Monday, August 08, 2011

A series of unfortunate events

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


Before August 3, 2011, Christopher Lao lived a normal existence. He lived a relatively quiet life as just one among us ordinary mortals. He was simply a guy trying hard to balance the many demands of being a law student, frantically reviewing for the Bar exams, being a husband and a father. On that fateful Wednesday, he was just a motorist trying to get to someplace else when forces of man and nature threw him a challenge that unfortunately didn’t turn out to be an opportunity for him to showcase his better side. He tried to maneuver his car across a flooded street, got hopelessly caught in the floodwaters. To add to the aggravation, had his misfortune recorded by a television reporter who serendipitously happened to be in the same place at the same time.

Nobody really knew what triggered the outburst that made him an instant Internet sensation - probably embarrassment, helplessness, fury, rising sense of futility. The poor guy snapped. He ranted against situation.

The video that has become viral showed the Lao blaming everyone – the Metro Manila Development Authority traffic enforcers for not warning people that the road was already impassable, the bystanders for not showing concern for another fellow citizen (there were people on the street, including enterprising ruffians out to make a quick buck on the misfortunes of others, who watched him drive his car through the floodwaters and rushed to push his car out of the mess only when it started to float), etc.

“I should have been informed. They should have blocked the road. Did you guys even tell me? Did anyone tell me? It’s like people were waiting for somebody to just do that? Bakit ako? (Why me?).” The guy’s rant seemed inordinately unreasonable and incomprehensible, and okay, I must admit hilarious. Why blame everyone else for something that seemed commonsensical, why demand to be informed of something that seemed pretty obvious? But then again, we must note that the guy was giving vent to an emotional outburst. It was a classic variation of the road rage phenomenon. And the television crew ganged up on him just as he was getting out of his car, just seconds after what must have been a terrifying incident for him. Come on, the hapless guy went through a harrowing experience; surely he wasn’t expected to come out of it smiling and spewing words of wisdom.

If we really come to think about it, the guy’s outburst was something that was not really out of the ordinary. It was no different from the helpless flailing around that Jose de Venecia did when he was ousted as Speaker of the House by his peers a few years ago. Certainly no different from the legendary bursts of temper that Gloria Macapagal Arroyo would succumb to at various occasions when she was president.

We’ve all had that moment at various stages in our lives. I have personally given vent to anger when I got stranded in rising floodwaters a few years ago – I cursed, kicked my car, snapped at bystanders who seemed to have found my embarrassing predicament a matter deserving of public commentary. The problem in Lao’s case was that a microphone and a television camera were shoved in his face at the exact moment when his fury was peaking.

It could have been an occasion for others to show empathy; he could have been given a few moments to compose himself, but alas, the television reporter seemed more concern about “doing his job” as a media person than being a human being.

I am sure the guys at GMA 7 would find justification for their actions, but something must be said about media’s increasing penchant for intruding into people’s most private moments, when people are most vulnerable; seemingly driven by nothing else other than the need to present human interest stories at its rawest, most dramatically intense form.

I strongly disagree with the assertion of Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (supposedly a media watchdog) that Lao was primarily a victim of social media excess more than being a victim of the lack of journalism ethics. The CMFR practically absolved GMA by saying that the network couldn’t have known that its reportage would create that kind of uproar. Oh please, if GMA 7 provided a better context to the whole incident and gave Lao a few more moments to compose himself and think through the situation more rationally, all these would not have come to pass.

The fact is that media have become quite notorious for focusing reportage on moments of intense grief such as at the very instance when families of victims of tragedies are informed that they have lost a loved one. Reporters shove microphones at people’s faces at the worst possible moments such as when they are in the throes of extreme emotions—anger, grief, mortification, shame, etc. News reports always tend to highlight confrontations and even stage scenes where victims physically attack those accused of victimizing them. Certain television shows even distinguish themselves for catching people in the most embarrassing and humiliating situations under the guise of investigative reporting. I could go on and on but you get the drift.

Of course Lao could have handled the situation in a more mature way. He didn’t have to blame everyone else so publicly. He could have admitted culpability and charged the whole incident to a lapse in judgment. But hindsight is always 20/20 and the tragedies that happen to other people are always logical to others who are in a position to view the events from a more objective perspective. So all these discussions about what he could have done, what he ought to have done, what he should have said are all academic and irrelevant, and yes, cruel and unfair.

Having said that, what can we then make of the thousands of people who criticized Lao in various social media for his outburst? If we can find in our hearts to empathize with Lao, I think we can also extend the same to everyone else who responded to the incident from a visceral level.

We are all still struggling with the social media phenomenon and the absence of norms has given way to excesses and indiscriminate use of the platform. What we can do is help teach others and contribute to a more enlightened discussion that could pave the way towards more responsible use of the medium, not contribute to propagating a culture of hating, blaming, and judging.

Some people have labeled the Lao bashing that is happening in various social media as cyberbullying. Are half-formed opinions and hasty responses to an emerging dialogue indicative of cyberbullying? I think that we should be able to distinguish gut-level reactions that people make in social networking sites from deliberate, repeated, and malicious attacks meant to harm other people. Certainly, many of the attacks directed at Lao in some social networking sites indicative of cyberbullying. But overall, I think we can all hold off our horses and give allowances to everyone else for indulging in “conversations” that unfortunately, people forget are being made in public.

I do agree that people should be more careful and judicious when making commentary about others’ behaviors. I certainly take exceptions to the indiscriminate efforts of certain people to drag the University of the Philippines (where Lao studied Law) into the fray—someone with lots of time in his or her hands even took the pains of tweaking an Adolf Hitler movie making it appear as if the despot was ridiculing Lao for bringing shame to UP.

But even Lao has publicly apologized for his lapse of judgment. In so many words, he has vowed to turn the whole unfortunate series of events as a learning experience, hopefully enabling him to become a better person. We should all take the cue from there. Hopefully, we could also learn from the experience and become better persons because of it. Blaming everyone else is indicative of the very same mistake Lao is being taken to task for.

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