Why activism is passé
Cate de Leon (The Philippine Star) - March 23, 2013 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines - A common argument that activists have for justifying their destructive actions (like the recent burning of chairs at PUP) is how we’re easily appalled by the defacement of property, but not by the “repressive policies” of the system, ‘cause, you know, we’re shallow like that. But I find that I have other questions for them, like don’t they merely cause more trouble? Do they achieve the changes they want in a timely manner? Or do they just piss people off and ruin property that wasn’t even theirs to begin with? Don’t they just give the masa they love to defend (i.e., the hired janitors and caretakers) an exceptional mess to clean up after? What, you didn’t come armed with paint to splatter, thinking the scrubbing would fall to the UP Chancellor, did you?

I have other questions such as: Is it necessary? Is it effective? Is it efficient? What’s that? People are too ignorant to hear what you’re saying? I hate to break it to you, honey, but when you have a cause and you’re committed to seeing it through, you make it your responsibility to make sure you are listened to. If one method doesn’t work, you try something else. We’re all familiar with Einstein’s definition of insanity.

Why it no longer works

A good number of my professors were former activists. This was during the time of martial law and it was appropriate then, “but we live in a different world now,” one of them said. It’s still far from being a perfect world, but somehow people are more aware that their desired ends can be achieved through better, more civilized means. Today, no one wants to hear bloody words such as “revolution,” “militant” and “nakakapang-himagsik.” I don’t think this makes them complacent sissies. I still see advocates set out to achieve their causes, gracefully dealing with setbacks and the occasional hate mail. Even the laws of physics will tell you that the less friction, the more and the faster work gets done. Activism is extremely antagonistic in an age when everybody just wants to get along and keep going.

Activists indulge in one-sided blame games. If you listen to their grating speeches, there’s always someone who’s doing it wrong, someone who selfishly wants the world for himself, or maybe some shallow colegiala who has no clue. I don’t think people are innocent. We’re responsible for all the ills of this world and we do a lot of things that deter progress and equality. But since when did the act of demonizing inspire anyone to see your point and take action?

And it’s not just people they blame, but the state, society, and institutions. They analyze the world thoroughly and give brilliant arguments, to be fair, but they tend to relieve the unfortunate, marginalized individuals of responsibility and, thus, power. Poverty is the lack of choice, they say. They can even go far enough to claim that a school held the life of a young girl in its hands. According to them, suicide is never the act of just one person, and it’s foolish to discount the potent influence our environment has on us. All true and perfectly valid points, until you ask what if you were the one who had no tuition and went on a forced leave? Magpapakamatay ka din?

I mean no disrespect to the deceased and her family. I didn’t know her, what her story was, and what was going through her heart and her mind at the time. I’m just trying to prove a point that these arguments, while well-intentioned, are dead-end arguments. The minute we oversimplify a complex, isolated event and try applying it to everyone else who fits the “api” bill, we’re in trouble. If it’s irrefutable to say that poverty is the lack of choice, magpakamatay na lahat ng walang pera.

Activists are prone to drafting an oppressor-oppressed dichotomy when it comes to their views. I’m not saying it’s a view that doesn’t make sense, but it certainly doesn’t help or empower anybody on either side. It only produces defensive parties and entitled victims. And maybe tragedy really did strike someone hard and deep, but does it serve them to be egged on to relate to themselves this way? There’s a fine line between compassion and pity.

Imaginary demons

I don’t want to sound naïve. I get the same steady stream of (bad) news as everyone else. But from my limited but actual experiences, I am tempted to almost believe that maybe oppressive structures are illusions. You can analyze and say all you want about how institutions, society, and enforced ideologies work and keep many from attaining their goals, but at the end of the day, these big, intimidating giants are run by people — ordinary, relatable people who shit in the morning. Anyone who has a profound understanding of this will be able to talk to anybody and make anything happen, minus all the anger and paghihimagsik.

Surfacing reports suggest that UP Manila was actually human to Tejada. They granted her three extensions for late payment until she was finally able to fulfill. They hired her as a student assistant, and were even preparing to grant her an even lower scholarship, where she wouldn’t have to pay tuition and would receive a stipend. She was forced to go on leave because it was already nine weeks into the second semester and she hadn’t enrolled. They may not have given in to all her family’s requests, but nor were the Tejadas dealing with a brick wall. These were people who saw her and were doing what they could to help — but also people who had their own concerns, their own records to keep, their own ways of keeping things official, their institution organized and funded. I think it’s unfair to blame them as if they were God. Even they were blindsided by Tejada’s decision to take her own life.

My biggest problem with activism is that it would have us see others in a dehumanized light. It stages wars on much larger scales than necessary because they forget that they are only dealing with people who are coming from different contexts.

Maybe instead of burning furniture and calling for some chancellor to resign, we can try actual, authentic, two-way communication — not the kind where someone’s talking down to someone and roaming the premises with picket signs, but the kind where we come prepared to share ourselves, to listen to understand (not to reply), and to see eye to eye. And before you think I’m spouting cheesy, theoretical, self-help advice, I’m saying all this as someone who almost got kicked out of the entire UP System. There were no movements, no demonstrations, no huge, burning effigies of my college secretary, no perceived villains and severed relationships — just bare, honest, face-to-face conversations with five people, and seeing to the necessary paperwork. Forgive me for not leading a more exciting life, but I’d rather deal with issues this way.

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Tweet the author @catedeleon.


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