Irresponsible comments can lose votes

This is my column today at the op-ed section of the Manila Standard Today.

Television is truly a double-edged sword. It can make or break candidacies, delight or hurt constituencies. Because television airtime is costly and the attention span of audiences is fleeting, candidates are often forced to be smart, curt and witty when responding to interviews. Thus, sometimes, even the most sensible of candidates make irresponsible comments.

I did not catch that particular footage on television last week when senatorial candidate Sonia Roco made that unfortunate remark that reportedly caught the ire of the Autism Society of the Philippines. Probably because I have already announced in my blog that I was voting for Roco, a friend who is an active supporter of the Society as well as another reader of my blog, called my attention to the snafu. As a favor to my friend—who happens to have a child with autism—I am sharing with you the story:

Roco was asked by a television news reporter to comment on Team Unity’s reaction to the results of the latest survey. As we all know, Team Unity had been doggedly insisting that the surveys were wrong and that the administration candidates were certain to sweep the mid-term elections. Team Unity’s campaign manager had even boasted that the survey firms will be out of business after the elections.

Roco said: “Ano ba naman sila, dreaming? Para naman silang mga autistic, may sariling mundo.” And then she let out a hearty laugh. (Are they dreaming? They are like autistic people who live in their own world).

Let’s face it: Team Unity’s stubborn insistence that it would sweep the elections verges on the hilarious, simply because everyone, except them, already knows it is not going to happen. Thus, I can understand the context of Roco’s off-the-cuff remarks.

Too bad, those remarks hurt one sector of society: the autistic people and their loved ones.

I empathize with Filipinos who have autistic family members and who were gravely hurt by Roco’s thoughtless and insulting remarks. Those who are unfamiliar with the difficulties of autistics and their families are made to suffer due to social stigmatization may not find anything wrong with Roco’s statement. The common perception is that people with autism are mentally unbalanced, inferior, or prone to destructive behavior. They are often ridiculed, feared, even used as objects of derision. Roco’s statement was certainly uncalled for and cast aspersions on autistic people.

The Autism Society of the Philippines came up with a statement, which I am quoting here in full:

”Para naman silang mga autistic... may sariling mundo.”

“This is what senatorial candidate Sonia Roco said when interviewed on TV Patrol Monday evening newscast, regarding Team Unity’s reaction to poll surveys on Top 12 senators. She followed her statement with a hearty laugh.”

“But we could not laugh with her.”

“Coming from a respectable educator like Mrs. Roco, families of Filipinos with autism could not help being hurt by such statement, given the context that it was said. After all, we have worked so hard for the past 20 years to educate Filipinos about autism, and to remove the social stigma associated with it.”

“We can’t help wondering... if a poll survey is to be conducted now among the estimated 400,000 Filipino families [multiply that please with the number of immediate family members and relatives, plus professionals involved], what would be Mrs. Roco’s ranking?”

The statement was signed by Dang Uy Koe, president of the Society.

On Good Friday, Roco issued an apology and clarified her statement. Expectedly, she said that her comments were “not meant to deride or demean those who are suffering from autism and the people like you who care for them.”

Roco explained her comment, particularly that damning line “may sariling mundo.” She explained that what she meant was that “we are each living in our own individual world, while being members of a whole. That was the only reference I meant, insinuating that Team Unity is so engrossed in their own world that they shut out the realities of the community around them. The answer was directed to Team Unity and to Team Unity alone.” This explanation is neither here nor there because her original statement clearly had autistic people as point of reference.

She went on to share that she had a sister who was a special child and that the late Raul Roco’s youngest sister was labelled by psychologists as “mongoloid.” “Yes, I understand where you are coming from as I hope you will understand to whom the commentary was directed to,” she said.

Roco, however, did not explain the context around the hearty laughter that followed her irresponsible comment. Nor did she explain why despite being on first name basis with autism, she still made that remark.

Although the Autism Society has dropped the issue, I am told that a number of its members and supporters are still miffed, and quite understandably so. They resent the fact that Roco dragged their loved ones into the dirty world of politics.

Dexter of the Web log 3X + Y ( had this to say: “What might have really insulted families and friends of our uniquely loved brothers and sisters was the way Sonia Roco related autism to the severely-decaying world she wants to belong to, spelled out as P-O-L-I-T-I-C-S.”

There is a lesson to be learned here and I hope that Roco has truly learned it.

Let this be a warning to the other candidates, particularly those who make statements that they think would make them cute. Actually, such words turn people off. People are not as naïve or as forgiving anymore.


Anonymous said…
This reminds me of a current outrage in the US about a radio jock's racist and sexist remarks directed at members of a women's basketball team. The outrage was expressed by a wide sector of society, not only of the families of the young women. The jock was suspended by CBS and MSNBC and he hasn't really heard the end of it. I wish that in this country we are less apathetic, that we express our outrage even if the insults are not directed at us, if only to show that we expect decency, especially from those running for office. My vote for Sonia Roco is under review, so to speak, and I'm sure the same is true with my siblings and mother and the family of my sis in law. You see, I have a nephew who is a very special child, with Down's Syndrome, we don't refer to him as "mongoloid". And we make sure as a family that he has our overflowing and unconditional love. And I'm sure he will grow up to be a much better person than most of these politicians. --MommyJo
City Muse said…
Obviously, Sonia Roco meant to say that the Unity Party is oblivious or in denial regarding their standing in the polls. But the party thinks so by choice, and comparing that to autistic children who exist in their own world through no fault of their own was a thoughtless, insensitive statement to make. Laughing made it even worse.

I agree that an errant word or deed can sink a politician, especially in this age of Youtube and instant soundbites. Here in the U.S., Virginia Senator George Allen is a perfect example. Allen was once tauted as a presidential hopeful. The "macaca" incident not only crushed that possibility, but also caused Allen to lose his Senate seat last November.

However, politicians are human beings, and are likely to make mistakes, especially under pressure. Although what she said was inexcusable, a more important issue is whether Roco has a pattern of making similarly callous remarks (which was the case with Allen). If not, then voters should give her another chance.
vic said…
Thanks for taking up this issue in your column as I myself already written Ms Rocco thru the contact address at the GO WEB Site, but until now I have not received any acknowledgment of my email. What surprised me is, I never failed to receive a reply from even our PM here wherever I made an inquiry and here I can’t even get one from a Candidate.

Gone are the days that Jokes about Mentally and Physically disabled individuals are said or written in public in our country. They are the most vulnerable members of our society and they should be the one to be protected the most. They don’t ask for more. Just respect.

I am very passionate about this issue because here in Canada the rights of the Physically and the Mentally disabled are entrenched in our Charter and violating them is a constitutional violation.

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