Realizing oneself, speaking for others

The opportunity to go on sabbatical leave had come at a perfect time.

I was getting bored with the courses I have been teaching for the last 30 years, and I wanted to see what was being done in the other disciplines.  My TV program was judged to be doing poorly in the ratings, and rather than beg for time to reformat it, I welcomed the chance to get off and rethink my options. The contingencies of weekly television had sapped my creative juices, and it bothered me that we were beginning to repeat issues and guests.

I had hoped to use the hiatus to pursue my interest in history and philosophy, and, more importantly, to examine my life, trace its blind impresses, and behold it from the perspective of new vocabularies.  I was all set to spend a whole year in the company of books rather than of people.   But as it turned out, I barely had time to draw up my reading list and to visit the centers where I wanted to spend a good part of my sabbatical year.

Two months after I freed myself from the weekly schizophrenic schedule that, for over a decade, had me shuttling back and forth from academe to television, I accepted two appointments that immediately broke my solitude and ended all prospects of a year of leisurely selfcreation.  Both assignments had not seemed to me particularly demanding.  The first, as faculty representative to the University of the Philippines Board of Regents, would not require, I thought, more than a few hours of attendance at a monthly meeting.  And the second, as a member of the Appeals Committee of the Movie and Television Review and Classification Board (MTRCB), I had assumed, should be even less difficult because its work arises only when a film is banned by the MTRCB’s own committees.

My expectation was that I would still be able to maintain the program of solitary reading I had worked out as the core of my sabbatical agenda while performing my civic responsibilities as faculty regent and as moral arbiter for banned films.  Needless to say, I was wrong.

Even before I could take my oath as a member of the Appeals Committee, “Scorpio Nights 2” was already looming in the horizon.  An outspoken Dominican priest, Fr. Sonny Ramirez, had been appointed chair of the Committee at the last minute, and everyone was asking how we, the supposed “liberals” in the committee, could possibly work with him.

But Fr. Sonny was not my problem; what worried me was the prospect of long debates with four other people on the moral criteria to use in determining the suitability of a film for public exhibition.   The presidential decree that created the MTRCB provided only vague guidelines that, in any case, needed to be re-examined.  I was conscious that I should not impose my own personal standards, and must take into account prevailing social perceptions of moral suitability.  I think the committee took the view that all moral judgments are ultimately personal and idiosyncratic, that one can only attempt to explain one’s vote, but not demand that everyone employ the same set of criteria.

The whole exercise is nevertheless draining.  It presupposes a steady concept of the moral equipment that an adult population may be assumed to possess as it surveys the symbolic products of a community bent on pushing the limits of its right to expression.  I found myself cast in the role of a reluctant moral protector, constantly balancing my own ideas of moral progress against those of the community I am supposed to represent.  I could not imagine anything more punishing for anyone aspiring to avoid the indignity of speaking for others.

My role at the UP Board of Regents is not very different.  Here I must represent the voice of the faculty in charting the work of the university. It is a role rich in concept, but lacking the means for a robust presence.  The faculty regent is only one of twelve trustees making up the highest governing body of the university, and its term is only for a year.  Every year, the position is rotated among the different campuses comprising the UP System, making it extremely difficult to maintain continuity. There is no staff to assist the office or to do the kind of research necessary for meaningful participation in board deliberations.  In short, it has all the makings of a token position.

In accepting it, I thought the regency would not interfere too much with my own program of self-creation and reflection.  Between board meetings, I should be able retreat to my study and resume the role of a recluse communing with his books.  But it has not been like that at all.  I have realized I could not sit through a 3-hour meeting without saying anything.  Nor embrace the role of a token presence, murmuring assents to resolutions whose implications I barely understand.  I must participate, consult with colleagues,  and do my own research.

So this is where I am.  It is not the time that is difficult to manage, but the disorientation.  On TV, I represented no one but myself.  But at the MTRCB, I must play gatekeeper for some imagined moral community. In the classroom, I represented no one but my mind.  But as faculty regent, I must speak for a faculty that voted me into the position. Taken seriously, both roles can often be a bruising experience.

Some days, I try to steal away to a brother’s mountain refuge in Bataan, where, for one brief moment, I can heal myself, and savor only what to Nietzsche is absolutely important: “the dance, bounce and flight of ideas; good, thin, clear, free, dry air, like the air in the mountains, in which all animal existence becomes more spiritual and takes wings;…” But, alas, such days do not come often.


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