Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Essay: Freedom and Figure of Speech in the Philippines

Every Wednesday, I have an essay on any topic that catches my fancy!

The written word is greatly valued in the Philippines but not in the way most people would expect. For example, one isn't paid in the millions to be a journalist, but your enemies certainly appreciate its merit that they're willing to literally kill you for it. And as America is currently mourning the impending demise of newspapers due to the advent of technology and the Internet, nearly a decade ago Philippine newspapers were facing doom due to an ad boycott levied against broadsheets that dared to be critical of our current president. There's something flattering and depressing about this situation but it's a topic that springs to mind in light of a recent fiasco: Hong Kong-based Chip Tsao's "The War at Home" essay (the original article has been pulled from the publisher's website).

My honest reaction to the essay is complicated, and not because I'm Filipino Chinese. Rather, my reaction is complicated because Tsao's essay touches upon several layers.

Let's tackle the essay itself. It's satire. Perhaps not the most-well written satire but satire nonetheless. Save for the mention of the Teri Hatcher incident, Conrado de Quiros's "Chip on the Shoulder" best explains some of my thoughts on the matter. And Quiros has more than given an example of how satire in the Philippines failed to reach its intended audience. A few years ago, I remember Harvey Keh (who's contributed a lot to the local education sector) writing something similar--not quite satire but definitely involves a deeper reading of the text--in "What will make me leave the Philippines… An Open Letter to Every Filipino" which similarly drew the ire of several "nationalist" Filipinos. Many took Keh literally that he would leave the Philippines if certain conditions were to actually take place and deemed him unpatriotic. Whatever happened to the art of exaggeration?

I guess the possibility of "A Modest Proposal" being accepted in this country is highly unlikely. Why, former President Corazon Aquino even sued one of the country's journalists because he wrote in his column that the president "hid under the bed." Which is arguably reasonable until you find out that the then-president interpreted "hiding under the bed" literally, and I vaguely remember from newspaper clippings that she gave physical reasons as to why she could not have hid under her bed at the time (i.e. there's not enough space under the bed). Perhaps one thing a Filipino writer can take away from all this is to be wary of using figures of speech, especially satire, as Filipinos are not likely to appreciate or interpret them correctly. But is this honestly the kind of mentality we want to foster?

Just recently, an acquaintance in a Friends-Locked post wrote a "satire." The first line ended with "Obviously a satire" and I commented that hey, if it's obvious, you don't need to state it. His reply was "After Chip Tsao, I ain't taking my chances, Charles." It can't be obvious if you're afraid your readers won't get it. And that's honestly put into question in light of recent events. It takes a certain daring and courage as a writer to use figures of speech without disclaimers and the use of them ruins a lot of texts (you might appear condescending and you know what they say about the need to explain jokes). Here's an example of a situation I came across where the disclaimer truly ruined the effectiveness of the author's point:

A Filipino poet had an essay talking about a criticism against his views. In the end, he conceded to the critic's (named Adam) views and ends his essay with "I will shut up now and suck Adam's cock." However, whatever effectiveness the figure of speech had was lost as the line immediately following it had this disclaimer: "PS. I do not mean to disparage homosexuals in any manner by using "suck Adam's cock" as a term of endearment and intellectual admiration. If Adam were a girl and we were sufficiently close I would have said "go down on her" or "lick her cunt."" Hey, author, if you're just going to apologize for using a metaphor, don't bother using it. At the very least, you could have used spoiler space but no, you're already apologizing even before the reader can process the implications.

The second layer I want to peel is the undercurrent of the Philippine context. In certain ways, I agree with Filipinos. We should be angered--not at Chip Tsao for his essay--but because of the public perception of Filipinos working abroad. They're not as valued as they should be, and a lot of people assume that they're simply maids or purchased brides or whatever. Rochita Loenen-Ruiz, a Filipino expat author, shares her experiences in Netherlands here. And there's honestly nothing wrong working as a maid. It's about them attaining respect and giving them their due (which unfortunately doesn't happen in a lot of countries as we've had a history of our OFWs being abused by their employers). I think it is this context why Filipinos are angered--because it's a recurring problem and Tsao's essay made us remember.

Personally, my views on the matter is that Tsao is an innocent scapegoat. Just look at how people latched on to him as the epitome of all that is wrong with the world's perception of Filipinos--and mind you, some of those accusers are well meaning. But to me, the loaded gun shouldn't have been aimed at Tsao. The lack of respect Filipinos get is indeed a cause that needs to be tackled--and if there's anything positive that's been brought about by this incident, it's how Filipinos have shown that they value the OFWs (Overseas Foreign Workers)--but I think all this aggression was focused at the wrong target.

Then there's the third layer. Since I am a speculative fiction writer, let me hypothesize a situation. For the sake of argument, let us assume that Tsao's essay is to be taken literally and that he wrote it with a malicious intent in mind. What is the government's reaction?

1) Let's ban Tsao from the Philippines: For me, this is the wrong mentality. If we want to foster good relations with other people, especially those that arise from a misunderstanding, ostracism isn't the answer. That only increases the tension between the two parties. So instead of educating Tsao on Filipino culture and its people, our solution is to deprive him of information and prove that freedom of speech isn't welcome in the country? And mind you, there are situations wherein banning people from the country--such as terrorists--is needed but Tsao is hardly what I'd call a physical threat. We should be fostering communication, showing that we're human too and that the Chinese and Filipinos have much in common. And there's also a certain break in logic in that if Tsao honestly felt that the Philippines is a demeaning country, why would he ever think to visit? Honestly, this "solution" feels more like a reaction to attain revenge and punish the other party rather than clearing our own name.

2) It's not Tsao's fault, it's the president's fault because she doesn't provide enough jobs here: Okay, time out. Yes, it's true, there are a lot of OFWs because there aren't enough jobs here. But that's honestly not a phenomenon that happened overnight nor will it similarly be dissolved in a similar time frame. The genie's out of the bottle and one can't recall every Filipino out there working abroad, even if there were reasonable jobs here in the Philippines. Second, it's now a global marketplace and whether the Philippines should be withdrawing all its human exports is debatable (I'm not saying it's right or wrong, simply that there are merits and disadvantages to such an action, and we can't live like a country isolated from everyone else). Third, as much power as the president wields, we're turning her into a messianic figure (or anti-messianic figure if you prefer). It's not in her power to solve all the country's problems. It's partly the fault of the system as well as that of the citizens (yup, that's you and me). Yes, politicians wield much influence and power but it can only go so far.

Clearly, the Philippines has proved that words wield much power and influence, and at the very least, it's an interesting time to be a writer.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You may be interested to read also:

Of Satires, Hypocrisy, and Caliban

A Hong Kong columnist, Chip Tsao, whose column is aptly named Politically Incorrect, writes a satire about the Philippines titled The War at Home, and the Philippine politicians rise up in arms, filing a senate resolution condemning the satire, banning Tsao from entering the Philippines, considering filing a diplomatic protest, and demanding a public apology.