Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Robust debate necessary for change

Discussions in my alumni chat group have recently become testy, if not downright nasty that some members who cannot take the heat are asking for more drastic etiquette policing, or else they have threatened to unsubscribe from the email group. Perhaps, they are unable to appreciate that any democratic exchange of opinions is much more alive when it is robust and free-wheeling, without unnecessary censorship. Think of parliaments, Congress or the local city councils when their members passionately debate each other.

Only yesterday, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was heckled during his speech before the U.S. Congress. Reacting to the disbeliever in the crowd, Netanyahu said that this type of protest would only be possible in free societies, or where there is freedom of speech, which drew wide applause from members of Congress.

Free speech, or the lack of it. Photo courtersy of little tramp.

Sometimes we, as human beings, have the tendency to be thin-skinned and easily upset by criticism or opposite views. But the more dangerous side of this attitude is when we respond, although unnecessary, with vitriol or derision.

I’ve recently read messages in my alumni chat group that were aimed with disdain at one member’s fondness for writing long emails augmented with statistical data to reinforce his arguments. An apt and perhaps more courteous response would have been simply to ignore or even delete the member’s lengthy and dense messages, especially if one does not agree and has nothing to add. A cynical and derisive response, disrespectful of the other member’s right to say his piece, only exacerbates the issue more so when the obvious purpose is to shut him down from letter-writing.

One member wrote a sarcastic message enjoining the other member to take a break from his long and frequent, almost daily, letter-writing and to look after his health. Instead of the other member clogging the e-group with his emails, he suggested that he should perhaps use the telephone, a device he believed was a faster and easier mode to communicate.

Another member wrote in support and still another also agreed, even inserting a picture of a nodding and laughing chimp in his letter.

Consider that these individuals are the very first ones to complain of incivility and rudeness in the chat group. Yet, they would respond with impudent messages aimed at putting down the other member and making him look inconsolably pathetic. What did the rest of the group say about it? Nothing, which seems like an obvious conspiracy of silence that could only mean they support the public humiliation of the other person, who by his arguments, if only they would care to read them, really meant well.  

This only shows we could be hypocritical and duplicitous about the values we cherish most. We scream to high heavens when our right to free expression, for instance, is threatened but would as easily cast off the same argument when we don’t favour opposite views being expressed. In other words, we only tolerate ideas from people whose thinking is similar to ours. Those on the opposite of the spectrum should take a break, as one member suggested.

Consider, too, this argument from another member who wrote that the chat group should not be used as medium for debate and that he should not be construed as being against free speech, but an ardent supporter, yet he believes the e-group is not the proper venue to freely express one’s opinions. Where else could be the proper platform? For all intents and purposes, an alumni e-group is the best forum for engaging in ideas and opinions. How can one be so judicious and wise to argue that he favours free speech in other arenas, but not in this forum?

These aforementioned individuals who chose to take the side of intolerance instead of accommodation have not been long detached from their alma mater. Yet, they seem to have forgotten the values their education and training from the premier school of learning in the Philippines have taught and expounded from day one. How quickly the real world has eroded the idealism of their youthful days when they were still debating in the classrooms and in public squares on the fundamental right to freedom of expression.

During the 100th Commencement Exercises of the University of the Philippines in Diliman last April 17, 2011, John Gabriel Pelias, a BS Math graduate, delivered the valedictory address on behalf of the graduating class. A poor but very brilliant student, Pelias graduated summa cum laude, the highest honour a student can possibly receive, with a general weighted average of 1.016, the second highest in the history of the university.


Pelias asked his fellow graduates: “What can a UP graduate be proud of? What aspect of the UP culture can he or she show off that others do not have?”

Above everything, the youthful Pelias said the university has prepared every student how to respond to challenges and the most significant of these challenges is how “to overcome our responsibility to contribute to society as products of this nation’s premier state university, which may involve sacrificing our dreams of extravagant ways of life that ironically might have motivated us to work hard in our college education. The true challenge is to be able to use the critical thinking skills and knowledge we learned through UP education in the solution of the problems haunting the bigger world outside the university.”

Pelias in his closing remarks, challenged every graduate to “become part of a larger society, of a larger world.” Being UP graduates, he said, “does not mean living just our own everyday lives without regard for society’s quandaries. We cannot confine ourselves in our own boxes away from society.”

When one critically scrutinizes the arguments, including the statistics that that one member of our chat group has been espousing in his lengthy emails, it is easy to conclude that he was making good use of the critical thinking skills and knowledge that Pelias attributed to in his valedictory speech. That he learned these skills through his UP education was clearly evident in his elaborate analysis in helping solve real problems outside the university. An example is the problem of raising funds for scholarship for future UP students. While his proposal might have stirred a heated debate, which others may have found nauseating to their taste, it was a mere consequence of the need for more rigorous examination. 

Debate should not be considered repulsive and detestable, even if it takes a longer process to reach a consensus. To retreat and seek refuge in silence is a betrayal of our training at university. We cannot eternally argue in favour of the comfort and cosiness of our present situations, and to deflect anything that might seem to disturb the status quo. 

The letter-writer challenges each one of us not to be content with the argument that there’s no need to reinvent the wheel. This is an argument that kills innovation on sight. Oftentimes, going with what is known leads to stagnation. Although it is quite human to like the familiar, if we don’t innovate and think of new ways of doing things, nothing will grow or change; otherwise, we will all go the way of the dinosaurs. It is the uncertainty of the unknown that drives debate or exchange of opinions. It is the only way we can test out and get an understanding of what is true. 

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Retooling the mind

During the Japanese occupation of the Philippines, a popular army created on March 29, 1942 by the local Communist Party, fought arm-in-arm with other Filipino soldiers, guerrillas and American forces in overthrowing the mighty Japanese army. The army was called Hukbalahap, an acronym in Tagalog for “Hukbo ng Bayan Laban sa Hapon” (People’s Army Against the Japanese).

After the Japanese surrendered in September 1945, the Hukbalahap was prevailed upon by the U.S.-backed Philippine government to disband and surrender its arms in exchange for promised democratic agrarian reforms. Later, during the elections for Congress, Luis Taruc, the leader of the Hukbalahap, and seven of his colleagues were elected but were prevented from taking their office and driven back to the hills to continue their armed struggle. Taruc and his group opposed the parity rights amendment that the United States wanted to insert in the Constitution, an amendment that would grant United States citizens the right to dispose and utilize of Philippine natural resources after the liberation of the Philippines.
The end of hostilities during the Japanese war. Photo courtesy of m46 pershing pro,
The promise of democratic reforms was obviously integral to the systematic design of disengaging the Filipino rebels during that period from the idea of violence, or any aspiration of an armed revolution to pursue their political and economic goals. This process of disengagement goes on to the present time as the New People’s Army, the successor to the Hukbalahap, and Muslim secessionist groups in Southern Philippines continue their struggle for self-autonomy and meaningful democratic reforms.
In other wars, we see a transformation to a battle for the minds and hearts of the local people after the armed hostilities are over, as what happened in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. The Canadian military is in Afghanistan as part of its commitment to its NATO allies in reconstruction and peace-building initiatives. While the United States has detained many suspected members of al-Qaeda and known Jihadists in Guantanamo, U.S. prison officials constantly provide their inmates with educational materials that would help the prisoners wean their minds away from violence and acts of terrorism. Indeed, this has become the secular counterpart of religious instruction emphasizing peaceful means as opposed to violence in achieving society’s goals; it is now more popularly called deradicalization.

Deradicalization is the effort to free Jihadists or those detained for violent acts from their radical ideas, goals or elements. Followers of the U.S. Tea Party and more conservative politicians, however, could be also perceived as trying to deradicalize the liberal forces, especially supporters of the Democratic Party, in American society.

The Saudi deradicalization experiment is one of the most advanced international efforts to deradicalize terror suspects with the main purpose of educating and monitoring them until they have reintegrated into civil society. Begun in 2004, the Saudi deradicalization program was adopted by the government’s Interior Ministry in response to a series of domestic terroristic incidents. Saudi Arabia transformed its counterterrorism strategy by balancing traditional security efforts with techniques addressing ideological sources of violent extremism. One of the critical components of the Saudi approach was the rehabilitation of extremists through religious re-education and psychological counselling.
Cuba Guantanamo Prison. Photo courtesy of Guantanamo_Justice_Centre.
In Guantanamo, Omar Khadr, a Canadian prisoner who pleaded guilty to killing an American soldier in Afghanistan in 2002, was provided with text materials which included Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road in preparing him for eventual repatriation and release to Canada. American law enforcement personnel also recommended as a required reading for Khadr, Stephen R. Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, which drew sarcastic criticism from Thomas Frank in his Easy Chair column in Harper’s Magazine June 2011 issue.

Omar Khadr, a Canadian citizen detained at the Guantanamo prison for
killing an American soldier in Afghanistan. Photo courtesy of gnotalex.
In his article, Frank wondered what a Guantanamo prisoner like Khadr would learn from reading one of the best-known titles in American management literature. Why would the U.S. government encourage a terrorist to read a book that promises him to become more “effective,” he asked? Would known terrorists locked up in one of America’s harshest prisons learn something valuable for their reintegration to civil society by teaching them to set goals, be proactive and care about others?

According to Frank, Covey’s The 7 Habits as an ideal 12-step program to a Jihadist-free life was not the first time the United States used books for purposes of deradicalization, of neutralizing the nation’s enemies by teaching them the folly of their ways. Literature was constantly foisted by the U.S. during the Cold war to portray Americans as people of taste and freedom. Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People might be America’s present version of The God That Failed, a famous anti-communist anthology in the 1950s which was largely distributed world-wide, including in the Philippines.

Not to be mistaken with the 1991 Metallica song of the same title, The God That Failed was published in 1949 and is a collection of essays with testimonies of a number of former communist writers and journalists. The essays’ common theme is the authors’ disillusionment with communism and how they changed their minds to abandon the communist cause.

The most successful deradicalization of a nation in recent history has been the systematic miseducation of the Filipino people toward an American way of life as argued by Renato Constantino in his book of critical essays on nationalism. In his essays, Constantino described how the U.S. colonial government established a public education system that would make Filipinos forsake their nationalism and discourage separatist tendencies. The use of English as a medium of instruction in schools encouraged the separation of educated Filipinos from the masses. While the American public educational system was also beneficial to the country as a whole, its primary purpose was to strengthen colonial rule and influence the minds of Filipinos into accepting the vaunted superior American way of life over traditional and native Filipino values, ideas and aspirations for self-autonomy.

The orientation toward Western values, primarily American, only benefited the colonial government and was destructive to Filipinos. For example, Constantino cited the Filipino national virtue of hospitality and how it was turned into a “stupid vice which hurts and makes Filipinos willing dupes of predatory foreigners.”

Even until now, the colonial mentality developed through the American educational system endures in the minds of Filipinos in believing that all things local are inferior and worthless, and that all things American or imported are good. According to Constantino, this kind of mentality among colonial subjects also deprives Filipinos of the opportunity to evolve and strengthen their own indigenous democratic ideas and political institutions.

Going back to the Harper’s article by Thomas Frank, he asked what if Covey’s The 7 Habits make al-Qaeda prisoners in Guantanamo more attentive to managing their time better instead of embracing the American way of peaceful change? Then, as Frank said, the United States would have achieved the exact opposite of deradicalization—a cohort of highly effective Jihadists capable of more mischief.

Frank wrote of one Jihadist who was a self-described fan of The 7 Habits. He was referring to Osama Bin laden’s brother in law, the deceased businessman Mohammed Jamal Khalifa, who was credited for establishing the al-Qaeda branch in the Philippines.

Instead of enabling Guantanamo inmates to learn effectiveness, Frank suggested that perhaps, the better approach is to make them lazy and indulgent, by making them realize the uselessness of getting things done. Better to turn them into American-style consumers, not American-style executives, Frank added.

But can one really deprogram a Jihadist?

In 2007, the U.S. released Said Ali al-Shihri from Guantanamo for deradicalization in Saudi Arabia. Saudi authorities have consistently claimed that none of their program’s graduates have returned to terrorism in the five years since it was established.

But al-Shihri emerged in 2009 as al-Qaeda’s deputy leader in Yemen, which raised serious questions on how the United States should deal with prisoners in Guantanamo and even of the much-trumpeted Saudi religious deradicalization.

Both the Saudi and American experience only illustrate the imperfect nature of the complex effort of deradicalization. Recidivism remains a concern and will continue to be a problem as more committed extremists participate in deradicalization. Without significant and genuine existential transformation in the fundamental roots of terrorism and similar violent acts—of how developed countries continue to keep countries of the Third World poor, oppressed and marginalized—threats of terrorism will continue to prosper and even those sent for deprogramming will always be attracted to go back to their old ways.

Muslim cleric promotes Jihad on Saudi television. Photo courtesy of Templar1307.
As long as the United States continues its military presence in the struggles for self-determination of other countries, national liberation movements will continue to resort to terrorism and violence to drive away foreign elements and corrupt governments. The absence of opportunities for people to participate in the process of governance—not just through free elections—in repressive authoritarian governments in the Middle East and in the rest of the world will also keep on spawning acts of terrorism.

Not even material inducements, such as those included in the Saudi rehabilitation process like giving thousands of dollars to pamper its graduates, or paying for weddings, furniture or a new Toyota will dramatically alter the mindset of committed extremists. This only shows how much easier it is to deprogram a bomb or a missile, but probably not enough to rewire the tortured mind of a terrorist.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

To moderate or not

The newly-elected Council of my alumni group from the Philippines where I went to university (before studying law in Canada) is embarking on a somewhat perilous journey. They have decided it’s about time to police their chat group by requiring all members who post messages to observe certain rules of comment etiquette.

I say perilous because this is a group of mature and intelligent people who are not easy to moderate. For one thing, it is usually taken for granted that intelligent people normally post comments or messages on-topic and keep their remarks to the subject at hand. It is not that there have been no acceptable parameters of letter-writing in place in the past, but in recent years, compliance has been left almost entirely to the members, while the function of moderation is rarely exercised by the designated person. On a few occasions when moderation was resorted to, it degenerated to virtual censorship, a dangerous and unintended outcome because the moderator started regulating not just the flow of ideas, but their content and manner of delivery as well.

Photo courtesy of Robert McMahon.

When exchanges deteriorate to back-and-forth inflammatory and internecine comments, or when they are laced with profanity or vulgarity, sometimes one begins to doubt the intelligence of the people spouting them. Why did we call them intelligent in the first place when they cannot keep a healthy discourse?

The problem with intelligent people, as some members of my alumni chat group aver, is they tend to think that free speech has no bounds and limits. Other members believe they are more intelligent and morally superior than the rest and would like to restrict messages only to ideas they find agreeable or safe, such as announcements or promotions of future social, sporting or religious events. On the far extreme, however, are members who are so averse to opposite or differing views that they fend off those opposite views on sight, if not totally shut them down. If unsuccessful, they then throw threats to the wind, such as defamation suits even if the latter are utterly ridiculous.

The various exchanges on the Internet are living proof that talk is cheap. Sometimes it’s better to be the village idiot such as resorted to by one member who occasionally spits out dark humour, often of the lavatory type, every time he posts a message. With him, the best recourse is to just laugh and shrug it off, since he knows that everyone knows he is just joking.

The most serious problem about intelligent people (I’m still talking of my co-alumni) is when they resort to personal attacks because they’ve been hurt by certain comments posted that they’ve perceived to be aimed at them. They’ll dig up your private past and present, then whip up invectives of the most virulent form to put you down, even if they are off-topic. This is the time when exchanges reach a boiling point and attempts toward moderation usually deteriorate to censorship.

An ideal situation is where everyone is free to exercise the right to express ideas on anything and about everything: here, self-regulation becomes the automatic braking mechanism to prevent any possible abuse or incendiary outburst. I believe this is the vision behind the Internet with its unwritten code to allow freedom and neutrality. But the world we live in is not a perfect community; some could be more savvy than others and can freely impose their presumed superiority over many of us ordinary mortals.

Governing, whether in the larger world of politics or the smaller confines of an organization like my alumni group, has become a complicated task. Leaders are expected to serve as exemplars of behaviour, not only of excellence of mind that is generally expected of leaders. On the other hand, members are likewise presumed to be models of acceptable social conduct for their peers, both in deed and in speech. But that is a perfect configuration.

Some governments can become authoritarian, others weak with societies that suffer from widespread apathy and malaise. Smaller organizations can be mirror images of their larger political landscape. Oftentimes, their leaders are venerated with fear and awe to the point that criticism becomes downplayed and muted. Those who dare criticize are often ostracized and become lonely voices in the wilderness. It is in this type of situations where attempts to regulate free speech on the Internet becomes really difficult, especially when a chat group, for example, is the only effective medium of communication because meetings among members have become seldom, if not rare.

Moderation of Internet speech is driven by calls for civility. Mere intelligence or simple expectations can no longer be relied upon at present. Deterioration in exchanges habitually happens as discussions heat up because some members believe their intelligence is being compromised or threatened, especially if those lonely voices appear to have seized the chat group as their soapbox. Usually, members who are squeamish about dissent and easily offended by debates would impose their moral standards, their virtues of uprightness. What they don’t realize is the intolerance that their moralistic attitudes breed, an intolerance that could turn out to be one of the worst discourtesies. Thus, attempts to restore civility might be instrumental in curtailing the freedom of expression of others, of their right to space within the organization. It is a delicate and fertile minefield that those entrusted with the powers of moderation must navigate to find the right balance between freedom and regulation.

Civility can be a mask, often open to abuse, when forms of etiquette that carry sanctions are imposed. Sometimes, the better alternative is to trust the human instinct that in the end members will behave well towards others and respect the intrinsic value of the individual and the rights of others to be different. Wars and revolutions have been waged in the name of individual freedoms. Any more attempts from above or from leaders of organizations to impose their will and a form of acceptable social behaviour from their members can backfire and ignite unnecessary division, if not bring back outright censorship.

But practical suggestions to foster etiquette must always be welcomed and should be treated as helpful tips to healthy interactions. Disputes and misunderstandings are common to human nature. If one party feels offended or injured, apologies can be politely requested but not demanded because demanding an apology is almost never helpful and oftentimes even inflames the situation. Apologies must be left to individual parties as a form of ritual exchange, where the primary aim is to strike a reconciliation of differences.
Civility. Photo courtesy of snaulty beans.
While conflict cannot be avoided and is endemic to the human condition, it remains worthwhile to remind ourselves to be civil—tactful and respectful of others—and to employ civility as a means of managing differences. As long as attempts toward civility or moderation do not impose sanctions, they may be our best hope to bridge certain values and perspectives that appear almost mutually irreconcilable. Although there will never be a clear answer to how certain dilemmas should be resolved, at least we can try to find ways to maintain the equilibrium of disparate interests and ideas not only within our smaller organization, but in the larger society as well.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

What now?

The federal elections are over, yet the debris from the exchange of opinions between members of our community regarding immigration issues and Canada’s Live-in Caregiver Program are still scattered around us and on the Internet and need to be cleaned up. Just like party volunteers picking up their candidates’ signs from the yards of their supporters the day after the election, maybe we should also continue the political discourse by tidying up our muddled thoughts of the dangerous illusions peddled by some of our opinion-makers from the right.

Not that this would alter the election results, but we need to preserve, or even rescue, the objective truth from the rubbish heap of opinions caused by the recent exchange of ideas. Somehow, the truth becomes the casualty if we allow the celebratory euphoria of the party in power to drown it.
Baguhin Coalition leader Julius Tiangson speaks before a candidate's rally at
Brampton-Springdale. In the background from right to left: Canada Minister
for Immigration Jason Kenny and Parm Gill, Conservative candidate. Photo
courtesy of Currents & Breaking News.
This essay focuses particularly on the opinions made by Mr. Julius Tiangson, an ardent Conservative Party supporter who is also the Executive Director of Gateway Centre for New Canadians (GCNC) in Mississauga, a government-funded settlement services agency. On Sundays, the aforementioned centre doubles up as a house of worship where Mr. Tiangson ministers to his religious congregation as a man of the cloth.

In one of his letters to the community by way of chat groups in the Internet, Mr. Tiangson wrote that a legislation introduced by the Conservative government in 2010, called The Cracking Down on Crooked Consultants Act, “would definitely curtail the ability of lawyers and consultants to charged (sic) exorbitant amount of money to vulnerable people.” Here he was referring to lawyers and consultants who charge excessive fees for their services, whom he had by and large accused of taking advantage of immigrants and refugees who have no chance at all in succeeding in their applications.

His patron, the Minister for Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism, Mr. Jason Kenny, was however more subtle and discreet during a press interview when he said: “While most immigration consultants working in Canada are legitimate and ethical, it is clear that immigration fraud remains a widespread threat to the integrity of Canada’s immigration system.”

The Act never intended to regulate fees being charged by lawyers and immigration consultants for their services. If this was the Act’s purpose, then it should have provided a tariff by which lawyers and consultants would observe when billing their clients. So, Mr. Tiangson is spreading misinformation that is both false and inaccurate.

Mr. Tiangson appears to be shooting from the hip by targeting lawyers and consultants for their unreasonable fees, when he could also be in the position of being overcompensated by the government for running a settlement services agency. How much do his government contracts allow him to allot for his individual salary? And why would that compensation cover for time he spent campaigning during the election for a Conservative Party candidate?

While tracing the history of the live-in caregiver program to the days of indentured slavery of yore, Mr. Tiangson, however, only browses the real causes of labour migration and even blames Filipinos for being complicit with their racialization here in Canada. He was of course referring to the fact that 90 per cent of participants in the live-in caregiver program are Filipino women, yet at the same time affirming that “it was the only way out” for thousands of Filipino women.

Mr. Tiangson has failed to comprehend from his limited understanding of the history of domestic work and its roots in slavery that this workforce is largely immigrant and composed of women of colour. Their exclusion from legal protections means that domestic work is less valuable than work outside of the home. This devaluation and dehumanization of domestic work pushed the demand in Canada for live-in caregivers because women were no longer willing to perform household work and stay home with their employers.

Where else will Canada get its nannies but from poor countries such as the Philippines with its a big surplus of cheap and unemployed labour? To blame Filipino women for being complicit with their stereotypical identification as nannies in the lowest rung of the labour force is not only unpatriotic but also betrays one’s lack of appreciation of the economic forces that motivate overseas migration of labour. To say that it’s their only “way out” is condescending to these women, instead of pinpointing that the real culprit is poverty that drives people to migrate. This also diminishes the culpability of the Philippine government for its failure to improve the economic conditions that will provide for decent jobs and better living conditions for its people.

There are significant push factors for migration such as poverty-level incomes, low wages in the rural areas, and lack of employment opportunities in poor countries, coupled with higher wages and greater job opportunities in urban areas and rich nations. Despite its beneficial trade benefits, globalization has created an ever-widening wealth gap between countries, and rural and urban areas within countries.

On its part, the Canadian government is likewise responsible for providing opportunities to exploit Filipino nannies. It has capitalized on the economic inequalities of globalization by installing a caregiver program that is inherently flawed and ripe for exploitation and abuse. The Conservative government’s regulatory changes, which Mr. Tiangson likes to call them instead of the more common term “legislative changes” (as if the results would be different), are yet another tactic to justify the perpetuation and expansion of a modern-day slavery program.

Mr. Tiangson appears to turn a blind eye to what the Conservative government has really achieved, that is, to pit competing interests in the Filipino community by encouraging one group to go up against another, thus stemming the growing movement of caregivers to liberate themselves from exploitation and abuse.

Being pragmatic for Mr. Tiangson means working with “politicians and who would listen and act.” Now that his coalition was able to purge Ruby Dhalla from the federal Parliament, with the group’s contribution hardly mentioned by the mainstream media, it remains to be seen whether the new Member of Parliament from Brampton-Springdale and Canada Immigration Minister Jason Kenney can deliver their avowed promises to improve the plight of Filipino caregivers.

Short of abolishing the exploitative mandatory live-in requirement and granting immediate permanent residence upon arrival, it is almost conceivable that the current regulatory changes to the Live-in Caregiver Program, in the words of Mr. Tiangson, would end up as “a dismal failure.”