Monday, August 27, 2007

Postcripts to a controversy

Since I am a blogger and a columnist of this paper, I guess it was expected that I would react to the Malu Fernandez controversy.

Unfortunately, I have been on blog leave for a couple of weeks now due to a medical condition that put a cap to the number of hours I could stare at a computer monitor. It was only Wednesday last week when a friend alerted me to the controversy, wondering why I haven’t joined the fray.

That was when I opened my public e-mail account and discovered quite a number of e-mails basically advocating the same thing: A public lynching of Malu Fernandez.

But like my fellow columnist and blogger Connie Veneracion (she wrote a column about the controversy last week), I did read the damning column (Am I being a diva? Or do you lack common sense) in the lifestyle section of this paper when it came out. Since I haven’t read her People Asia article at that time, I didn’t know what it was that she referred to as “funny.”
It is important to note a detail that seems to have been glossed over in the melee—Fernandez’s Manila Standard Today column, while dripping with what appears to be her signature attitude (scorn and contempt) toward things that she finds objectionable, is not the piece that sneered at overseas workers.

I found it quite unnerving that many were so quick to pontificate without bothering to make that distinction. Many even confused the two publications and in fact some did focus their screed on this paper alone.

One manifesto even went as far as ascribing motives and all sorts of insidious agenda on this paper, the editors, and the people who are part of this paper. One e-mail that I got from someone belonging to an academic community asserted: “Manila Standard Today is riding on the controversy to generate more awareness for the paper which will translate into more readership and circulation.” Quite a stretch, you would agree.

At least two comments on a blog even succeeded in dragging certain columnists of this paper into the fray, convicting them by association.

For the record, I did find Fernandez’ MST column quite outrageous. I don’t find being haughty and elitist amusing, but Fernandez’s is not exactly peerless in this department. Oh please, there are a number of other lifestyle writers in other publications that dish out the same, if not far more contemptuous, and to my mind frivolous, discourse. Some of these people talk about their wardrobes and their partying as if these are the only things that matter in this country.
Come to think of it, even some so-called respected columnists have engaged in the same hateful discourse (for instance, Isagani Cruz of the Philippine Daily Inquirer and his harangue against gay people).

The truth is, this penchant for ridiculing other people and passing it off as satire has been around for quite some time now. Many writers have gained readership precisely for this style. Many find it hilarious. I don’t. But then again, I also poke fun at others and drag them across the coils often in this column and in my blog and I guess a number of people also find it objectionable. Many bloggers do worse in their blogs every day, practically calling people all sorts of names.

This is not to say that I think this paper or any paper for that matter should tolerate bigotry of any kind. We should rile against hatred of any form, wherever, and whomever it comes from. By all means, let us condemn in the strongest words possible what we think is wrong and vile. I don’t object to calls for boycotting a paper or flooding inboxes with angry denunciations. By all means, condemn and lambaste to your hearts desire. These are valid forms of protests.
But we must learn how and where to draw the line between what is valid and not, between what is reasonable and what is clearly excessive.

Public lynching has no place in a civilized world. I would caution anyone against advocating violence in any form. I find it alarming that many went as far as issuing death threats publicly. I am aware that many did so out of anger, but surely we are still capable of rational thinking even in the midst of extreme agitation.

And I would draw the line at forcing newspapers and editors to fire anyone because of what they write. A newspaper is supposed to represent a marketplace of ideas, which is a function critical to a democracy. Suppression of opinions because they do not conform to personal yardsticks of what is right or wrong just runs counter to the whole essence of what a newspaper is supposed to be about. In the words of one great man: “I may disagree with what you have to say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

Again, this is not to say that columnists should be allowed to run amuck, libel anyone, or break the bounds of decency. There are ethical guidelines that columnists should adhere to. Fernandez made no bones about the fact that she is, in her own words, a “bitch.” She admitted her bias and prejudices. Whether we agree with her or not, or whether we find her attitude acceptable is entirely up to us. But she has as much right as anyone else to peddle her opinions in the marketplace out there. And we have the right to call her a bigot.

Columnists should be personally responsible—and made accountable—for what they write. In the end, any columnist worth his or her name should own up their mistakes or lapses in judgment. It is a personal judgment call. That is the reason why columnists own their spaces in newspapers. She has apologized and submitted her voluntary resignation.

Fernandez has been properly rebuked. She said she has learned a lesson. Hopefully we all did, as well. Fernandez might have been the main issue in the controversy but it wasn’t just about her.

The controversy has validated the emergence of blogs as a powerful medium today. But it also highlighted the downside of the medium. Because blogging is a free medium and anyone out there with an Internet connection can dish out opinions, and mostly anonymously, the issue of ethics among bloggers has become a serious matter.

As Veneracion pointed out, quite a number of commentaries about Fernandez were downright libelous. I personally found a number of commentaries really cruel and irresponsible. It was dismaying to read rants that engaged in the same vile and hateful discourse that they were riling about in the first place. I truly mourn the demise of civility in this world.

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