Billboards: A rejoinder

Reacting to my column on outdoor advertising (“Billboard nation,” PDI 04/03/05) and to another piece on the same subject by fellow Inquirer columnist Augusto Villalon, a reader, Neil Magno, raises a couple of points that give us the chance to place this issue in a larger context.

He writes: “I cannot agree with both of you for suggesting to kill an industry or impose design regulations just because its business practice doesn’t match your creative preference. Side by side with creatively designed buildings, I see a lot of new buildings being built in Metro Manila that don’t match my creative preference. (S)hould I go out and demand that these ugly new buildings be destroyed or their design plans be changed by government authorities?…. Hey, if our country is as beautiful as Hawaii, by all means I can consider supporting a total ban on billboards. But we are not Hawaii. So if we take out all the billboards, do you really think our country would be one level more beautiful?” Mr. Magno reduces the issue to a question of “creative preference.”

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, he reminds us.  In fact, he says, “it is the outdoor ads that are in reality giving our metropolis a better aesthetic look.”  I don’t know how many share this view, but I can believe that in a consumerist culture like ours, a lot of people probably think that billboards are what make a city a modern city. Our concept of beauty may indeed be relative, but when it comes to those things we share – for example, the city or the country in which we all live – I think it is important to debate and to agree what our ideals should be.  I don’t believe in having an aesthetic police either, but this is precisely why I think civic self-regulation is better than legislation.

But civic action must draw from a well of shared values if it is to succeed.  If these values have been eroded to a point where people no longer care, no amount of legislation can make up for the loss.

The market is certain to fill up the gaps, creating needs, and reducing everything to cash value.  It is more than just billboards we are talking about here.  We are talking about social purposes and ideals – not the least of which is the kind of society we want for ourselves and our children — and what we may begin to do so that we can recover some of the control we have lost over our collective lives.  I do not accept that our country is not beautiful or cannot be more beautiful than it is today.  And I know that we cannot leave the billboard advertisers to decide this for us.

Where custom is strong, there’s not much need for laws.  People take their responsibilities to each other and to the community seriously. They feel answerable not only to their fellow human beings but also to their gods and their ancestors.  It is not so much the reprisal of other men they fear as the wrath of history itself.

But the transition to modernity can be very rough for many societies. Neither custom nor law commands enough authority to regulate human conduct.  The old traditions have lost their grip on the present, but the written laws hold no meaning either.  This situation – a time of normlessness — breeds all kinds of opportunism.  Released from the ethical obligations of traditional culture, individuals recognize only the legal compass (and sometimes not even), exploiting in the process the gaps formed by the absence of explicit legislation.

Our building codes, imported from abroad, are probably among the most elaborate in Asia.  But their rationality is lost on us; we don’t take them seriously.  We view them only as non-essential standards that give various regulatory bodies the power to extort money from the public.  A lot of corruption in our society persists because of this cynicism.  We really have no compass to guide us.  Using another metaphor, my friend, filmmaker Kidlat Tahimik, says we have lost all our “cultural brakes.”

I refuse to think that cynicism is the pervasive attitude of our people. Even Mr. Magno, who seeks refuge in a relativist position, seems bothered by the indifference and corruption that have engulfed our society.  “If you’re gonna fight for beauty in our country,” he writes, “ask all the governors who allowed their mountains to be carved dry.

Or the city mayors who allowed ugly squatter areas to mushroom all these years because they deliver votes. You should spend more time against the sins of these elected officials rather than against a few people who can only fight back with words on a white computer screen.”

Now he’s telling us what to write. But more than this, he is also telling us to shut our mouths on the aggravations created by outdoor advertising unless we also condemn the politicians who permit illegal logging and squatter colonies to proliferate.  I think this very attitude lies at the core of a good deal of the indifference in our society. People who think they are not entitled to say anything unless they can pronounce their views on everything are rationalizing their resignation.  Unable to define their values, they passively watch the loss of their rights, and seek comfort in cynicism.  I am sure we can do better.

(Correction: In my April 3 column on billboards, I referred to an opinion by “Chief Justice Pound”.  I thank Sen. Jovito Salonga for letting me know that Harvard Law School Dean Roscoe Pound was never a member of the US Supreme Court. The quote was taken from an essay by Prof. Charles F. Floyd of the University of Georgia.)

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