Essay Issue 22


Katrina Stuart Santiago

Rethinking “No”

One begins with a question, which is really the elephant in the room of this enterprise of understanding the role of the writer in these times.

Where have you been all these years?

The premise that the current state of nation is a critical point of reference for figuring out where we stand as artists, thinkers, critics, intellectuals is one that’s symptomatic of this crisis we seek to understand: history is unstable, facts are secondary, discussions are had in comments’ threads, and begun in statuses no matter how thoughtlessly put together. We are distressed by this state of affairs, yet one wonders if we have not allowed precisely for its making.

But we engage! – better than others, we’d like to think. We make statements on social media, and it is liked by many, shared by more. We “talk” to people here, and do what we can to level up the discussions. That is of course highly questionable, if (1) you are speaking in “private mode” and therefore really only talking to people who are your “friends” to begin with, and (2) you yourself engage in discourse that is limited by either-or, black and white.

The former is about making the decision to dare engage with a bigger, Facebook-configured, “public.” Anything less is to decide to speak in an echo chamber, if not a vacuum, of your own friends and peers who will respond as expected.

The latter is a bit more complex, and is really the crux of this crisis: when what we add to the discourse does nothing but fuel the divisiveness and encourage disinformation, what exactly are we doing other than adding to the noise?

Are we even aware that this is what we do? Are we in fact thinking with any more complexity than the next troll, or are we, like the noisy majority of both sides, caught up in the enterprise of shooting from the hip, gathering an audience, taking a clear stand based on nothing but our biases, never mind that we have not thought things through, assessed the information, done some research, looked at the bigger picture?

The idea, for example, that these times are comparable to Martial Law is an injustice in itself to the dead and disappeared of the Marcos dictatorship, as it is a false assessment of the current state of affairs. It could be argued in fact that this spate of killings in the name of the drug war, is no different from the spate of deaths brought about by poverty, inequality, feudalism, state-sanctioned illegal detention, disappearance, killings of activists in the past 30 years since EDSA 1986. THAT is a discussion worth having, but it is one that requires we put in the work, do the research, talk statistics, look into the deaths that have not made the news all these years. It requires us to ask of ourselves: what have we done since we regained our freedoms, what have we silenced in the name of stability and democracy, what have we turned blind to if only so we might imagine a nation that is acceptable?

But we do not like the difficult. It is easier to think in terms of black and white, draw the easy parallelisms, invoke the expected juxtapositions.

Meanwhile, the dangers of articulating that the drug war is like Martial Law is beyond measure. Not only is it an injustice to the thousands killed, tortured, raped by the Marcos regime, it renders the Marcos dictatorship far smaller in scale, so much less political, and its systemic repercussions on governance insignificant. We all know Martial Law is far larger, but it’s easier to invoke this parallelism to be true. In the process we decide to be blind to the fact that juxtaposing State-sanctioned killings of alleged drug addicts and pushers with the State-sanctioned killing of critics and activists, does a great service to the Marcoses.

We then waste no time in articulating our rage: why are they getting back into power?

The practice of easily drawn conclusions, never mind taking time and taking stock, assessing what is missing, looking for silenced narratives, rethinking the state of discourse, is what we thoughtlessly encourage ourselves. It makes us no different from the trolls on either side of the spectrum, no matter that we imagine we are any better – writers and artists as we are.

That we are actually no better – that we are all exactly the same – at least to me, is the best starting point for any discussion on better engagement and possible relevance. It requires that we see ourselves embroiled in this enterprise, and demands that we constantly consciously take a step back, spend time figuring things out, reading a little more, engaging in the sides of the discussion we might refuse to see as valid, or possibly correct, at any other time.

I’ve changed my mind, admitted mistakes, conceded to truths I would otherwise rather not accept. I’ve been put in my place for my biases, but more importantly for my social class – the blindness that allows me, the privilege it gives me.

Here is another elephant in this room: the artist and writer problematizing her role in the current landscape of nation, “changed” as it has been, is so blind to its own privilege, unaware of its own elitism. It is disengaged even as it declares engagement, it is removed even as it asserts being present. Does this feel like action? Of course not. But also: it does not matter how we feel.

It is ironic that even as we acknowledge that there is work to be done, that we actually waste time worrying about the role that we play. It is sad that the first step seems to be the most obvious one: shed that label of artist, disabuse ourselves of that privilege, accept that in the bigger scheme of nation, and on social media, we only matter as much as the next (in)famous troll. Unless of course we make the decision to be otherwise, and refuse to be blinded by our own biases, insist on leveling up the discourse, beyond social media, beyond our own privilege.