Columnist Oscar Franklin Tan’s piece How Sen. Tito Sotto became my textmate published today on the Inquirer was a refreshing read. In it, Tan narrates how he went from being an avowed Sotto basher to someone who could respect a man who would go on to be his Senate President. Tan’s new-found respect is not hinged on finding himself in Sotto’s “camp” or being his unconditional “supporter”. Both men found respect in one another on the simple basis of an ability to sustain a two-way conversation.
Tan closes his piece, saying…
Sotto’s bashers might realize they have an unprecedented direct line to a Senate president active on Twitter, and engage him intelligently instead of simply picking fights.
To be fair to the Philippine Opposition, for their part, which, unfortunately for now, is led by the Liberal Party (a.k.a. the Yellowtards), there are thought leaders in their camp who also encourage conversation over mere partisan sloganeering and mutual-high-fivin’. The eminent journalist Ed Lingao once said of online “trolls”, “You have to engage them because we cannot leave the internet to them.”
Indeed, Lingao hits upon an important aspect of the Philippines’ online political discourse that seems to have been lost: intelligent conversation. It is quite ironic, in fact, that the start of the decline of this art seems to have started when social media became the dominant platform upon which the Philippine intelligentsia exchanged ideas and debated the issues. Perhaps social media, once celebrated as a platform that democratised this debate had, instead, amplified and brought to the fore the deep-seated inclination to tribalise that still persists in the Filipino psyche. It probably also does not help that Twitter, the preferred media of the supposedly more “woke” of the chattering classes, encourages off-the-hip blather rather than the deep and well-thought-out thought streams that were possible in the long-since-supplanted online message boards and forums of yore where the politically-enlightened once gathered to test their ideas in the crowd.
Note the notion of one testing her ideas. Whereas, in the old days, Netizens articulated their ideas on a forum like PinoyExchange.com expecting these to be scrutinised by its critical — even skeptical — members, today’s online jocks issue their thougts on social media to angle for followers’ “likes” and “retweets” to validate their 250-character “insights”. Getting a critical question or even a challenge to said “insight” often results in a block rather than a response. Interesting, indeed, that a crop of these social media “influencers” attained fame, not because of what they tweet but because of who they block.
This is the fundamental difference between “debating” on social media and on the old turn-of-the-century online forums and message boards. When participating in the latter, a typical user opts in and commits to the debate. Only a forum moderator has the administrative rights to govern the quality of this debate and determine who is in or out of line. In these forums, there is no concept of one user “blocking” another.
It is therefore not surprising that the subset of the Philippines’ social media community engaged in political discussion is subject to a deluge of misinformed and downright wrong arguments. This is because there is no conversation — only thousands of people talking at each other rather than with each other. Nothesis emerges to move the conversation forward because no meeting of thesis and anti-thesis happens between polar parties. Tan, in his Inquirer column, expertly illustrates the alternative to this prevailing dysfunction citing his own experience in finally having a conversation with the man he once ridiculed.
We exchanged direct messages, now in straight, non-jeje English. He recalled lengthily debating Sen. Robert Barbers, former policeman and mandatory drug test proponent.He cited only 0.06 percent of applicants in 2002-2010 tested positive. It was a clear waste of hundreds of pesos per applicant.We discussed how random drug testing broadly applied, such as to all employees and all students, may be constitutionally intrusive. I showed him a Dec. 1, 2016, memo from Barangay Laging Handa, Quezon City, requiring all employers to certify their employees are drug-free or be added to a police “Tokhang” list.I wished a Merry Christmas to all his accounts.
Tan had long been outraged over what he believed to be the pointless mandatory drug testing he had to go through everytime he renewed his driver’s license. The story he tells us in his column is of how he finally met the man who thought-through the issue and did something about it. More importantly, at the centre of this meeting of minds were facts that proved the soundness of Sotto’s legislation to fix the problem.
Those who continue to shout out the shrill drivel that the spread of misinformation (which they glibly label “fake news”) is the Internet’s deadliest cancer have it wrong. What is really killing the Internet is a lack oflistening (in the figurative sense that it is used in the context of digital debate) and understanding. When people block otherwise respectful dissenters, they do a disservice not to the people they block but to themselves. Netizens who block people who beg to differ to their views cut themselves out from important counterweights to their egos. Without those counterweights, their big egos become even bigger, and as one’s ego gets bigger, the value of one’s ideas progressively shrinks. This inverse relationship between one’s ego and the soundness of one’s ideas happens when there is not enough listening and not enough respect accorded to one’s critics.