Saturday, August 15, 2009

Why social critics are unpopular

To be unpopular is quite easier than being its opposite. This is true for people who may offend the status quo by posing upsetting questions or expressing opinions that are contrary to more popularly-held beliefs. When someone persistently challenges people who are in power, the status quo, or a popular opinion, he or she attracts an avalanche of hate from the majority or most of the people who are afraid to disturb the conditions of things around them. By their nature, people hate disturbance, commotion or even something novel because the unfamiliar upsets them.

Socrates is a great example of those whose political convictions were drastically at odds with the popular views of the day. He cared deeply about the good of his polis, the city of Athens, yet his idiosyncratic practice of examining his fellow Athenians in order to find flaws in their arguments irritated his accusers who trumped up charges that Socrates was poisoning and corrupting the minds of the young. In his defence, Socrates had to expose his accusers as scoundrels who were corruptly willing to undermine democratic practices.

As one writer puts it, for Socrates, “doing good meant acting as a social critic: questioning fundamental Athenian beliefs in conversations held in public and private spaces of the city.”

But at the end of his trial, while he had established himself as a dignified individual rather than a pandering politician, Socrates learned that an active life, including speaking out in the citizen Assembly was impossible for a just man. That true dignity was not a social matter at all, but rather an affair of the individual soul.

The internal contradictions that beset Socrates are not uncommon for most social critics. A social critic’s dignity based upon the wisdom or its absence in his or her arguments does not attract the sympathy and approval of the community or the larger society. True dignity or self-worth is largely an individual matter a social critic must wrestle on his or her own terms, and at most times, the social critic is left alone and drowned by the voices of those he or she has managed to upset. That’s why most social critics are lonely people, despised and scorned by those around them.

Take the example of the criticism hurled at the organizers of Philippine Independence Day in the city of Toronto last June 12. The organizers were extremely upset that they were denounced for holding a Santacruzan and a parada ng lechon during the festivity instead of, say, a more relevant celebration such as a parade of revolutionary flags or Filipino costumes representing our country’s different regions. Those upset by the criticism argued that they were simply pining for the good old days, that they were just feeling nostalgic of the past, for anything that reminds them of Filipino festivities in the old country.

One must be clear, however, about the difference between historically-informed social criticism and plain nostalgia. A trip to the past just for simple reminders of things as they once were is not enough. Holding a Santacruzan or even a parada ng lechon could be value-neutral, especially if it does not offend our understanding of history and culture. Celebrated in an event other than during our country’s Independence Day will certainly not stir up criticism.

Thus, social criticism informed by historical inquiry (such as questioning the relevance of Santacruzan and parada ng lechon to Independence Day), unlike nostalgia, sees the past as capable of teaching those living in the present some very important lessons about the ways their forbears once lived. A social critic takes the risk of unpopularity or even public condemnation if, in being critical he or she helps others, especially our younger generation who do not have a clear appreciation of our country’s historical and cultural traditions to see such traditions from a well-informed perspective.

Social critics find themselves at greater risk when hatred degenerates to malice and nastiness. It’s the end of civilized intellectual discourse when dialogue crosses the line of decency and self-respect. We are seeing this now in the current health care reform town hall meetings in the United States where angry opponents of the Obama administration’s proposal to provide health insurance coverage to every American citizen (apparently orchestrated by Republicans and their rabid followers) resort to name-calling, or accusations like “death panel,” or even bringing handguns to the meetings.

This kind of risk is also present even in smaller organizations where relationship is well-bonded by the intimacy of friendship or personal alliances that can be exploited to belittle and disparage criticism and traditional civil dialogue. It is in these smaller organizations that praise, instead of critique, becomes a cheap verbal drug for the psychologically needy and unloved. Praise is the easiest thing to do, but also the most useless exercise.

But in the best intellectual and prophetic tradition, social critics continue on with their lonely but well-meaning crusade to bring out the best in humanity, not to validate, like the cynics among us, our worst fears about ourselves.

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