Monday, May 30, 2011

Confronting a confrontation

This was my column on the date indicated above. This post is antedated.

We are a people that takes perverse pleasure at witnessing confrontations. In fact it can probably be said that we like setting up confrontations; it seems our default strategy to manage conflicts is to get the warring parties to settle differences mano a mano. An anthropologist friend of mine said this is expected of a people renowned for being inherently passionate and emotional.

This is particularly true when we talk about conflicts in personal relationships. A cousin who is barangay chairman in one of the urban centers in Pasay recently told me that more than 90 percent of the cases brought to them for mediation or resolution involve some kind of confrontation gone awry. Very often, they involve minor differences that have escalated into major conflicts because the parties confronted each other, in local parlance, nagpang-abot. He said the most difficult part of his job is trying to maintain civility during these confrontations when the parties tend to use emotions as their main means of expressing outrage, humility, even power.

Team building programs are often seen, sadly enough, as company-sanctioned bull sessions where people are supposed to take turns occupying a proverbial hot seat. Talk shows often pit people against each other - celebrity against another celebrity, wife against husband, wife against a third party, even families against another other families. The number one show of ABC 5, I am told is, is the local version of the Jerry Springer show where people are set up and egged on to verbally, nay, even physically attack their rivals, adversaries, or detractors.

When there are issues of national significance, our media networks inevitably round up the advocates of the different sides of the issues, put them together in one, or two, or a series of shows and leave them to demolish each other with verbal cunning, or worse, barbed retorts. Inevitably, everything ends up in a verbal tussle or a shouting match.

And this is the way we are trying to wade through the tumultuous sea of issues around the reproductive health bill. What we have is a situation that has escalated into a virtual shouting match. As can be expected in such a situation, people are hardly intelligible and their arguments tend to become incomprehensible.

Because Rep. Emmanuel Pacquiao is a champion boxer, people sat on the edge of their seats and tried to imagine a metaphorical sparring round between him and Rep. Edcel Lagman when The Pacman recently stood up at the plenary hall to “raise questions” about the reproductive health bill. Some pundits even tried to put a boxing spin to the whole thing, declaring a knockout in favor of Lagman.

Why oh why do we insist on trying to make Pacquiao anything more than a professional boxer who ran and won as congressman because he simply wanted to serve his constituents? He never made claims about being such an intellectual giant and the poor guy knows his limitations in terms of verbal facility. It can be argued of course that the poor guy knew what he was getting into (although I am aware that this point is debatable—did he really?) and that he willingly put himself through the wringer, even voluntarily spending tens of millions of pesos in the process. The point remains: He has his own competencies and he must be made to wage battles that make full use of his own distinct competencies.

This is my beef with the people who made him a poster boy for the movement against the reproductive health bill. I think we should be able to help fellow Filipinos, especially our leaders and those who are making this country proud by not reducing them to caricatures and mouthpieces for issues they obviously are not experts on. It’s pure and simple exploitation to advance political interests.

What was amusing—and all right, probably very Filipino – about the whole thing was the fact that Dionisia Pacquiao got into the fray. Filipino mothers are notorious for getting involved in issues involving their sons and for acting like cackling and ferocious mother hens protecting their clutch.

Was Dionisia Pacquiao’s intrusion into the political field justified? Heavens, no. She is a citizen and an aggrieved mother but there was no compelling need to foist her views on the citizenry. It can be argued that she merely stood up for her son, something that Manny Pacquiao was pleased about. But completely lost on the mother and son tandem and their supporters was the fact that he didn’t really need his mother to speak up for him. He is a grown man, for crying out loud. He is a congressman. He shouldn’t allow his mother to speak of for him, or to come to his defense because he should be able to do this very well on his own.

Many people think Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago was being sarcastic when she offered the proverbial olive branch to the mother-and-son tandem. It was actually the mature thing to do— no statesman in his or her mind should argue or debate with Dionisia Pacquiao. Not that she is not worth arguing with. The answer is simpler: She should not be forced to embarrass herself any further. No matter how inadvertently hilarious she could be, her views will not help widen the contours of the debate, nor help us arrive anywhere closer to a resolution.

I hope our media practitioners, particularly those who follow Dionisia Pacquiao around, come to their senses. It’s a great and nice diversion but we should not force people to become what they are not and what they could not be.

As it is, her shrilly diatribe already drew the ire of gays and transgenders. These are static to the issue at hand, which is a more enlightened and yes, civil, discussion on the merits and demerits of the reproductive health bill.

There really should be - must be - a better way for us to conduct our affairs. We really must find new ways to resolve our differences.

Unfortunately it seems nobody is thinking win-win among our leaders. No one is trying to fill the shoes of an “elderly statesman”—no one among our cardinals and bishops and certainly no one among our senators and congressmen.

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