind, is easily remedied, expiated via its articulation in the confessional. He then proposes that shame comes from a different, older moral sense—one where the wrongdoer fears not punishment, either in this or the next world, but the shrinking up of self, the loss that is charged to the soul for every small, mean, dirty, or stupid act: “If I cheat another, I cheat myself out of the person that I could be. If I wound another, I will eventually find the cut recalled to my own heart. There is no appropriate confession, only the will not to fail again so readily, perhaps because while failure can be forgiven it cannot be excused.”

If the foregoing account of the roots of shame is primarily speculative, that is no reason to dismiss the standards it sets for human behavior. We may no longer care very much about our souls, and the days of the pillory and the scarlet letter may be long behind us—all to the good—but should we lose the capacity for shame, we would also lose the capacity for compassion, which, to return the word to its origins, entails suffering with another. Our very existence, as Delirium tells her brother Dream in Neil Gaiman’s The Kindly Ones, deforms the universe, and I fear the sort of beings we would become if we could not enter into the pain of others and be impelled to alleviate it as best as we can, to be ashamed about and atone for our role in the damage, disfigurement, or degradation that has been wrought.

‘A mere aberration’

PGMA at the 34th National Prayer Breakfast

President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo delivers a speech at the 34th National Prayer Breakfast on November 26, 2009.

Based on several news reports, the death toll for the Ampatuan Massacre (also referred to as the “Maguinanao Massacre”) has risen from 57 to 64, though authorities have dismissed the new figure, saying that they had stopped the excavations yesterday.

It is unknown when the additional bodies were uncovered—or, as has been remarked, if these are in fact part of the current crime being investigated, considering that Mayor Andal Ampatuan, Jr., the alleged mastermind, is known to be a “hatchet man” (“chainsaw man” would not be inappropriate)—but the gruesome details remain the same: a group consisting of several women, among them lawyers and at least 30 media workers, set off in a convoy of six vehicles from Buluan on the morning of November 23, Monday, to witness the proxy filing of the certificate of candidacy of gubernatorial hopeful Ishmael Mangudadatu at the Commission on Elections (COMELEC) office in Shariff Aguak. The group had previously made separate requests to the army and to the police for a security escort, but had been turned down. The convoy, along with a carful of innocent motorists, was stopped by armed men, who, led by Mayor Ampatuan, Jr., abducted, tortured, and killed most of the members of the group, in one stroke shattering the traditional shields of the powerless.

No cases of beheading or rape, which were earlier alleged, have been mentioned by investigators yet, though practically all the women were sexually mutilated. A backhoe emblazoned with the legend, “Property of the province of Maguindanao – Gov. Datu Andal Ampatuan Sr.”, which had been dispatched on a project some weeks before, was used to crush the vehicles and dig mass graves for the victims, some of whom were buried alive. (The operator of the machine is the subject of a manhunt.) Upon hearing that the military was approaching, the militiamen immediately fled, leaving the cover-up work undone, but the entire atrocity reportedly took little more than an hour to carry out.

Local and international organizations, as well as governments around the world, have condemned the massacre—a barbarity that could very well be, and hopefully is, the nadir of a political culture predicated on guns, goons, and gold—as a crime against humanity, and demanded the swift dispensation of justice. Public anger and despair at the murders continue to intensify, with various sectors holding vigils or rallies.

In view of the universal outrage at the carnage, it is inexplicable, unacceptable, and unconscionable that the government has been unwilling or unable to move quickly and decisively against the perpetrators, instead resorting to dissemblance, diminishment, and delay, perhaps out of the belief that people will fall victim to amnesia after having vented their spleens, as they have in the wake of other tragedies, or in the morbid expectation that an exponentially more horrific, and hence potentially more mediagenic, catastrophe will take place.

In dealing with the Ampatuan clan, which has enjoyed a close relationship with the current administration, the government has had its kid gloves firmly on from day one, resulting in strange contortions of rhetoric and action that would be funny under other circumstances. Malacañang conspicuously understated the massacre as “an incident between two families in Mindanao” with which it had nothing to do. Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG) Secretary Ronaldo Puno downplayed the expulsion of the Ampatuans from the ruling party by chairman Gilbert Teodoro as an expression of justified, but ultimately personal, outrage. For his part, Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita could only muster an oblique plea, saying, “It definitely would help if, those who feel that they are already being considered as suspects, for them to turn themselves in and cooperate with the law enforcement agencies.”

The police have also said that the backhoe and witness accounts are insufficient evidence. Meanwhile, the bodies are fast deteriorating, as the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) has not even used lime to preserve them.

Although Ampatuan, Jr. has been charged and is now in custody, Philippine National Police (PNP) Chief Superintendent Leonardo Espina was recorded as having backtracked from using the term “suspect”, and officials actually waited for the mayor to surrender last November 26, Thursday, instead of taking the initiative and hauling him in for questioning. (Department of Justice Secretary Agnes Devanadera stressed that he was arrested.) And despite finally being tagged as the primary suspect, Ampatuan, Jr. was not handcuffed as he was brought to General Santos for an inquest, and then to Manila for detention.

Notwithstanding the self-professed exultance of the Palace at the news that the mayor was in custody, Deputy Presidential Spokesperson Lorelei Fajardo made a point of asserting that the order to nab Ampatuan, Jr. was not issued by the President, who will remain friends with the Ampatuans.

President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo herself did not even make a statement until two days after the crime, on November 25, Wednesday—and a most perfunctory statement at that:

Her speech at the 34th National Prayer Breakfast the following day, which she had designated as a National Day of Prayer and Mourning for the victims, was not a significant improvement, crammed as it was with vague and passive gestures toward God and justice.

It was perhaps the voluble—not to mention reliably inane—Press Secretary Cerge Remonde who, inadvertently or otherwise, best summed up the attitude of the present dispensation toward the Ampatuan massacre. On November 27, Remonde declared that, “It is said that the incident has few [precedents] in brutality, and for this we are condemned by the whole world. But let me assure the nation and the rest of the world that the killing of at least 57 people, including lawyers and media men, is a mere aberration” (emphasis added).

This is a poisonous suggestion that must be denounced in the strongest possible terms. By inserting the slaughter of 64 people into a space of “mere aberrations”, Remonde is attempting to disengage the government from its responsibilities, and worse, to accelerate the process of forgetting, thus displaying a species of impunity no less dangerous than that of the Ampatuans. As tantalizing as it is to believe that the Ampatuan massacre is an event so terrible that it could not have been prevented, and, anyway, will never happen again—who would not want to believe this, after all?—the fundamental impulse behind it, as a Philippine Daily Inquirer editorial points out, should be shocking precisely because it is hardly aberrant:

When unmarked, black-tinted SUVs wang-wang their insolent way through a city’s roads, when government officials who have no other source of income except access to public funds ostentatiously purchase the most expensive luxury items, when public servants swagger into a room with dozens of bodyguards, we recognize the seeds of future massacres.

“Should be shocking”, that is, unless one is a callous, charter-change monomaniac like Carmen Pedrosa, who readily exonerates the Arroyo regime so as to be able to annex the tragedy for her cause.

Speaking of disturbing familiarity, it is urgently necessary, I think, that a particular aspect of the massacre be examined more closely. It may be that the militiamen who committed the murders were marching to the tune of a warlord who could be described as “psychopathic”, “sadistic”, or “monstrous”, but what are the odds that nearly all of them were psychopathic, sadistic monsters? (Psychopathy, in the clinical, rather than the popular, sense, is estimated to manifest itself in only 1% of the population, though researchers have suggested that psychopaths are overrepresented in occupations such as politics, business, and entertainment.) The bigger picture is more abysmal.

According to “Boy”, the sole gunman on the scene who claimed he could not bring himself to participate in the killing, “Datu Andal himself said […] to us: anyone from the Mangudadatu clan—women or children—should be killed… We [didn’t] ask why, we just followed orders. “How many of us have found ourselves in exactly the same situation—one in which we, in spite of our moral convictions, failed to question authority and therefore suffered the perils of obedience?

In the early 1960s, perhaps inspired in part by the trial of Nazi Adolf Eichmann—also the subject of a book by philosopher Hannah Arendt, in which she introduced the concept of the “banality of evil”—Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram conducted a series of experiments to test how far people were willing to obey commands from an authority figure. The volunteers, who had been recruited via newspaper ads, were made to play the role of “teacher”, and conducted simple memory exercises that a “learner” would provide answers to. Every time the learner made a mistake, the teacher was to administer progressively higher electric shocks to a “learner”, who was strapped to a miniature electric chair. There were 30 shock levels in all, from 15 volts to 450 volts. The electrocution was not real, but the learner, an actor, would express discomfort and pain, even scream, to convince the teacher that actual shocks were being delivered by the machine. Every time the teacher hesitated, the experimenter would prompt the teacher to press the switch.

In a poll that Milgram conducted among psychiatrists, college students, and middle-class adults, 100% of the respondents predicted that the teachers would defy the experimenter, and that few teachers would go beyond the mild shock levels. The results of Milgram’s first set of experiments proved otherwise: out of 40 teachers, 26 administered the maximum shock of 450 volts. He would go on to conduct 17 other variations on the experiment and compile the results in Obedience to Authority, first published in 1974. Below are selected paragraphs from the opening chapter:

Many subjects will obey the experimenter no matter how vehement the pleading of the person being shocked, no matter how painful the shocks seem to be, and no matter how much the victim pleads to be let out. This was seen time and again in our studies and has been observed in several universities where the experiment was repeated. It is the extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths on the command of an authority that constitutes the chief finding of the study and the fact most urgently demanding explanation.

A commonly offered explanation is that those who shocked the victim at the most severe level were monsters, the sadistic fringe of society. But if one considers that almost two-thirds of the participants fall into the category of “obedient” subjects, and that they represented ordinary people drawn from working, managerial, and professional classes, the argument becomes very shaky.  […] The ordinary person who shocked the victim did so out of a sense of obligation—a conception of his duties as a subject—and not from any peculiarly aggressive tendencies.

This is, perhaps, the most fundamental lesson of our study: ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process.

The difficult lesson that emerged from Milgram’s experiments is one of the lessons that we need to revisit and keep uppermost in our minds as we struggle to deal with the grisly reality and the grislier implications of the Ampatuan Massacre. Those among us who sow discord and commit acts of unimaginable cruelty may just be doing their jobs. The perpetration of evil need not be, and is in fact far from, a mere aberration.

The moral bankruptcy of the COMELEC

In an eight-page resolution dated November 11, 2009, the Second Division of the Commission on Elections (COMELEC), composed of commissioners Nicodemeo T. Ferrer, Lucenito N. Tagle, and Elias R. Yusoph, dismissed the petition of Ang Ladlad LGBT Party to be accredited under the party-list system of represention. The dismissal was based on the following: that Ang Ladlad, in seeking to represent the Filipino lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community, advocated sexual immortality, which is offensive to Christian and Muslim beliefs, and violative of Article 201 of the Revised Penal Code of the Philippines; that, therefore, the organization had been untruthful when in stating that neither it nor any of its nominees had failed to comply with any laws, rules, or regulations relating to the elections; and that, finally, the state is duty-bound to protect the youth from moral and spiritual degradation, as provided for in Article II, Section 13 of the 1987 Constitution, and granting the petition would mean exposing young people to an environment that does not conform “to the teachings of our faith” [emphasis added]. (Sass Rogando Sasot of Rainbow Bloggers adapts this letter to fit the current situation and shows how absurd such teachings, which in any case do not bind everyone, can be, when taken too far.)

Variously described as “bigoted, homophobic, and medieval“, “theocratic“, and “nothing short of chaka“, the decision evinces only the most perfunctory of efforts on the part of the commissioners to find purchase in law, as they derived their concept of immorality from the Bible and from the Koran—or, more accurately, from online sources that cited the Bible and the Koran, which is indicative of how little rigor and seriousness the commissioners applied to the matter. That they then quoted the Constitution underscores how appallingly disingenuous their sensibilities are, for, as has been pointed out in The BLIPS Network and Philippine Commentary, they conveniently managed to skip over those provisions that render the separation of church and state inviolable and uphold the freedom of religion. One statement in Article III, Section 5, seems especially cogent: “No religious test shall be required for the exercise of civil or political rights.”

This is not to say that the state cannot contemplate issues of morality—rather, the nature of the morality it upholds, in view of existing jurisprudence, should be secular and widely accepted.

Public moral disputes must be settled within the framework of an established civil order, for, regardless of how creed-inclusive the COMELEC resolution at hand pretends to be, using the standards of a given religion or religions to shape public policy would go against the very concept of religious freedom—such a concept allows an individual to cleave to no religion whatsoever. A pertinent excerpt from Supreme Court decision on the case of Estrada vs. Escritor (A.M. No. P-02-1651) follows, with key passages emphasized:

In other words, government action, including its proscription of immorality as expressed in criminal law like concubinage, must have a secular purpose. That is, the government proscribes this conduct because it is “detrimental (or dangerous) to those conditions upon which depend the existence and progress of human society” and not because the conduct is proscribed by the beliefs of one religion or the other. Although admittedly, moral judgments based on religion might have a compelling influence on those engaged in public deliberations over what actions would be considered a moral disapprobation punishable by law. After all, they might also be adherents of a religion and thus have religious opinions and moral codes with a compelling influence on them; the human mind endeavors to regulate the temporal and spiritual institutions of society in a uniform manner, harmonizing earth with heaven. Succinctly put, a law could be religious or Kantian or Aquinian or utilitarian in its deepest roots, but it must have an articulable and discernible secular purpose and justification to pass scrutiny of the religion clauses. Otherwise, if a law has an apparent secular purpose but upon closer examination shows a discriminatory and prohibitory religious purpose, the law will be struck down for being offensive of the religion clauses as in Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye, Inc. where the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated an ordinance prohibiting animal sacrifice of the Santeria. Recognizing the religious nature of the Filipinos and the elevating influence of religion in society, however, the Philippine constitution’s religion clauses prescribe not a strict but a benevolent neutrality. Benevolent neutrality recognizes that government must pursue its secular goals and interests but at the same time strives to uphold religious liberty to the greatest extent possible within flexible constitutional limits. Thus, although the morality contemplated by laws is secular, benevolent neutrality could allow for accommodation of morality based on religion, provided it does not offend compelling state interests.

Furthermore, the state must ensure that its laws square with widely accepted concepts of what is right and what is wrong, for otherwise the law would have no meaning or purpose, and would be impossible to enforce—moral norms ought not to be implemented at the cost of fundamental liberties. Inherent in such a requirement is not a drive toward arbitrariness or whimsy, but a recognition that laws, like the human beings who enact them, are inevitably prone to change. Here is a relevant paragraph from White Light Corporation, et al. vs. City of Manila (G.R. No. 122846):

To be candid about it, the oft-quoted American maxim that “you cannot legislate morality” is ultimately illegitimate as a matter of law, since as explained by Calabresi, that phrase is more accurately interpreted as meaning that efforts to legislate morality will fail if they are widely at variance with public attitudes about right and wrong. Our penal laws, for one, are founded on age-old moral traditions, and as long as there are widely accepted distinctions between right and wrong, they will remain so oriented.

In view of the foregoing, it is worth highlighting that the Revised Penal Code, which, per the Supreme Court itself, is “founded on age-old moral traditions”, does not, in fact, criminalize non-heterosexuality or non-heterosexual acts, no matter how certain provisions—those pertaining to vagrancy and grave scandal, to give two examples—have been misused and abused to censure them, and so it is reasonable to extrapolate that the public has believed since 1930 that, from a legal, secular standpoint, non-heterosexuality and non-heterosexual acts are not wrong.

What is most patently offensive about the COMELEC resolution is the conclusion, which is a gem of sheer passive-aggressive persecution: “We are not condemning the LGBT, but we cannot compromise the well-being of the greater number of our people, especially the youth.” The contra-factual, nonsensical assumptions in operation are these: that the LGBT sector and the youth sector are wholly separate; and that the former poses a dire threat to the well-being of the latter, and therefore should be suppressed. In other words, it would seem that the COMELEC is willing to “tolerate”—that supreme act of condescension—the existence of the LGBT community as long as it stays away from the youth, never mind that many young people are themselves lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender. As Indian intellectual Gayatri Spivak has asserted, however, “Tolerance doesn’t work both ways. The rich and the poor are not equally free to sleep under the bridges of Paris. Tolerance is a loaded virtue because you have to have a base of power to practice it. You cannot ask certain people to ‘tolerate’ a culture that has historically ignored them at the same time that their children are being indoctrinated into it.”

Taken to its logical end, the resolution imprisons the LGBT community in social and cultural ghettos easily supervised and controlled, banishes them from public affairs in general and the political arena in particular, and even, as Manolo Quezon points out, lays the ground for the eventual arrest of Ang Ladlad members and supporters, beginning with chairman Danton Remoto. How the COMELEC resolution against Ang Ladlad can be construed as not ultimately condemnatory of the LGBT community can only involve the most convoluted, most contrived, and most morally bankrupt mental maneuvers. It must be stressed that what is at stake here are not the rights of a minority. The rights of representation and participation are not for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals alone—these are human rights, which the state must ever strive to protect against those who would abrogate them.