Political literacy and the talk-show

I used to think of my TV program “Public Forum”, later “Public Life”, as a contribution to political literacy.  When we launched the show in 1986, just after Edsa, our goal was simple.  We would try to provide our viewers enough information and context to enable them to follow discussion of public issues, and to take a personal stand on those issues.  In this, I think, we succeeded quite well.

But, along the way, we added another purpose that was not as easy to accomplish.  We wanted our viewers not only to understand and to take a stand on issues but also to develop the ability to be critical of their stand and, therefore, of their own values.  We wanted them to open up to the possibility that they may be wrong, that the other side may be right.  We wanted them to cultivate what the philosopher Edward Tivnan calls a “moral imagination” – the ability to suspend judgment, to appreciate other points of view, and to realize the contingency of their own beliefs.  In this, I was not sure we succeeded.

We were aware that Filipinos loved cockfights, and so we thought the best way to engage our viewers was to take them right into the center of a verbal brawl.  Predictably, our viewer ratings went up, and the shouting matches we put up every week, often pitting public officials against angry citizens, became the talk of the town.  The talk-show became another type of basketball.

At the end of every program, I would come home and watch the replay of the evening’s discussion, and I would not be able to sleep.  I would be gripped by the annoying thought that we might unwittingly be promoting one-dimensional thinking – the simplistic, unilinear, and self-righteous kind of reasoning we often hear in our society, the kind that generates much heat but little light.

It dawned on me that this kind of program was double-edged: in encouraging viewers to participate in a cockfight, we were also leading them to think that all issues were contests between right and wrong, or between good and evil. Yet many disagreements on social questions are not contests between good and evil, but between two competing goods.  The danger is that we may often succeed in so demonizing the other side as to completely overlook the good they are also fighting for.  The current controversy about pornography and the MTRCB is a case in point.  Moralists can only see the MTRCB as the devil purveying immorality, rather than as a public agency trying to give meaning to a constitutionally mandated right.

We tried to go beyond the verbal cockfight.  Our principal concern became no longer the breeding of more social critics who could confront the powerful.  Of greater concern to us was the formation of new Filipinos who would critically examine their own beliefs and desires without losing their hope and vitality, new human beings who could free themselves from their prejudices and begin to see the world through the lenses of many vocabularies.

At the risk of losing our viewers who had come to associate our program with lively shouting matches, we decided to invite fewer, quieter and more reflective guests, people who would participate in discussions for the purpose not of arguing but of finding new and different ways of describing the human situation.  As a result, our program increasingly veered away from political battles, choosing instead to tackle non-controversial  topics, like the logic of the contemplative life, the sense of loss and the spiritual strength  of lahar victims, the worldview of the Mt. Banahaw religious communities, and many more.

I now realize that this shift also took us away from the realm of political literacy, into the world of ethics and subjectivity, and, of course, out of television.  I would have been content with the goal of political literacy if we took Michel Foucault’s sense of the “political” to include the politics of the self.  But this is not the way we commonly understand politics.  We typically understand politics solely in external terms, as something that is out there, something to be neatly comprehended, rather than as something that also profoundly forms us.

If we go simply by the amount of discussion that takes place in our newspapers, on radio and on television, it would be easy to think that we are indeed a nation of highly politically literate citizens.  Every commentator in this country has an opinion about almost anything under the sun.  But read or listen carefully – beneath the opinions they passionately espouse are moral, political, and ideological assumptions that remain largely unexamined.  These are moral and political beliefs that have a history, are rooted in a specific political and cultural milieu, have limited applicability for they are themselves subject to rapid change.  Most certainly, they should be the object of constant imaginative review.

It would be relatively easy to produce a citizenry with a high degree of political literacy, a people well-informed about the laws of the land, about the structures and procedures of government, about the duties of public officials, and the obligations of citizens – that would be an orderly society, perhaps like Singapore.  But it is another thing to aspire to form a people who can intervene in public affairs at the level of social purposes — a nation that consciously creates its destiny.  For that we need more than political literacy; we need moral imagination.

(A short version of remarks delivered before the Reading Association of the Philippines on Oct. 24, 1999)


Comments to <public.lives@gmail.com>