Sunday, May 31, 2015

Meloto's social blunder

My May 31, 2015 column.
I like Tony Meloto.  My admiration for the guy is notwithstanding the fact that I disagree with many of the ultraconservative advocacies of the religious organization that he leads. However, I have always believed that it is always possible to find something that we can admire or respect even among those we lock horns with on spiritual, political, or other concerns. Thus, I was also deeply saddened by the fact that Meloto is in the eye of a controversy for allegedly being “sexist,” “elitist,” and having a “colonial mentality.” The criticisms were made by officials of the University of Hawaii Center for Philippine Studies who invited Meloto to speak at their 40th founding anniversary in April.
According to various reports, Meloto expressed in his speech his belief that “the greatest asset of the Philippines is our beautiful women” and that the “future of the nation can be advanced by using them to attract the best and the brightest men from the West and enticing them to invest in the Philippines.” Meloto also reportedly shared his views on the need for Filipino women and their white husbands to produce what he humorously called “cappuccinos.”  The remarks are, indeed, outrageously sexist, when taken at face value.  
Meloto issued an official statement denying the charges.  To refute the charges, he offered his many humanitarian activities. His defense is basically that he is a good man trying to do things for the poor, thus he cannot be sexist, elitist, and have a colonial mentality. I am afraid Meloto missed the point. The criticism was directed at the remarks he made - not about Gawad Kalinga and his many other humanitarian  projects, something which even the UH-CPS people have taken care to point out. And yes, stature, previous accomplishments, and even saintly disposition does not exempt anyone from committing the most grievous social blunders. I know of many bishops who are, unfortunately, prone to making misogynist statements. 
Of course social context is also very important. We Filipinos are high-context people - the way we receive and interpret what others are saying is dependent on the occasion, the people who were there, who said what, and how things were said. What may not be said publicly in a formal affair may be allowed during a private drinking spree among friends. For example, the late Senator Juan Flavier was known for being irreverent and for making jokes that were often politically incorrect. But Flavier also poked fun at himself, was quick to admit his lapses, and had no problems apologizing to anyone. The expectations of someone of Meloto’s stature are different, precisely because of what he represents: he is supposed to be a man of wisdom who champions the causes of people. It appears that Meloto’s remarks were intended as light banter, akin to jokes.  On the two occasions that I heard him speak, he did try to inject some humor into his speech. 
But should the UH-CPS people be faulted for taking offense? Of course not. How can the aggrieved party be tasked for having been offended; it is like saying they don’t have a right to their feelings. And this is where Meloto has committed another mistake. Instead of apologizing for unintentionally offending others, he has seemingly put the blame on his critics by telling them they should have talked to him first, or by inferring malice on their part. Had Meloto apologized humbly and accepted that no one is exempt from making mistakes precisely because we are all works in progress, he could have turned the tables around and grown 100 times in stature.
There is indeed a lesson that we can all learn from the incident. The rules about political correctness have become more and more complex, confounded by the fact that things can be magnified many times over by social media. What this means is that people, particularly those in positions of moral authority, have to be more careful about what they do or say.

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