Lighting That Candle Again

by Jose Ma. Montelibano

When I decided, at the beginning of the New Year, that I would rather light a candle than curse the darkness, I knew it would be very difficult. It was not as though lighting a candle in the darkness was a new decision—it was just a renewal of the path I had struggled to walk for several years. But having the experience does not mean it gets easy, just easier. At any time, any petty issue can be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

Writing an opinion piece weekly has its own demand, albeit unwritten. While there is no formal agreement between and me, there exists a common wish that articles are worth reading, and more if possible. Avoiding inanity is not an only goal, but creating great interest or popular demand for more is as well. The avoidance of inanity is part of a personal criteria. My editor or the leadership of the publication never asked that of me. I simply feel embarrassed if and when I am inane.

There was a time when I was more ready to hit hard, to be very sarcastic or even insulting. Frankly, if these would solve the perennial problems that plague our society and our nation, I would not hesitate to do so. But every other opinion writer uses the pen like a sharp knife; sometimes, it is a sledgehammer. And this is as far as I can remember. It was as though having the guts and literary facility to call a spade a spade makes a writer a cut above the rest. The only problem is that the rest all do it, and the problems do not get solved.

Oh, well, issues can get resolved. A scandal can get exposed. And every so often, a killer, a thief or a liar can get convicted—every so often. My recall, however, from the time that media regained its freedom after Edsa People Power, the rhetoric gets more harsh, more accusatory, more judgmental, more frankly brutal. This pattern that is not emerging anymore but now dominant in traditional tri-media persists because the sins or crimes of society that are supposed to be exposed do not diminish, not from the noise about it anyway, but in fact increase—if we are to listen and read and watch news and opinions.

More than 60 years ago, in 1953, Ramon Magsaysay brought the issue of corruption against then President Elpidio Quirino via the golden arenola scandal. This is my earliest memory of a political issue that had prominence during the campaign then. Then, almost 60 years later, in 2010, corruption was the front and center issue still. I began to wonder what happened in between. After all, it can seem that 47 years against corruption, including the iron fist of a dictatorship, would be more than enough to reduce corruption to being a side issue. But we all know it did not taper as two Philippine presidents in that period made it to the world’s top 10 most corrupt leaders—and one more detained in the last few years for the same accusation.

Reflecting on the utter lack of success of high-profile, noisy attempts via media to expose and castigate corruption, real, imagined or malicious fabrication, the results do not favor the methodology at all. Yes, bad news can sell newspapers, radio and TV programs, but definitely had been inutile against corruption over the last 60 years. I simply cannot accept that doing the same thing all over again will bring different results. I think expecting different results from doing the same thing is equivalent to stupidity, or the inanity I fear so much.

I, of course, do not subscribe to being mute in the face of great wrong. The preponderance of noise, though, against anything and everything that is wrong, or wrong according to the opinions of all who write or talk in media, is the very thing that makes it ineffective against corruption. Psychologists may even suggest that the bombardment of bad news regarding corruption can actually highlight the issue until it becomes commonplace or routine. Worse, it can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Instead of provoking our imagination towards the constructive, our minds are forced to wallow in a sea of negativity.

It does not help, of course, that the Internet and social media have multiplied bad news exponentially. It is not that the vast majority of users are following the pattern of traditional media, because the same vast majority do not use social media that way, but those who do manage to represent an explosion of numbers versus practitioners of traditional media. Literally, any Tom, Dick and Harry can become an instant public opinion maker, regardless of the quality or inanity of their commentary.

Despite that, I like the fact that the Internet and social media are slowly dismantling the lock on people’s opinions by traditional media. If we have to err, I prefer that it is on the side of too much than too little. The freedom of expression may have its boundaries, and nations surely are moving to define those, but the less restrictions placed on it, the better. Technology and the power of communications are simply unstoppable. They may taper off one day, but not in our lifetime. What we can wish for, or work towards, is our own maturity, our responsibility, our higher wisdom.

And that is precisely why I choose to light a candle rather than curse the darkness. Just as the preponderance of information and attention regarding corruption has not stopped it, I am hoping that focusing on good news may be as self-fulfilling. Beyond being hopeful, I am convinced that more and more examples of what can be done to build a better future will influence our attention towards what we need to do rather than what we need to avoid. Life, after all, is a matter of doing, not of not doing; and doing what is good rather than not doing what is bad.


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