On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons for the 20th Century — for the Philippines

Historian Timothy Snyder writes On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons for the 20th Century for a global audience that skews American. In this blog post I offer insights from his work adapted to the Philippine setting. His book is a quick read, with each chapter opened by a one-paragraph sidebar that delivers pretty much the main point of the chapter. It is then followed by a brief exposition using one to two key examples from history. I’ll share that sidebar in bold, followed by a comment or two, or perhaps an excerpt from another piece I’ve read that’s aligned with the topic. I’ll keep my input short, punchy, and leave the rest for your reflection.

#1 Do not obey in advance.

Most of the power of authoritarianism is freely given. In times like these, individuals think ahead about what a more repressive government will want, and then offer themselves without being asked. A citizen who adapts in this way is teaching power what it can do.

Let me relate this to a question I once posed about us Filipinos — why do we seem so comfortable with giving up our rights? Here is a passage I discovered from “The Philippine Bill of Rights” written by Robert Aura Smith in the February 1945 issue of The Far Eastern Quarterly —

“The concept of a Bill of Rights, as such, is essentially an occidental product. For a number of centuries in British, French, and American political thought, there has grown the conviction that the rights of the individual must be preserved and safeguarded, not through the authority of an individual, not through membership in a particular group or party, not through reliance upon force of arms, but rather through the accepted processes of declared constitutional law. …

“The adoption of this concept in the Philippines was not as easy as might be supposed. There were traditional modes of thought influencing the Filipino in other directions. The concept in the beginning was alien, and political experience and education had to be added to the characteristic Filipino outlook before the Bill of Rights concept could become second nature to the Filipino in his approach to the problems of group organization.

“The political history of the Philippines since the middle of the seventeenth century was not conducive to this type of growth. Whatever the Filipino came to know of the liberty and the dignity of the individual under three centuries of Spanish domination was provoked rather than inspired. Spanish rule was absolute and, under it, the liberty of the individual became a matter of the grant of the ruler rather than the right of the ruled. It was a government of men, not of laws. The rights of the Filipinos, as rights, were no conspicuous part of Spanish political thought.”

One reading of this passage is that in the Philippine context, the equality of men is not ‘self-evident’ as Jefferson would put it. Rights, rather privileges, are given through the consent and patronage of the governing authority. Once it was the King of Spain. Then Uncle Sam. Then the cohort of men and women who we saw as uniquely positioned to solve all our country’s problems. To avoid obeying in advance, we can begin by moving beyond the mindset of electing leaders who we depend on to tell us what to do.

#2 Defend institutions.

It is institutions that help us to preserve decency. They need our help as well. Do not speak of “our institutions” unless you make them yours by acting on their behalf. Institutions do not protect themselves. They fall one after the other unless each is defended from the beginning. So choose an institution you care about—a court, a newspaper, a law, a labor union—and take its side.

I recall an article I read on Rappler, ‘The curious case of the Mocha Uson blog‘. Carmel Abao raises some interesting points, especially the last: Uson’s blog is a symptom of a fragile, not robust, democracy. It may claim to stand for ‘freedom of expression’ but does so in a dangerous way.

Abao writes:

The Mocha Uson blog controversy should remind us that there is something terribly wrong with our representative democracy. Citizens are now (literally) fighting with each other directly (on social media) instead of through their elected representatives. That there are more exchanges and more dissent outside of government instead of within government should be cause for concern.

Yes, public discourse on social media should be promoted but it should not replace or supersede deliberation in mandated political institutions such as the legislature.

This situation is evidently the consequence of having a supermajority in Congress rather than a political configuration where the minority effectively engages the majority. It must be noted that such is not just President Duterte’s doing but the product of patronage-based/pork barrel politics, a weak party system, and a winner-take-all political system.

If we had real and strong political parties that stood for particular ideals instead of just serving as vehicles for presidential candidacies, and, a system of proportional representation where diverse ideals could be articulated and negotiated, perhaps public discourse outside of formal politics would not be so antagonistic and polarizing. Moreover, if we had real political parties, public discourse within formal political institutions would be more substantive and productive.

In my opinion, our representative democracy is not working because we have reduced democracy to a numbers game. Who wins the plurality in elections wins it all and losers are expected to be invisible after elections. Who gains the most number of followers in social media are deemed the most authoritative of all political commentators and those who have fewer “likes” and “shares” are deemed unreasonable or insignificant. What is viral online is deemed the (only) truth.

#3 Beware the one-party state.

The parties that remade states and suppressed rivals were not omnipotent from the start. They exploited a historic moment to make political life impossible for their opponents. So support the multi-party system and defend the rules of democratic elections. Vote in local and state elections while you can. Consider running for office.

The Philippines has never been known as a country with a robust party system. Political horse-trading is the norm and every cycle we can rely on balimbings jumping from one party to another, usually following whoever has the power and money (pork).

And over the past year, we’ve seen a rush of stories where popular figures were forced to explain an unpopular vote. Case in point is Geraldine Roman and her attempt to playdown her vote for the Death Penalty as a matter of ‘political pragmatism’. Others are singing a similar tune now with the vote to defund the Commission on Human Rights.

There is an aspirational aspect to politics: the political horse-trading need not be the norm. But this also requires better choices and better people to be elected. Perhaps some of us who speak loudly of our dreams can take those to the halls of Congress eventually.

#4 Take responsibility for the face of the world.

The symbols of today enable the reality of tomorrow. Notice the swastikas and the other signs of hate. Do not look away, and do not get used to them. Remove them yourself and set an example for others to do so.

For this, I’ll let these pictures do the talking:

Images matter. Nothing is accidental.

#5 Remember professional ethics.

When political leaders set a negative example, professional commitments to just practice become more important. It is hard to subvert a rule-of-law state without lawyers, or to hold show trials without judges. Authoritarians need obedient civil servants, and concentration camp directors seek businessmen interested in cheap labor.

I recall how simple it was back during the time of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo: people saw her as corrupt and for that understood how everything else in government was as broken and corrupt. This is why Noynoy Aquino’s platform worked so well: the Daang Matuwid was a full-on counter to the crookedness of the Macapagal-Arroyo administration. It was a simple message that resonated and was compatible with the ‘Aquino brand’ that was then still untainted.

Then, it was easier for teachers to teach, actually. In imparting good civic and professional values, all we had to show was the negative that was coming out of the Arroyo administration. Resistance was doing good and promising a country better than what those in power are trying to make them to be.

#6 Be wary of paramilitaries.

When the men with guns who have always claimed to be against the system start wearing uniforms and marching with torches and pictures of a leader, the end is nigh. When the pro-leader paramilitary and the official police and military intermingle, the end has come.

The Davao Death Squads — the real DDS — are well-documented, even if their narrative is not fully accepted. Duterte supporters have even appropriated the name to mean something else — the Duterte Die-hard Supporters — even if both their effects is to embolden and enable Duterte’s brand of fascism. This is why, for the life of me, I still find it difficult to imagine how anyone with a sense of the Davao Death Squads could have voted for Duterte. Denialism was rampant during the elections, and this denialism is turning its ugly head again now that police brutality has become a reality despite all our warnings.

#7 Be reflective if you must be armed.

If you carry a weapon in public service, may God bless you and keep you. But know that evils of the past involved policemen and soldiers finding themselves, one day, doing irregular things. Be ready to say no.

Not all police are the same. In this section, I’d like to recognize those who are standing up against impropriety and evil.

Cebu City Chief Police Superintendent Joel Doria works with the CHR to train his new officers.

From Bogo City, Cebu, Police Chief Supt. Byron Allatog wants a community-based response to the drug problem.

Cagayan de Oro Police make it policy to have zero casualties in apprehending drug suspects.

It is possible to do good work. It is imperative to do good work.

#8 Stand out.

Someone has to. It is easy to follow along. It can feel strange to do or say something different. But without that unease, there is no freedom. Remember Rosa Parks. The moment you set an example, the spell of the status quo is broken, and others will follow.

It’s a paradox that in a technological age that enables freer and looser movement for individuals, the forces of sameness and compliance are also in full swing. Behind every ‘personal brand’ is someone who has the ‘fear of missing out.’ So to stand out, say no to the forces that compel you to get in line. Here is a good read on how to get over FOMO.

This is why I’m slightly skeptical of outrage culture. Yes, it is important to speak up and to articulate our sentiments on the matters that move us. But there comes a point when all that seems to happen is a steady stream of outrage online but with no action on the ground? Then it becomes a little disillusioning.

So lately I’ve been trying to take a step back when something happens, get all my facts first, and then chime in with an opinion if and only if I feel it leads to something useful or practical. Otherwise I keep it to the length of a tweet — and just one — if I feel my sanity requires a little steam out for the sake of my mental health. But I’m still plagued by the question of what happens next and how we can break the cycle of outrage so that we all have something to collectively celebrate and be thankful for.

#9 Be kind to our language.

Avoid pronouncing the phrases everyone else does. Think up your own way of speaking, even if only to convey that thing you think everyone is saying. Make an effort to separate yourself from the internet. Read books.

I’ve been trying to up my reading output as of late. At a point I felt that the Internet was making me less patient, less curious. Reading books allows me to slow down and really think through what I’m learning. And after going fully digital with my books, I’m finding that I’m picking up hardcovers more and more. Not surprisingly, it is liberating to go at your own pace rather than being fed information by an algorithm.

Next up is writing. I used to write quite a lot and I hope to exercise those muscles again. I find that there is value in expressing oneself but aspire to do ways that aren’t redundant (see #8) but instead value-adding.

#10 Believe in truth.

To abandon facts is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power, because there is no basis upon which to do so. If nothing is true, then all is spectacle. The biggest wallet pays for the most blinding lights.

The truth may be contested but the facts are verifiable. Democracy today has become doubly challenging when the facts themselves are negotiated. It all began when Public Relations firms started spinning for their clients, but that has now become supercharged through the use of social media and open knowledge platforms such as Wikipedia. Hence it becomes more important to double down on sources that are verifiable, vetted, and somehow more static and less prone to manipulation. Hence, books (see #9).

But indeed, men have been overselling themselves since the opening paragraph of Hammurabi’s Code. And like Hammurabi, modern day politicians weave their own narratives so they come across as larger than life and hence more entitled to extracting resources from a state they have captured for their own. This is what drives the historical revisionism of the Marcoses. This is why everything scholarly and written about the man and his legacy must be preserved, and why everything they present online must be contested.

#11 Investigate.

Figure things out for yourself. Spend more time with long articles. Subsidize investigative journalism by subscribing to print media. Realize that some of what is on the internet is there to harm you. Learn about sites that investigate propaganda campaigns (some of which come from abroad). Take responsibility for what you communicate with others.

Fake news thrives on two things: vindictiveness and convenience. There are opinions which people push regardless of the facts, moreso if reputation and competition is at stake. Then there is just failure on the part of the consumer to discern and dig deeper into the headlines dished out by social media news. But it is still possible for long-term stories to gain traction. In recent memory was My Family’s Slave which shone an atypical light on the culture of Filipino househelp. The story spurred quite a lot of commentaries and led to the general consensus that as a society we can’t have multiple standards on people’s rights.

In the short-term though, and as social media still figures out how to combat misinformation, it falls on us to educate each other on what can or shouldn’t be shared. That in itself is a heavy, political discussion but to do so is to stand up (see #8) and avoid the pitfalls of social media argument death spirals.

#12 Make eye contact and small talk.

This is not just polite. It is part of being a citizen and a responsible member of society. It is also a way to stay in touch with your surroundings, break down social barriers, and understand whom you should and should not trust. If we enter a culture of denunciation, you will want to know the psychological landscape of your daily life.

Perhaps an analogue for the Millennial generation is their habit of talking to their Grab and Uber drivers. Feeble and quaint as these encounters may be, they do lead to surprising insight about themselves and each other; there is definitely no shortage of insightful #UberStories online. But how do we scale this up? In Pope Francis’ visit to us last 2015, a message he left us is the importance of the encounter — being present with others to get a deep sense of their story, hopes, and dreams. To take a quick break as I’ve now written twelve items and have eight more to go, I’ll turn over the floor to Pope Francis with his TED talk where he expounds on the theme of encounter.

#13 Practice corporeal politics.

Power wants your body softening in your chair and your emotions dissipating on the screen. Get outside. Put your body in unfamiliar places with unfamiliar people. Make new friends and march with them.

On the morning of November 19, 2016 my wife and I woke up spiritually pained. Ferdinand Marcos was buried in the Libingan ng mga Bayani just the day before and it became hard to imagine a world where the justice could be served for all those who were taken away and killed during the dark days of Martial Law. So we then went to a memorial for these fallen, unsung heroes. No one called us there. No one expected us there. But there we were, communing with their names in the hopes our own spirits never forget them.

There are just moments in one’s civic life when the routines of the day have to be set aside so that we can re-orient and focus ourselves amidst the competing values of daily life. And by its nature, civic virtues invite us beyond our comfort zones and this may mean getting up from our seats, walking a mile in others’ shoes, and being present in new spaces whether it be a protest rally, a march, or listening in at a key hearing in Congress.

#14 Establish a private life.

Nastier rulers will use what they know about you to push you around. Scrub your computer of malware on a regular basis. Remember that email is skywriting. Consider using alternative forms of the internet, or simply using it less. Have personal exchanges in person. For the same reason, resolve any legal trouble. Tyrants seek the hook on which to hang you. Try not to have hooks.

Social media has become so contested that nothing is safe, not even your memories with friends, your ideas, and your stories. If can’t be done away with, a social media detox would be healthy every now and then.

#15 Contribute to good causes.

Be active in organizations, political or not, that express your own view of life. Pick a charity or two and set up autopay. Then you will have made a free choice that supports civil society and helps others to do good.

If there is something we should be proud of in our country, it is that we have a very vibrant civil society. There is no shortage of groups seeking to do good, and even less of a shortage in opportunities to put together groups when there are needs that are yet unserved or unmet. Building capacity for these organizations (Peoples’ Organizations, Non-Governmental Organizations, Social Action Centers) is now a key area of interest and competence as well. The Zuellig School in the Asian Institute of Management has Master’s programs (and scholarships) for Development practitioners. I myself am part of a group that has recently been doing organizational development work for non-profits.

#16 Learn from peers in other countries.

Keep up your friendships abroad, or make new friends in other countries. The present difficulties in the United States are an element of a larger trend. And no country is going to find a solution by itself. Make sure you and your family have passports.

I am of two minds about the impact of foreign culture on Philppine mores. Given our sizable diaspora, there is no lack of insight and input on how the best of what is out there can improve our cities, communities, and livelihood. And yet at times, when faced with the hard work of adapting lessons learned to our shores, we preempt difficulties and challenges with a strange brand of Philippine exceptionalism — “Eh, iba naman kasi dito sa atin.”

There are definitely deeper structural issues that make meaningful systemic change difficult despite the evidence on how it can be done. A good case on this would be the War on Drugs. Universal opinion is now against the heavy-handed method chosen by Duterte and yet he refuses the wisdom of the experience from other countries.

#17 Listen for dangerous words.

Be alert to the use of the words extremism and terrorism. Be alive to the fatal notions of emergency and exception. Be angry about the treacherous use of patriotic vocabulary.

Mr. Duterte now finds himself in two wars, both of which are aggravated by the words and the manner with which he dispenses his opinions.

The War on Drugs is as contentious as it is now widespread. The fallibility of the strategy is well-established. Yet Mr. Duterte’s fixation on the menace goes beyond an obsession with failed tactics — he is demeaning in his language and refers to addicts in the most dehumanizing terms. He has deep ingrained biases that will make it difficult for him to see reason, and to subject any criticism of his methods to a deadly war on attrition.

Second is the War in Mindanao which is facilitated by his declaration of Martial Law and the impossible Siege of Marawi. This war, too, he subjects to absolutist terms which he even connects with the proliferation of drugs. To rally support for these excursions, Mr. Duterte resorts to his ‘Duterte Harry’ persona, using words and language that are not fit for civic conversation. And to complete the poision brew, Mr. Duterte wraps his slurs in his own brand of Nationalism that ultimately alienates and oppresses others.

#18 Be calm when the unthinkable arrives.

Modern tyranny is terror management. When the terrorist attack comes, remember that authoritarians exploit such events in order to consolidate power. The sudden disaster that requires the end of checks and balances, the dissolution of opposition parties, the suspension of freedom of expression, the right to a fair trial, and so on, is the oldest trick in the Hitlerian book. Do not fall for it.

Shock and awe. A phrase used by George W. Bush when they were mapping the invasion of Iraq. Shock and awe. A turn of phrase used by Duterte supporters to describe what they hope will be his impact on the oligarchic narrative they wish to destroy. Common to both is the use of fear, of which Duterte is proving to be a cunning master. He has repeatedly and constantly shocked and upended expectations — from ostracizing his Vice President to sponsoring the Burial of Marcos, from dehumanizing addicts and drug dependents to threatening all those who speak on behalf of Human Rights. Fear keeps the opposition on the defensive and preempts any action that would critique or check the incumbent. This in turn boosts the morale of his supporters who see this as the behavior of a strong-willed leader.

The response is to achieve a certain ‘freedom from fear’ which will require a certain acceptance of what can be changed or cannot be changed within the current rules of the game. Freedom from fear, however, will require time, patience, collective action, and courage. To be impervious to fear is to be immune to the machinations of the regime.

I am still figuring this out myself, but so far what has been working is stepping back from being enslaved by the news cycle and resisting the urge to express my outrage and indignation on their own terms. We all have other talents and dreams — especially dreams. And by anchoring our energies on the aspect of our lives we can impact — our families, our friends, our work — then we generate hope. We generate the energy that will be required to fight another day and work towards that country we all dream about. Done is never done.

#19 Be a patriot.

Set a good example of what America means for the generations to come. They will need it.

At the end of the day, we share the same country with the 40% of voters (16 million) who voted for Duterte last 2016. It is easy to cast derision and blame their way, but the truth is that the factors that precipitated the rise of Duterte preceded any judgment or calculation by those 16 million. Through our past choices that may or may not have excluded others, there now exists a society where some feel so alienated that they had to vote for a person that was as foreign to the system and who was poised to make a country into one that included them. And after Duterte passes his term, we will all be left to pick up the pieces.

Thus, we are constantly nation-building. Everything we do now counts. We resist when we fight the power, we resist when we live good lives that exemplify Filipino values. Sipag. Tiyaga. Pagmamahal sa Diyos. Pagmamahal sa kapwa.

Bayanihan.

Walang Bayanihan na walang Bayani.

#20 Be as courageous as you can.

If none of us is prepared to die for freedom, then all of us will die under tyranny.

Our history is full of stories of men who knew the price that had to be paid for freedom and liberty. And once lost, these prizes are not redeemed automatically either. We’ll have to fight to win them back and it may hurt. In this New New Society that Mr. Duterte has ushered in, we are now at 13,000 and counting.

But then there are the rest: the educated, the privileged, the elite. What are we willing to give up? How far are we willing to go? After the books are read and after the walls of text are written, after the work is done and our families are cared for, and after the degrees are won and the papers are published, what more will we be ready to do for this little country of ours?

As for myself? I don’t know. I have some ideas. But I’m hoping that we all get to figure it out together, as free men do.

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Responsible for Truth

Democracy may be flailing. But as we remain citizens in a democratic republic, we have a duty to keep ourselves informed. This is a requirement of self-government, a concept of democracy that is often lost.

As the term suggests, self-government means that we are not subjects of an external sovereign. In feudal societies, individuals had no rights. Whatever ‘right’ they could extract from the state is but a grant from the feudal lord. Patronage on both sides was the norm. Liberalism, expressed most clearly as accessing the right to suffrage, ultimately proved disruptive to feudalism as the power to rule shifted away from individuals and elites towards the common folk.

Power comes with a certain responsibility however. Paramount to this is the ability to wield it effectively, and this requires a certain rootedness in reality. The vulnerability of certain individuals and groups to fake news, alternative facts, and false truths suggest therefore that they have no interest in ruling themselves but to be ruled. Government to them is politics, a never ending contest over who makes the rules without ever really understanding the game or playing it themselves.

Unless citizens once again become serious about facts, critical of their leaders, and unyielding to any form manufactured truth, self-government will be impossible. People will continue to sound the death knell of democracy, and this will be realized via a self-fulfilling prophecy.

My First Words as the World Turned

Around 4 o’clock this morning, as I was keeping my 1 year-old son entertained during his newly shifted sleeping hours (7pm to 3am), a message bubble appeared on my phone. With Trump’s victory still fresh in everyone’s heads, a former student of mine dropped me a line asking, “Written your thoughts on 2016 yet?”

I quickly replied that I’m still reflecting on it and in the meantime shared a piece from The Guardian on the death of globalization and the triumph of racism. I indicated that its ideas were something that were bouncing around in my head only that I haven’t pinned them down on. He then continued that he was interested in what I thought since he vaguely remembers me as being “big on the promise of globalization, and an avid consumer of the so-called liberal commentariat.” Moreover, this now personally affects him as he is in his 20’s and an immigrant into the US.

Watching over my son, I began typing a response. Then it started to feel cathartic. Here was I sent —

In some way I’d say there had been an evolution that came with having to put on the years. A lot of my optimism for globalism then was hinged on the potential of technology as a ‘flattening’ force but even in my work in education I came to see how that wasn’t really true. I am now a staunch advocate against e-learning, for example, in the sense that there is this notion that technology should replace the teacher. But even topical projects such as providing tablets in schools or building computer labs for indigent communities — sadly I’ve seen more failures than successes and have come to see that the way to approach education is to go back to the basics — the teacher student relationship — and innovate around that to make it more effective overall.

My politics has moved on to a similar direction. Whether it be market failures or governance failures, what I look for then is how the institutions propped up to respond to those concerns have failed and how they can be made better. I’m not against globalization per se, but now I’m cognizant that perhaps we don’t have the institutions ready and running to make the most of it, to manage the risks and to maximize the gains. Government and the market are not there yet.

So in a broad sense, I get Brexit. I get Trump. I get Duterte. I may not like it, but I know that so many dominoes had to fall first to get those guys to where they are. At the least, there has been a breakdown in the institutions and they simply caught on the anger and rage against that.

At the end of the day, liberalism is about how we, collectively, allocate justice. And that is the work of the social contract. At my most optimistic, I’d say that we’re still perfecting that work but what these events are also telling us is that there is a cost to waiting and taking our time. And this leads to injustice, and this means liberalism has failed. So we have work to do, and urgently so.

And now as I look at it 12 hours later, there are a few more things that come to mind by way of clarifying and closing the loop on some ideas.

On technology in education — I don’t dismiss technology as a tool in the classroom; far from it. What I dismiss is the notion that a teacher can be not present and that screens or computer prompts would suffice. At least in the context of basic and secondary education which I worked on, I would still hold that the imparting of values, civic virtues, and the formation of character cannot be outsourced to technology. But by all means, there can be laptops, tablets, smart screens, or what have you. However, this comes with a caveat: that such projects must come with a plan to keep them sustainable, effective (read: students learn and teachers use them competently and confidently), and reliable. There are great projects where technology is successfully deployed in the classroom. The challenge is scale given the intensive capital, training, culture shifts, and continuity costs that come with the endeavor. My approach has been to always start with the teaching relationship, appreciate its unique dynamics and needs, and identify ways to enhance and strengthen it with tools and technology. And then it hit me: I surmise that this tension is what industries on the verge of globalization and liberalization struggle with, some more violently and even more painfully.

On what Institutions I refer to — Broadly speaking, all social structures shared and held in public to support the social contract. We start with the family. We consider faith communities and school. Then there is government, its many agencies, units, and departments. And then the market — any place where buyers meet sellers and exchange — civil society, and the media. I view institutions as organic entities that are rooted in social context, culture, and norms. They can change, they can be challenged, they are always developing and shifting even if at a pace that we don’t easily see or realize until they do — like our planet’s shrinking polar ice caps.

The cost of change — It must be such a privilege now to say things like: “Change doesn’t happen over night.” “Change takes time.” “Change begins with each one of us.” Brexit, Duterte, Trump — these are all revolutions from the peripheries. There are elite elements to them, yes, but the tide that rose came from the countrysides which have been long neglected by the imperiousness of the cities.  For far too long, wealth, privilege, education, comfort, and technology have been overly monopolized by the urban areas, concentrating power and opportunity in the many at the expense of the more. The change we’ve seen these past months did not come from the hip, the connected, or even the millennial. It came from those who have been forgotten but wish to be no longer.

The work that is to be done There is much for all of us to unlearn and learn if we are to make sense of the world that is emerging. There are no easy answers and it seems that there are to be more disruptions and upheavals in how things used to be because we can no longer afford business as usual. I, too, am humbled at the rapidness of the change we’re seeing. It is questioning a lot of models and beliefs about how we thought the world worked. But as an anchor we look at the ideals and structures that have withstood the test of time, and that for the longest time mankind only sought one thing from one other — to belong, to be connected, and to be loved.

Our Era of Speculation-Driven Politics

Issues are issues because of people who make judgments.

This is why Ad Hominem attacks, dishonest and ‘fallacious’ they may be, are powerful and disarming. At the end of the day, decisions on whether to wage war, provide for free college tuition, increase the coverage of healthcare, build this bridge over these houses — and a million other policy choices — are subject to human judgement and error, especially error.

So in anger over those ‘stupid’ errors we call them names and nicknames (ie. adultress, kalbo, Tuta ng Kano), we call them out on their personal hypocrisies to put into question their ability to make sound and fair judgments. That’s really the purpose of personal attacks, true or otherwise: to weaken the moral authority of another in order to rob them of their argumentative and, ultimately, political power.

This is why, when under attack, imploring to ‘stick to the issues’ or to ‘debate the program not the person’ are truly the first lines of defense. They seem intuitive enough: let’s not talk about me, I’ll not talk about you, and let’s instead focus on the ‘issues’ that ‘matter’. Never mind that how we frame an issue is a function of our own subjective lenses. Never mind that what comes to matter is a product of individual systems of assumptions and beliefs. Taken to its extreme, ‘sticking to the issues’ can be dehumanizing and in itself be a trick to deprive the other of power just because they’re not on the level.

My realization in our era of acidic debate is that it has become  quite impossible to separate message from messenger, that the openness of social media and the Internet demands a certain categorical consistency between brand and being — either you’re all of you or you’re none of you. Because if it were really only the issues that matter, then Clinton would have locked up the Presidency of the United States months ago.

Moreover, there is a certain asymmetry that’s naturally built in to our discourse that makes it tempting to slide into personal attacks — we don’t all have complete information. I’m not even referring to education: that series of competencies that are predetermined to define the civility and merit of individuals and groups. Just knowledge and information in a pure economic sense, as currency in the intellectual market.

The classic case of where information asymmetry occurs to the benefit of those who know more is in the stock market. This is why insider trading has been outlawed (and yet persists): because it puts those with more, privileged information at a better position to exploit the market and extend their gains.

In our modern online debates we, too, make certain bets on the positions (judgments) we take on the issues and controversies of the day. We can change our minds when the facts change. But we can also raise new facts to bolster and strengthen our position. Both are skills, and our ability to do either or both can definitely increase with education, experience, or time. The system can be gamed however, just like the stock market, by introducing new, speculative positions that can tilt the gains one way or another. The information need not even be true to make a difference, just real enough to drive real speculation that would lead to anywhere from intransigence to surrender to panic.

It is this speculative behavior that lies at the heart of our debates now. And as much as we aspire to ‘stick to the issues’ or to ‘debate the program not the person’, there exists an imbalance, an asymmetry in information, that makes such calculating analytical debates impossible, if at all they were even ever possible. It is from this power imbalance then that the debates can become personal, and at this point the response can range from the Ad Hominem attacks we now see too often, to an articulation of one’s values to reset the terms of the debate.

That last point is something for us to ponder — giving voice to values. This is actually the key to transcending conflict and finding common ground. (For more on this, if you have read up to this point, I’d recommend the work of Mary C. Gentile or Theory U by Otto Scharmer.)

It is a level of discourse that is all but impossible in the context of social media, but think Humans of New York if it were a conversation. Can we find the space, online at least, to encounter others as genuine persons, not merely avatars or bytes? After all, issues are issues because people care; to debate them on the merits, we’ll have to meet them there.

How Leila De Lima Lost

Leila De Lima has two key lessons to offer leaders of all stripes: that when you challenge authority and force change, make sure you have a coalition to guide you and that you regulate the pace of change. Ronald Heifetz, a Harvard professor known for his work on Adaptive Leadership, calls the latter as ‘turning up the heat’ and cautions leaders to sense where a group is at before pushing them to do more work.

This is why I felt that bringing in Matobato to testify on the Davao Death Squads was a tactical error. As important as it was to bring such truths to light, it may have been too much too soon for the Senate at this point in time. Public opinion was also sorely against De Lima, limiting the capacity of all those who should listen to ‘do the work’ of connecting the dots between the DDS and the conduct of the current drug war.

To complicate De Lima’s fortunes, I noticed how alone she seemed. She stood alone in every press conference. She hardly had any entourage as she walked through the Senate. Her party allies hardly defended her; though at first Drilon was willing to raise questions on her behalf, he now seems less so. The other LP Senators are nowhere to be heard, save for a few loose remarks in the media from time to time. Most likely, they are reserving their own political capital and not raising the heat too quickly in their respective kitchens. And so it falls back on De Lima. She came in with no coalition to speak of to what was in all intents and purposes all out war. Whether she underestimated her alliance is irrelevant; the work of leadership is to mobilize and not merely count favors.

So can De Lima recover?

Right now it doesn’t look good. The Hearings at the House are politically calculated to poison De Lima — no one would want to ally, much more coalesce with her. And the heat has been raised so high that the gasket has blown and now the kitchen is blowing up in many places. There is not much room for her to maneuver right now, but Heifetz always recommends that leaders should know when to retreat, lick their wounds, and ‘step on to the balcony’ to view the terrain anew, strategize, and find new inspiration. The last thing she should do is to remain on the confrontational path she’s been on. This is not to recommend that she reverse course — that’s a surer way to lose — but to live on to fight another day.

Since she quoted the Ancient Romans in her privilege speech the other day, it would be fitting to remind her of how they regard Fortune in the work of politics. Fortune is a fickle woman, the Romans say. And while Lady Fortune is with her opponents right now, De Lima can only hope that she tires soon and that there will be a reversal.

Maybe then I could write about how Duterte was close but  didn’t win. If it happens. 

When Passion Meets Purpose

One thing that grad school has beaten out of me is the notion that passion is enough.

I subscribed to that thought for the whole of my working life thus far thinking that as long as you do something you love, you will find success and happiness. I still believe that, but the difference now is that I realize it’s only one half of an equation. On the other side is purpose, or that one thing that moves you to do what you do. Passion is what leaves you smiling at night before going to sleep; purpose is the force that wakes you up in the morning.

How do we differentiate the two? Consider the following semantic experiment:

It seems okay to say that your passion is playing the guitar, right? But how does it sound when you say that your passion is helping other people? It makes sense, sure, but it’s difficult to hear that statement off someone without thinking, “He’s such a martyr.”

On the other hand, it’s completely fine to say that your purpose is to help other people. But how does it sound when you say that your purpose is to play the guitar? In that case, one can come off as a little self-indulgent. “Is there nothing more to you?”

Though both passion and purpose are defined from within, the latter is more our personal response to the world in all its complexity. And as a response to the outside world, it ultimately has an impact on others, whether it be on our families, our communities, workplaces, or even our country. A well-thought-out purpose is an active response to a need; as such it is more than mere compliance or blind loyalty. Purpose is a duty that we have defined for ourselves.

Passion is an outward expression of our inner selves. In a way, it can exist in a vacuum. You can play the guitar your whole life without making an impact on other people. You can paint, write, take photos, teach. That one thing that can never be taken away from you — the activity that defines you, or the activity that without which you feel you have unrealized potential — that’s your passion.

The insight I’ve had over the past year is three-fold.

One, your passion and purpose can be different things. These days, there are increasingly more and more people who feel metaphysical anguish trying to find that one thing that defines their life. Don’t panic. Just because you want to play basketball at every waking moment doesn’t mean you have to make a career out of it. Becoming a homemaker can be fulfilling but it may not be also entirely who you are.

Thus secondly, people can find themselves dedicating their lives to either one. In either sphere they can find happiness and contentment, but also the opposite — sadness and resentment. After all, not everyone gets to live out their passions. In the busyness of this world, having time to do something you genuinely love is considered a luxury not may can afford. On the other hand, there are also those who move about life with not needing a sense of orienting their lives to something greater than themselves. My only word of caution is that an overabundance of dedication to one’s passion can lead to ambitiousness and self-absorption. Losing one’s self to extreme passions or purposes will be ultimately frustrating.

Hence we find ourselves working towards the middle. People now use the phrase work-life-balance to express this tendency to meet themselves halfway. But what do we find in the absolute middle? What do we find in that place where passion is completely one with purpose? Is there even such a place?

Chris Martin of Coldplay was once asked what his objective was as a musician. He boldly said that he wanted to write “the greatest song ever” — the next year they released “Fix You”. In live concerts, Martin is known for building extraordinary rapport with his audience, and that his love for songwriting and performing is clearly anchored on his appreciation for his fans for whom he writes his songs. The inventiveness and innovation of Coldplay continues to this day, true masters of their craft with careers geared towards a love of music and a respect for their audience.

I use Coldplay as an example to shake things up when I say that a vocation need not conjure up an image of a man in priestly robes, though the word is rooted in a religious tradition (voca meaning ‘voice’ so literally the work we are called to do). The modern vocation need not be entirely not for profit either. When one’s passion and purpose meet, it opens us up to the possibility of genuine expression and service whether it be through writing a multi-million dollar album or teaching in a public school.

Moreover, it is in this vocational sweetspot — doing what we want to do and have to do — that we make mastery of ourselves possible. And as Masters, we become a source for others and allow them to define their own passions and purposes as well.

Coda

As 2013 enters its final stretch, I realize that this has been the longest time that I’ve been away from something I’ve always been passionate about. The distinction between passion and purpose has become so clear in the past ten months that I haven’t taught a single class since 2004. Hence I often feel anxious to get back to work already, but I realize now that it’s largely because those days were, in a way, simpler and more enjoyable compared to these days.

What this year has done for me though is to blow the world wide open. My purpose is completely unhinged, the possibilities now seemingly endless. If purpose is our response to the world, I have yet to answer. I can always choose to respond as I have in the past. But for now as I wait for my passion and purpose to meet, I will relish the thought that the past year has not left me unchanged.

Doing good, doing well (is work that never ends)

As I write, I am taking a break from working on my Management Research Report. It is essentially our ‘thesis’ here at AIM where we are tasked to come up with an original management solution that responds to a real problem that is of value to the organization we’re writing for. I’m writing mine on Pisay, the school I’ve come to call home for the past eight years, and so far it’s been really interesting to encounter my school at an angle I’ve never really seen before.

But enough about my MRR. My girlfriend has basically chided me for not writing more here — or anywhere else as a matter of fact — so here’s an attempt. Anyway I’ve been feeling that I do need to write here, if only to help me process the twists and turns that my life has taken on so far.

After all, it has been a really long time.

A really long time.

That is what it feels. Though I’ve only been in grad school for five months, it feels that I’ve been gone from work for much, much longer. Something like two years. They say that a year in AIM is equivalent to ten years of managerial experience. With the pace of our classes and the degree to which my thinking has been challenged and raised in each of our classes, I can now see where that claim has come from.

I had a tough time at the beginning, to be honest. I’ve never really had any experience of graduate school so in my mind I was simply thinking college but more difficult. And I was never really the best student back then. Save for my last semester in college, I felt that I simply ‘powered through’ my classes. I never really studied or spent all-nighters, and relied solely on brainpower to get me through my exams. That’s why my grades were average at best and, looking back, I feel that I under-performed.

The last semester was different. I am not really the type who chases after grades but I registered my highest QPI in that semester. I still remember what made the difference: by that final semester in college, I was sure that I wanted to be a teacher.

That made the difference because admitting that to myself liberated me. It freed me from simply surviving college to actually feeling that I want to just do well. Prior to that realization, I was lost. Most of my batchmates in political science already got themselves into a law school and I was just in the mode of getting out of college so my life can begin and make it up as I go along. But much else remained meaningless and I felt contented at just passing my classes enough so I can graduate and get out. Teaching turned me around. I always had the desire and passion but I denied it for seven semesters.

When I finally embraced teaching, I went through that last semester thinking that my life is what I will make it to be. And I wanted to make it good, I wanted to do well. And as I thought of the students that I’d encounter when I started teaching, I felt a responsibility to personalize the values that I’d teach them eventually — passion for what you do, resilience, and hard work. I still had political science subjects that semester and just had one education elective, but it didn’t matter. What was more important was that my work reflected the values I sought to live my life by, and the rest is history.

Now I look back at the past eight years as the most formative years of my life, and as I carry on with student life at AIM I also grow in gratitude towards the school that I’ve served all these years. I took a lot out of my years there, too — basically the affirmation that passion, resilience, and hard work is all you need. (Or as Angela Lee Duckworth puts it, grit.)

So when I started having a hard time at AIM, I had to come around and realize that thinking that it would be just like college but more difficult was simply the wrong way to go. For one, I didn’t do well in college thinking it was just college. But life felt easier and less stressful when I viewed it more as the reality of my life — and a reflection of who I am. Grad school requires the same perspective.

I guess what makes the graduate level most unique from basic, secondary, and even tertiary education is that it relies on vulnerability.  When done well, graduate school should make one incredibly uneasy and maybe even a touch insecure. There will be a lot of un-learning and re-learning involved, but what all this does is to facilitate a gut check. By stripping you away of everything you thought you already knew, you’re stuck looking at what’s left when all is said and done. In the past few months I’ve been asked these questions again and again: What do you stand for and what are you willing to give?

Since that last semester in college, I kept myself to a pact — that I’ll always be true to what it is I want to do. I came around at AIM when I admitted to myself that my schooling is a continuation of my work as an educator, and that the time I spend reading cases and writing my MRR is an investment towards making an even bigger difference in our students, our teachers, our schools. What can I say? I’ve always been a dreamer, too.

This is not to say that I’m having it easy now. Definitely not. If anything, I feel that our work here at AIM has gotten even tougher. We’ve just started Module 2 (out of 3) and the subjects are now more practical and managerial in orientation. For instance right now we’re currently tackling human resources, project management, and even marketing — subjects where I have close to zero background. Hence, the need for grit. And the ability to think fast and remain on one’s toes. I’m being asked the hard questions again, but that’s really how the learning is done. “What do you stand for?” is really “How does this make sense to you and your experience?”“What are you willing to give?” is really “What are you willing to do to make the most of your learning?” The path to becoming leaders and managers runs through self-discovery.

So that’s how I’ve been in a nutshell. I’m doing good, doing well. But the work never ends.

For the meantime I hope this earns me brownie points. I already owe someone a date after I turn in my MRR’s first draft on June 3.

🙂