HUMMING IN MY UNIVERSE By Jim Paredes (The Philippine Star)
The widespread public interest in and fervor about the Reproductive Health Bill, with most people taking sides and expressing their views, is proof that we are having a national conversation. Whether you tune in to what everyone is talking about through newspapers, Facebook, Twitter, blogs, or even your local barbershop or beauty parlor, you can’t help but conclude that RH is the hottest topic these days.
We have had many national conversations — mostly about the love lives of public people, scandals, hot news about corruption, or abominable crimes that get us agitated for a while. This ongoing RH conversation is a notch higher than these, for two reasons: one, it has been a simmering brew for some time now, for much longer than the usual topics that hold the public’s attention; and two, everyone who has an opinion says that he or she is only thinking of the greater good and is concerned about the effects of RH on the nation’s future.
More than the pros and cons of the reproductive health bill, what I want to point out is that we are all talking about what we want for the country. It is significant that we are actually conversing as a people. A friend pointed this out, adding that more important than agreeing or disagreeing is the fact that we are thinking things through and expressing ourselves on this issue.
Can you remember what it was like before social media came in? We could get some kind of consensus only when people actually voted and our votes were properly counted, when enough people expressed their voices in the streets or wrote letters to the editor. It could not even be measured if these votes and voices really represented the majority. Often, we made that conclusion based on anecdotal impressions. And the consensus building was much too slow.
While the RH debate on GMA-7 was going on last Sunday night, Bishop Teodoro Bacani, who argued against the RH bill, was trending on Twitter and Facebook worldwide, though not in a way he would have wanted. People in real time from everywhere expressed mostly negative opinions, and the whole world witnessed it happening.
This is the way democracy seems to be playing out. In a world where established opinion makers have to compete with totally unknown entities who have access to new media and social networking, there is a more vibrant exchange of ideas and points of view. Twice, I actually preempted the big networks in announcing news on Twitter, simply because I had friends in the right places who texted me the scoop. I find this amazing and empowering.
All this makes me wonder: How many of our leaders are actually attuned to new media? I know some people who still base their take on the world solely on newspapers. If I were a leader of national prominence, I would be looking at what people are saying and maybe even having exchanges with them to help me shape policy. Also, paying attention to the voices in cyberspace would help me realize what issues we should be having national conversations about.
With so many things to fix in our part of the world, I am hoping that we can get as fired up as we have been recently with the RH bill (and the Merci and Willie issues) and the other even more crucial ones that we will be confronted with.
I recently listened to a talk by a US diplomat who reminded his Filipino audience that the Philippines is still a young nation and that we should not compare ourselves to the United States. He noted that 70 years after the US became a republic, they had a bloody civil war that killed more Americans than all the wars the US has engaged in to date. Considering the many differences that divide us, I am thankful that we have not had strife of such magnitude that has torn us apart as a nation. Sometimes I wonder how many civil disturbances and wars could have been prevented if people had just had more access to new media and their leaders took their opinions seriously.
Of course there is the danger of social media becoming an electronic mob where the sheer numbers of unthinking, uninformed users express themselves and are unappeased by leaders with populist intentions but guided by wrong policies. Populism is a very tempting position to take since it can make a leader look good in the short term. That has happened before and will happen again. This is why it is crucial that intelligent, informed leaders and opinion makers make sure they lead the conversation and steer it to a higher level of consensus-building, instead of being shut out by the mob.
Some people will point out that this smacks of elitism. Not necessarily. In a world where more people are poor, powerless and misinformed, allow me to ask: Is the common good better served if more are dragged downward to that level or raised toward more enlightened and empowered positions and paradigms?
There are hard issues we need to be talking about. For example: Is it all right to give up our natural resources for jobs, as in the case of mining? Should human rights be subservient to economic interests? What kind of a future do we really want for our children? Are we paying too high a social price when millions of Filipino kids grow up without one or both parents who are OFWs?
There are so many important issues and it would be cool if we could talk about them in full-blown national conversations. Whether or not we resolve issues is secondary. The immediate advantage would be a much higher public comprehension of issues, a higher level of debate, and hopefully, more intelligent, more nuanced responses from our leaders.
If we do not exercise our freedom of expression and leave all the decision-making to our leaders, there will be a price to pay — it will eventually limit democratic space. The late US Senator Hubert Humphrey put it succinctly: “Freedom is hammered out on the anvil of discussion, dissent and debate.”
This is exactly what we are doing now as we freely discuss and debate the RH bill. This can only be good for us as a nation since it subjects our paradigms and arguments to the test of rationality, truth and freedom.
Even if, at this point, the national conversation on the RH bill sounds too loud, with not too many people willing to listen to the arguments of either side, it is important that we are using words to make our point. This is far healthier than what is happening in some countries where wars have broken out because free conversations are not possible.
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