It’s depressing to see a pleasant exchange of opinions degenerate into a level of pettiness, sometimes even close to meanness that borders on mudslinging or defamation. While conflict is natural to the human condition, oftentimes we have lost the sense of “courtesy of the heart,” as Goethe would put it, and from which arises the purest courtesy in outward behaviour.
I’ve seen this happening in the Filipino community in Toronto, a sharp division engendered by a nasty spat among Pinoy journalists. On one side, a crusading local community newspaper hell-bent on bringing down a perceived political carpetbagger and all his boosters, pitted against the rest of the community who are pleading for fairness and civility.
|Bigot, courtesy of dockdrumming.
The unwritten rules of public engagement are either not clear to most of us or others simply tend to abuse their liberties. This is not saying a spirited and hotly-contested debate is unhealthy and unwelcome. But when one side insists only on the wisdom of their arguments to the exclusion of the opinions of others, then the supposedly free exchange breaks down and paints us an image of warring tribal communities.
Vibrant intellectual discourse is the status quo ante in a social-political forum I have joined. But recently, the loud voices of bigotry and intolerance have hijacked the tone of conversations that some of the forum’s female members are up in arms. As one peeved member noted: “[It’s] difficult to hold a discussion with those who punctuate their statements with ‘end of discussion.’” Or when arrogance seems to betray one member’s better side of nature that he would instantly dismiss another member’s argument as “pure liberal crap” without offering any hint why. These intolerant members have turned themselves into what a Georgetown University professor would aptly describe as ““the soccer hooligans of reasoned discourse.”
One wonders why, given their reputation for open-mindedness and critical thinking, some forum members frequently leave their critical thinking and fairness at the door when it comes to matters that, perhaps, are so personal to them? Why are they close-minded on the opinions of others?
Liberalism, as a framework, not the ideology which may be repulsive to others, could provide a space for free exchange and development. It can be an effective device that allows a diversity of opinions and different ideologies to flourish and compete in the marketplace of ideas. Where there could be deep-rooted divisions over the significance or relevance of some arguments, the neutrality of the liberal state furthers mutual restraint or patience.
The display of self-importance by those members of the forum who are obstinate with their preconceived notions of moral superiority is almost akin to the Republican Party’s current uncompromising attitude in US politics, particularly against any initiatives by the incumbent White House occupant. Anything President Obama proposes, the Republicans thumb their noses. It reminds us of Wagstaff, the Groucho Marx character in “Horse Feathers,” whenever he sings “Whatever it is, I’m against it.”
The problem is not that that we don’t reason anymore. These people do reason. But oftentimes their arguments only aim to support their conclusions, and allow no space for the opinions of others. To them, reason doesn’t work like a judge or teacher that impartially weighs evidence or guides us to wisdom and understanding. It works more like a lawyer or press secretary, justifying their opinions and judgments to others, notwithstanding how others have thoroughly demolished their arguments.
|China's death penalty. Photo courtesy of amnestysoffice.
For example, some members in this forum deem the argument against the death penalty for drug crimes as “liberal crap” without appreciating whether this form of punishment in all its weight and harshness is proportionate to the offence. They do not see the wisdom why other nations have already deleted this type of punishment in their books. They also fail to spot holes in the alleged evidence of the Chinese government that the condemned Filipino woman had been to China 18 times and might have been smuggling drugs that often. It is easy for someone who has no experience defending an accused and questioning the evidence by the Crown or prosecutor to accept without reservations the credibility of this evidence, despite the implausibility of a foreigner travelling to another country 18 times in 3 years on a tourist visa and somehow managing to squeeze in some 50 grams of cocaine in a suitcase without being caught. Unless the condemned woman was tortured during her interrogation and forced to admit this lie.
The opposite argument against the death penalty for drug-related crimes is not necessarily a position that condones the crime as some forum members would like to suggest. Of course, those that peddle in drugs must be punished for they are a menace to society. But the punishment must fit the crime to meet the standards of justice and reasonableness.
Another example of a collapse in rational thinking among some members of the forum is when they disregard the historical fact of the injurious consequences of the Marcos dictatorship and repression to the country as whole. It is all right for those deeply loyal to Marcos or those who continue to blindly believe in his yeomanship of the New Society to place him in a pedestal and pantheon of greatness. Nobody is taking away this right to worship Marcos the way they want. But to revere Marcos above all Philippine presidents despite what he did to the country is simply an act that can be construed as lunacy. History is clear how Marcos plundered the country’s wealth and enriched his family. The thousands of dead and disappeared are silent witnesses to his oppressive rule, yet some forum members refuse to reconcile themselves with this existential truth. No wonder the forum women-members are the most forceful in opposing the revisionist reincarnation of Marcos because as women and mothers they know full well the genuine pain of losing one’s children.
|Marcos declares martial law. Photo courtesy of kidabobo.
The forum as a microcosm of an engaged society must adhere to its original purpose, to foster an exchange where reason and intuition interact in healthy ways. As we argue and debate, we also need to develop sympathetic relationships in order to understand each other instead of using reason to deflect opposing views.
Perhaps, we need to establish a modus vivendi, so we can agree to disagree and find ways to consensus and understanding despite the differences in our opinions. We have to refashion this liberal toleration that began in Europe in the sixteenth century. Our forum can be the flowering of our own project of toleration.
There is nothing sinister in the “L” word as one forum member seems to suggest. The ideal of toleration embodies two incompatible philosophies, two opposing contradictions. We have on one side, the ideal of a rational consensus on the best or better way of resolving our differences. And on the other side, the ideal that human beings can flourish and prosper in diversity.
Labels such as “liberal crap” and “stupid” have no place in our forum but we are all mature enough to take a punch to the chin once in a while. But if our goal is to facilitate the free flow of ideas in a marketplace of ideas, the one thing that cannot be tolerated is the idea of shutting down the marketplace with a dismissive “End of discussion.” It brings back those dark days of 1972 when Ferdinand Marcos put the country under authoritarian rule and shut down the executive, legislative and judicial bodies including the media and individual rights to keep himself in power.