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. 


  1. I am suspicious of a leader who says that there is no need to re-invent the wheel. This is a vague policy at its best and dictatorial at its worst. The newly elected President needs to provide specifics of what this policy of hers means if she is to be taken seriously. The membership is entitled to know what she means by this dictum. Perhaps she is forgetting that, while she occupies the position of President, she is only one of 15 policy makers in the Council. Drawing a line in the sand as it were is unnecessary and unproductive. Leaders should instead create an environment where there is a free play of ideas both within and outside the Council and where members are neither hindered or intimidated from espousing or adopting new ideas, policies or programs that benefit the Association or the membership.

  2. Mr. Rivera, I totally agree with your observations with respect to lack of civility being displayed by some posters to the egroup. I also saw Mr. Castanos' chimpanzee email. This struck me as ridicule of the highest order against someone (Mr. Dolor) who I thought had lots of good ideas for the Association. I have no words to describe it other than it was uncharitable and unkind. I wonder what Mr. Dolor had done to Mr. Castanos to merit this kind of ridicule. It did not appear to me that he had done anything to offend Mr. Castanos personally. What bothers me is that Mr. Castanos justifies his actions as righteous judgment by quoting the Bible. Isn't charity towards others the fundamental tenet of the Christian religion, to which I assume Mr. Castanos belongs? I wonder if Mr. Castanos even realizes that his conduct can be a ground for expulsion from the Association.