Thursday, October 29, 2009

The weight of conversations

In the recent past I have written about things that generated some reactions we could describe as rife with anger, disrespect and contempt. Although I am not unused to criticism, sometimes this kind of derisive commentary on what you have said or written could be disempowering, not as mere attempts to belittle or ridicule. It is tempting to think whether those who respond in scathing language really understand that it says more about them who use such words than their target of criticism.

One might also wonder if this type of angry comment has proceeded from some miscalculation of strength, the belief that somehow an argument becomes more powerful if delivered in an angry and contemptuous tone. There is always the allure of the false machismo image that one conveys by posturing for power; that in order to show strength, one’s opinions must be expressed in a way that appears to demolish all others. Even to the extent of bullying, especially when friends applaud it as powerful and persuasive.

In our present-day society, it is commonplace that for fear of being slighted, or our fragile egos bruised, that we defend ourselves by shouting louder and more rudely than the next man or woman, to ensure that we are heard. We trade insults at each other with abandon, and assume that the only response to an insult is another, one that is even more hurtful than what was handed out.

This is true of our current public and political discourse. Sidestepping the power of rationality or the competition of ideas, our political parties and their leaders use attack ads, accusations, lies and innuendoes to discredit each other. To get elected to high office, one must possess the skill in destroying another person’s reputation rather than establishing his or her own. Their arguments tend to degenerate to the level of the personal, to ad hominem, venomous and destructive.

On a smaller scale, in one organization that I know, someone who misrepresented his bona fides for membership and had a penchant for posting remarks on the organization’s chat group using circumlocution and vile language, was even bestowed lifetime membership. Using to great advantage the emotional and political clout he invested on his close friends and supporters, he succeeded in turning scathing and depraved words into some sort of unguent that induced the minds of those who decided to embrace him to listen to him despite the fact that he was incontrovertibly an interloper. This is sometimes the irony or maybe the harsh reality of life today that the world oftentimes seems upside down. It is not about the truth we peddle but how many are willing to bend the truth that matters.

The most important lesson we learn through discourse with others is that how we speak or write is who we are. We can be content from understanding that some of us who freely use abusive speech to put others in a negative light are too often revealing a greater and less palatable truth about ourselves.

There is less civility in society because we tend to be more partisan. So we need to look at possible improvements beyond clichés like “respecting our differences” or “following the Golden Rule.”

In the United States, a series of so-called “Intentional Conversations” has brought together civic, religious, business and cultural leaders for a day of genuine conversation since 1999. Begun by the Skirball Institute on American Values and sponsored by Marymount College in Palos Verdes, California, Intentional Conversations stress communication over confrontation and exchange of ideas over argument and sloganeering. The purpose of this exercise was to create a unique and memorable opportunity for real conversation that is sorely lacking in our fast-paced, competitive and confrontational world.

These Intentional Conversations ultimately have shown that people have a much greater understanding and tolerance for each other’s opinion when they share their personal experiences and values. People from different backgrounds, political and religious beliefs and even value systems are able to converse with each other and truly connect, and thus build bridges of communication and understanding. The conversation initiated by U.S. President Barack Obama between Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates and Cambridge police Sergeant Joseph Crowley showed how a good example of Intentional Conversation can lead to a genuine exchange and reconciliation at a time when there was so much animosity.

Although many of us would accept the importance of dialogue and critical inquiry in social and personal relationships, there are others, however, who would prefer the easy virtue of obedience to legitimate authority in place of critical dialogues. The military and the Church are traditional examples of monolithic organizations that have historically thrived on dictum that emphasizes obedience first before criticism. Our moral and intellectual traditions generally determine our capacity to engage in critical dialogues. We cannot, for instance, tolerate our children debating around the dinner table every night challenging our every rule. This also holds true among adults who are given so much intellectual permissiveness to debate and challenge each other’s hard beliefs to the point of futility.

On the other hand, taking the point of view that nothing comes out of debate is to shut down critical discourse which is important in discerning the truth, on what measures to take to solve a problem at hand. In any exchange of ideas, the responsibility ultimately lies in someone selected to moderate the ebb and flow of arguments. Ideas by themselves are not self-correcting, although it would be the best of all situations where the better ideas rise to the top. However, this does not happen in a vacuum.

Aberrations can happen when those chosen to mediate or resolve a conflict decide to circumvent what is true and honest and substitute their own arguments to fill in the blanks. While this may be regarded as creative thinking, its result may not necessarily reflect what is deemed desirable. Here is where our moral and intellectual traditions come to play in order to delineate the acceptable parameters of decision-making.

When we have chosen to define the arguments in a conflict on both ends of a continuum, the most desirable way to a resolution is practically at the middle, where we try to accommodate both sides. This is usually how humans arrive at a solution, by achieving a compromise which may not necessarily be the best determination, but practical and less emotionally difficult to accept. It is much better than taking the extreme position of all or nothing.

If all our conversations will yield a happy medium or an acceptable balance of interests, then perhaps there will be lesser conflicts left unresolved. The worst scenario, however, is when dialogues are either left unmediated or manipulated by individuals with vested interests of their own; any resolution will always end up to be wanting and dismally unacceptable. In this case, the usefulness of dialectic and debate has been effectively compromised.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Ondoy: The morning after

Super typhoons Ondoy and Pepeng have wrought havoc in the Philippines, as natural disasters around the globe have gone up due to climate change. Relief and rehabilitation efforts become doubly difficult (or will be even much more problematic when planning responses to future natural disasters) because of the enormity of the damage caused to both human life and the country’s economy. Right now, Filipinos here in Toronto have opened up their hearts to show they care for the plight of all those folks who suffered most from the flooding caused by the typhoons.

But as natural disasters come and visit our country with impunity, charity alone is an insufficient response. Although this wakes us up and even unites many of us, we cannot make nature’s havoc as the necessary impetus to gather ourselves together. Giving your support to organizations and other movements that call for, say, curbing gas emissions to the atmosphere, is as powerful as opening up your wallets.

Charity helps during times of calamity and those who show their generosity should be commended, and rightly so. However, we should not allow acts of charity to delude us into thinking they are the final solution. Everyone loves a cheerful giver but so much of giving can only accomplish very little.

As natural disasters continue to devastate the Philippines at almost predictable seasonal intervals, it’s also about time that the government and its planners focus beyond the tasks of rescue, recovery, relief and rehabilitation. All that these tasks will accomplish is simply to mitigate the effects of these disasters, and mitigation usually is just short term. We need to focus more on ecology, which becomes policy only when government responsibility becomes undeniable.

The environmental issues that we face today are mainly due to human activities. We must begin with the premise that we are responsible for all the anthropogenic effects of human activities on the natural environment. Much of the current global greenhouse emissions originated from the developed countries. According to the World Resources Institute (WRI), industrialized countries are the biggest polluters. Since the richer countries have been industrializing and emitting climate changing pollution for many centuries, the greenhouse gases they produce tend to accumulate and remain in the atmosphere for many decades. Thus, the environmental consequences of the policies of industrialized nations have had a large detrimental and costly effect on developing countries – especially poor countries who are already burdened with debt and poverty.

Apart from dramatic changes in climatic conditions that partly explain why we’re having so many natural disasters today, years of foreign exploitation of our forests and mountains have also weakened our natural defences against disasters. Foreign mining of our natural resources for gold, copper, iron and other minerals has stripped bare our mountain ranges while unabated logging has wiped precious rainforests. In addition, the construction of dams which were originally designed to control floods and for energy projects using our tributary systems benefited primarily the foreign investors, dam builders, international funding agencies and private companies.

Take the case of the San Roque Multipurpose Dam in San Manuel, Pangasinan. The San Roque Dam is located along the Agno River, known as the ”river of dreams,” together with the Ambuklao Dam and Binga Dam. These dams have been blamed for the massive flooding in Central Luzon caused by Typhoon Pepeng. Officials of the San Roque Dam, according to some reports, have delayed the release of excess water to maximize their profit.

Dr. Giovanni Tapang, chairman of Agham, a progressive Filipino scientist group, said that the recent floodings proved that the dams were not really designed to control floods. It was obvious, according to Dr. Tapang, that the San Roque Dam prioritized their revenues and compromised the lives and livelihood of the people living in the lowlands. “These dams just bring profit to their proponents and more harm than benefit to the people,” he added.

Dr. Tapang said that “as long as the dams remain, it is likely that similar tragedies will occur in the future as it has done in the past.”

The Philippines has a history of opposition against the construction of dams because of their destructive effects on the communities around them. Several of those who opposed the construction of dams have been killed as a result. The most prominent of these anti-dam protesters was Macli-ing Dulag, a leader of the Kalinga tribe of the Cordilleras, who is widely remembered for leading the anti-Chico Dam campaign in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Dulag forged bodongs (peace pacts) between warring tribes and unified them against the World Bank-funded Chico Dam project. The Marcos government even tried to bribe him several times in exchange for giving up his opposition against the proposed dam. Macli-ingDulag was killed on April 24, 1980, when army soldiers opened fire on his hut, killing him on the spot. In killing Dulag, the military hoped to silence the opposition to the Chico Dam project, which never happened.

Instead, Dulag’s death only heightened and broadened the opposition against the proposed dam, the protests got international coverage and the Marcos government was forced to abandon the project. Other leaders of the opposition against the construction of dams, like Nicanor delos Santos against the Kaliwa-Kanan Dam (or Laiban Dam) and Jose Doton of the San Roque Multipurpose Project were either shot to death or extra-judicially executed. The recent floods that inundated Northern and Central Luzon have proven that these leaders were right all along in opposing the construction of large dams in their respective communities.

Due to widespread anti-dam protests in the developing countries, the World Bank and the World Conservation Union had to create the World Commission on Dams (WCD) in May 1998. WCD was tasked to study the environmental impact of large dams as development projects and analyze alternative means of developing energy resources. It found that large dams had destructive effects on the environment that are difficult to reverse, and for the most part, these large dams did not succeed in developing their promised benefits such as providing cheap energy.

What then must we do after Ondoy and Pepeng?

Cleaning up the typhoons’ mess is not enough. Both government and the private and civic sectors need to act jointly to prevent flooding in the future. It’s not only effective early warning systems of storms and floods that we need. The denudation of the Marikina watershed, for instance, made the water flow faster downhill to the towns and cities of Metro Manila. One of the many measures the Philippine government must do now, together with the local government units of the cities and towns in Metro Manila, is to reforest the foot of the Sierra Madre mountain range and to declog the creeks that have been blocked by debris and solid waste. In the case of Metro Manila, overcrowding due to corporate fishpens, shanties, polluted waterways, improper planning of land use, and indiscriminate private property development around Laguna de Bay and the Napindan estuary must be addressed by the government before another tragedy such as Ondoy strikes again.

The abilities of the two water concessionaires in Metro Manila – Manila Water and Maynilad – need also to be strengthened insofar as collecting and treating waste water. With assistance from the Asian Development Bank, each concessionaire has planned to invest one billion dollars over the next 15 years. To realize this huge infrastructure, all 17 local governments in Metro Manila should put their act together.

Over all, the national government must go beyond mitigating the effects of climate change and adapting measures for affected communities, such as the construction of infrastructures like landslide-protection, flood-control, and riverbank-stabilization systems.

It is also about time to revisit the government’s policy of constructing large dams to provide for the country’s energy needs. The aftermath of the recent natural disasters only proves that we can no longer disregard the environmental and social costs of building and maintaining large dams at the expense of ignoring other sources of energy.

There are alternative sources of energy such as bio-mass-powered systems that use organic materials like animal manure and coconut husks. There are also other possible sources like micro-hydropower systems or small systems using energy from moving water and turbines or waterwheels to convert the energy of moving water into mechanical energy, which could be more appropriate for areas with numerous and large rivers. Solar-powered systems, which use photovoltaic cells and wind-powered systems are also possible sources of energy.

Ignoring these options and choosing instead to build and maintain large dams is not the only way to bring about development. We cannot justify development by any means possible, especially if it destroys our ecosystem.

The People’s Declarations Against Large Dams, issued in March 25, 2001 in Baguio City, best summed up our country’s experience with large dams:

“From the laying of the dam cornerstones to the turning of the dam turbines, profits flowed into the pockets of foreign energy corporations and their local partners, international funding agencies and the multi-lateral bureaucracy. Meanwhile, the flow of silt into the productive fields and the destruction of ecosystems, painful experiences of relocation and resettlement, testimonies of broken government promises on compensation, the non-delivery of social services to communities made survival more difficult for the already marginalized sectors of society. The needs of the people were drowned by the greed for profit.”

Monday, October 19, 2009

A night at the gala

Amidst all the troubles we have as a nation or simply as a group of people, whether at home or in a foreign land, one thing is certain. We can always celebrate. No super typhoons can even stop us. This was vividly on display a few nights ago when we were invited to a dinner gala of a local organization of Filipinos in Toronto who were celebrating their 4o years of existence in the city.

And it wasn’t a small feat. Gathering about five hundred souls under one roof is not an easy task. Not just about breaking loaves of bread to feed the multitude. Honouring its outstanding members for their contribution and celebrating the history and legacy of people from their region in the Philippines meant a lot of brainpower was used up. To top it all, making the event relevant to what their organization is doing in the Philippines to help those in need, they had to invite not just any other Filipino who could keep the masses spellbound or entertained with songs and whatnot just like most Filipino organizations in the city are wont to do. Bringing over someone to speak about the task of sheltering Filipinos so that they would not live as squatters any more or in unfit living conditions is in itself a monumental achievement. We’re not even talking about the soon-to-depart leader of our country, but a much-better person, Tony Meloto, top honcho of Gawad Kalinga (GK).

Since building its first GK house in Bagong Silang, Caloocan City, in 1999, GK launched the GK777 campaign in October 2003 to build 700,000 homes in 7,000 communities for the next 10 years. This means that next year, in 2010, GK should have met this target.

In February 2006, GK launched another initiative called Isang Milyung Bayani (“One Million Builders), aimed at mobilizing at least 1 million GK volunteers. In its global summit held in Boston early this year, GK launched its Vision 2024 platform, a 21-year timeline from 2003 to 2024 (including the GK777 started in 2003) to eradicate homelessness, hunger and poverty in the Philippines. To all GK dreamers, this would mean that the Philippines will be joining the First World in 2024.

Tony Meloto has set on fire the spirit of bayanihan through voluntarism—an effective model for community development. Everywhere he goes nowadays, he brings the message of hope that Filipinos by themselves can rebuild their nation, and this message rings more true in light of the destruction, death and despair brought about by the recent typhoons that have ravaged the country.

Meloto’s approach is not entirely new but under his stewardship, GK’s efforts in building houses for the poor on private initiative and cooperation have been recognized with a Ramon Magsaysay Award (the Philippines’ equivalent of the Nobel Prize) for Community Leadership in 2006. His efforts have followed others who have emulated India’s Emperor Ashoka who ruled from 269 to 232 BC. Stricken with great remorse after enlarging his empire through wars and unifying the Indian subcontinent, Ashoka realized how much economic power his empire had and used it for social purposes. Ashoka advanced a bold but fairly simple idea: social entrepreneurship, which in turn gave birth to the citizen sector by 2003. It is this growth of the citizen sector that attracts people of all ages to work for the benefit and betterment of their communities. Meloto, in part, has been responsible for making civic engagement socially acceptable in the Philippines.

But Meloto and Gawad Kalinga must go beyond their 2024 vision and re-engineer GK efforts away from charity, for aid is not the most effective way to solve real problems. GK’s success hinges mostly on donations from overseas Filipinos to finance its construction activities. What would happen when this deep well of money dries up? There is not enough private money to support a sustainable community development program that addresses—aside from shelter—other issues such as livelihood, education and health that are equally important for the welfare of the Filipino people.

The GK initiative can be integrated in a more comprehensive social and economic plan where both the government and the private sector can work as equal partners. To achieve this partnership, the leaders we elect in Congress, the president of the country and those that surround the executive circle, and local government officials must be on board this massive socio-economic plan. This can only be accomplished if GK believers and like-minded people exercise the power of the ballot and elect people who will embrace this gigantic program of helping and serving the people.

It’s probably the opportune time for Tony Meloto to jettison his disinclination to throw his hat into the political ring. If indeed what the country needs today is transformational leaders, Tony Meloto leads the best of them. In an arena with the likes of Noynoy Aquino and the rest of the so-called “presidentiables,” who could be more transformational than Meloto?

Tony Meloto has proved that GK, a non-governmental organization (NGO), can be the most effective voice for the concerns of ordinary people. The United Nations has recognized that NGOs are often the most outspoken advocates of human rights, the environment, social programs, women’s rights and economic amelioration.

GK has shown that the concept of civil society is alive in the Philippines. There is no other or better way to crown its success than by its leaders giving themselves up to the public sector to become the new corps of civil servants, by changing the whole makeup of the government with people who serve because they care about their country.

Another powerful typhoon is said to be headed towards the Philippines as I am about to finish writing this blog. Are we going to appeal again to our more well-to-do overseas Filipinos to keep opening their hearts and wallets? This kind of natural devastation that our country finds itself could be cyclical, and charity does not offer us the best alternative to help our people fight or survive from it. Perhaps, it is about time to consider more strategic responses, such as helping arouse our people’s awareness that years of wanton destruction of our homeland’s resources have made the environment so fragile and to pressure leaders in government to make environment conservation and preservation a top priority.

That’s why building houses is not enough to solve our crisis of poverty. We need people in government who would serve like Tony Meloto and his group who will put service to the people ahead of their own personal interests.

Friday, October 09, 2009

The fun in criticism

More than a year of writing a blog, mostly taking the unpopular and risky side of an argument, has pushed me further towards the fringe of public opinion. My first blog about contrary opinion set the tone and the lonely path of the critical dissenter and became almost the only road one could take to discover the truth. But what is a year of vigorous intellectual engagement compared to centuries of spite public contrarians had to put up with their detractors?

Last year I wrote that the smugness of the idea of an absolute truth paralyzes the mind to explore options and, to a degree, stifles creativity. The American fascination with capitalism and the workings of the free market, for example, has seemed to shut down any possible government reform or change that vaguely contains a germ of socialist innovation. U.S. President Obama’s health reform proposals could be a victim of this stubborn faith that only the market can decide what is good for the consumers. Democrat senators have joined with their Republican counterparts in stamping their feet on Obama’s public health option, an ominous portent of what could be the outcome of the American president’s bold initiative.

Oftentimes, the debate between those who would cling steadfastly to their time-tested system of beliefs, such as the captivation to capitalism and the idea that less government is better, and those, on the other hand, who would be bold to experiment with newer ideas or innovative approaches, becomes acrimonious to a point that the issues of contention are relegated to the background by the venom and spite in the exchanges. When President Obama failed to persuade the International Olympic Committee to choose Chicago for the 2016 summer event, the Republican camp went ballistic like a bunch of 13-year-old kids thinking the U.S. loss was a big blow to Obama’s chances of getting Congress to support his health reform package. How’s that relevant?

In my own fraternal organization in college, my brother-alumni are locked in a contest of tradition and liberal values as they argue to death the place of seniority in the organization. One side would argue in favour of treating each other as equals once admitted in the organization while the other side believes seniority makes the organization stronger and uniquely different from other like-minded societies. Either side of the coin could be correct depending on where one stands.

The beauty of the debating process is in its innate openness to the exchange of ideas. Whether it leads to more acrimony is really incidental only to the more important aspect of the process, which is the freedom to speak out and engage in a dialogue. In a society of mature individuals, we can take punches and deal our own. The bottom line at the end of all these squabbles is hopefully a brilliant resolution. At the end of the day, so the cliché goes, everyone kisses and makes up.

But that is easier said than done. There are organizations, or even governments, that are averse to hearing contrasting opinions. The exercise of free speech is non-existent in some countries or punishable by incarceration. In smaller organizations, the fate of opposing ideas is consigned to deaf ears.

No matter how loud or persistent the voice of opposition, those in control or those who have in the palm of their hand the organization and majority of its members could simply ignore the contrary view and wish it is forgotten or dies in oblivion. This is worse than being unable to speak out, though the perils exist that one may be marked as a dissident or be picked up in the middle of the night and detained.

When organizations allow people to express their ideas on the pretext that there is free speech, but in fact only leave the latter to speak to the wall, the issue becomes even more contemptible. For the wall can only bounce what one says, until the echoes of one’s own voice drown one out.

An organization that I know behaves this way. It doesn’t shut down opposing ideas, but doesn’t listen to others’ point of view either. Members are free to speak as much as they can until they realize that speaking out will not do any good, that to shut up is a much better option. This is as powerful as muting dissent, as effective as sweeping the opposition and throwing it to the dustbin.

Who do you blame when this happens to an organization? The leaders, maybe? But the members who keep silent while this mockery is going on are easily as culpable. Nothing could be worse than to be onlookers and bystanders to a crime that is going on, and when witnesses are asked to come forward, to disappear into the night never to be heard from again.

This is an organization one may call a “choked” anarchy. Anarchic because the leadership does not follow the organization’s rules. It’s almost like lawlessness where the leaders’ control becomes the law. While the organization is madly in disarray, its members are choked or gagged, told not to speak ill, or against, its leaders. Unchoke it, and the repressed membership becomes a loosened valve waiting to explode.

Paul Krugman, the Nobel prize-winning economist, recently wrote in the New York Times that “the guiding principle of one of our nation’s two great political parties is spite pure and simple. If the Republicans think something might be good for the president, they’re against it – whether or not it’s good for America.” It’s not so difficult to agree that spite drives many to take the opposite side. When you hate the spokesperson of the other group, that animosity can fuel more fires of revulsion even if the other group is obviously on the right side of things. Thus, we tend to become blind or deaf to the wisdom of arguments, because we simply hate the person espousing them.

One blog writer suggests that we should enjoy the fun of failure by re-framing the issue entirely to embrace criticism. She believes that criticism is part of the fun; otherwise, the dread of criticism would paralyse her.

If only each one of us can muster the courage to accept and learn from our failures, then this world could be an ideal place to live in. Accepting failure starts from listening to those who criticize us, and if we are persuaded by the logic and substance of their arguments that we are indeed wrong, to admit and learn from our mistakes, then start afresh with this new-found wisdom. It will prove that we have understood the criticism and tried to act on it, which usually is the best way to stand up to critics.