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Thursday, August 9, 2018

Popularizing the Constitution and federalism

THE Constitution is the fundamental law of the land. It is the foundation of governmental authority, as it defines the rights of citizens and the limits to the power of the state. It is the embodiment of the social contract that binds the sovereign citizens and the state that serves them.
It is therefore tragic when constitutions become documents that are alienating to, and alienate, the citizens not only by the very nature of the language used to craft them but also by the processes that attended their drafting, approval, revisions and amendments.
Constitutions intimidate people in the complexity of the language used, and the nature of their contents. It is an irony that a document that purports to define the parameters for citizens’ rights and empowerment would be so structured to disempower, or if not, to bore.
Teaching of the Constitution is supposed to be mandatory, but it remains a challenging and daunting task. It is in the family of topics that include teaching political theory.
As someone who teaches courses on political theory, I have quite a bit of experience in addressing the challenge of how to teach topics that are considered boring, even if they are important. In teaching theory, I had to devise mechanisms to make the students realize the importance and relevance of the ideas of the mostly dead, white men who authored them. These are topics that need an innovative approach, where a traditional lecture format will most definitely be less effective as compared to evocative, performative and creative approaches to teaching and learning. I use films and internet materials, in addition to the usual readings.
On the part of students, I require them to produce a music video on how they see the source of political order, drawing from the Greek classical theories, Machiavelli and the social contract theorists. I ask them to prepare a blueprint for social action to address their chosen social problem using either liberalism or conservatism as the ideological framework. I even ask them to plan their own revolutions, taking off from the theories of Marx, Lenin and Mao. The more contemporary theories on post-colonialism, feminism and post-feminism, queer theory and political ecology are used by students as the theoretical frames to perform through creative presentations their analysis of popular cultural texts, narratives and practices.
We now live in a generation that is very visual and performative, and where popular cultural forms offer opportunities to make people understand difficult topics such as the Constitution, or federalism. In this environment, pop culture could be used as a vehicle to educate and advocate. The Constitution is such an alienating document that it needs to be simplified, broken down into manageable pieces and translated into bits of information that can be easily digested by ordinary citizens. And these have to be delivered in a format that is familiar to them, and to which they can easily relate. The use of jingles, dance steps, short performances and internet memes would be appropriate ways to deliver the message to ordinary citizens who have increasingly become visual, and where other pop cultural forms such as soap operas, game shows, internet games and internet surfing have provided competition for attention.
Furthermore, in a highly visual and performative landscape, there is a need to put a familiar face to the complex message such as Charter change and federalism. The use of popular icons and celebrities would effectively capture the attention of people whose free times have been occupied by “Ang Probinsyano” and “Victor Magtanggol.”
The Constitution is certainly a serious matter to discuss. And there are fears that the use of pop culture forms and icons would have the effect of dumbing down the message, even to the point of trivializing it. However, it must be emphasized that the use of pop culture should not in any way be a license to undermine the content and the message. What should be the bottom line is to focus on the basic concepts, the key benefits that an ordinary citizen can get from the changes being proposed, and the effect of these on gut issues that matter most to the citizens.
The fear of losing the message is an issue that emanates from the classic debate in culture studies, between those who saw mass culture like TV, and now the internet, as a threat to the propagation of authentic knowledge, and those who looked at the potential of mass-based cultural forms to become authentic media to reach those at the margins whose opinions and beliefs need to be influenced.
A document as voluminous and as intimidating as a draft constitution cannot be presented in one complicated infographic. It has to be delivered in manageable bits of information, carried in short, focused, catchy, repetitive and at the very least, exciting and creative manner.
It is a fact that many ordinary Filipinos do not understand federalism. Any attempt to educate them using the usual information and education campaigns, like the conduct of public forums and consultations, will work only for some kinds of audience, most of whom already have the skill to independently read and understand the document. The challenge lies in people who may not have the interest, the time and the level of preparation required to understand the Constitution, or the proposed shift to federalism.
The key is to make the medium effective without trivializing and losing the message. One can rely on popular cultural forms as the medium, and pop icons and celebrities as the faces that deliver the message, but utmost vetting should always be deployed to ensure that the content is correct and factual.
It is therefore regrettable that the controversy surrounding the viral video featuring Assistant Secretary Mocha Uson and blogger Andrew Olivar is now being deployed against the use of pop culture and pop icons to popularize and educate people on federalism and the Constitution.
It must be emphasized that the issue against Uson and Olivar is on their manner of delivery, and not necessarily on the form they used. One has to be reminded how the campaign on the automatic election system have effectively used the Sex Bomb Dancers and the jingle “May bilog na hugis itlog” in educating voters on how to correctly shade their ballots.
Certainly, an advocacy that creates controversy by offending and dividing people, and calls to attention not the message but the bearers, would undermine any campaign, whether it uses the traditional seminar format, or pop culture.


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