Interpreting conversations

People have wondered why the public is not reacting with outrage to the scandal of the “Garci tapes”. Is there “people power fatigue”? Maybe.  But, how many people have listened to these tapes?  How many have tried to understand them?  And why should we expect the simple recognition of the voice of the President in an intercepted conversation to instantly spark moral indignation?

I’ve spent many hours listening to these tapes.  They are the recorded phone calls of a man who sounds like Commissioner Virgilio Garcillano of the Commission on Elections.  In some of these, he is speaking to someone who sounds and talks very much like President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. Most people have focused on the identity of the voices, or on the source of the tapes.  My interest has been to establish what they are about.  This is not as easy as it may seem.

All of us participate in conversations without realizing how much work they entail. In one breath, we pack a whole series of meanings into the words we utter, and in the next, we unpack another set from the words others say to us.  Throughout, we are also observing shifts in the complexion of a conversation as marked by changes in tone. We are, as human beings, capable of coding and decoding complex messages in real time, faster than any existing computer can possibly manage.

We sometimes realize what an intricate process this is, and what fascinating structures conversations are, when we overhear two people talking.  We strain our ears not only to catch the words but also to decipher their meanings.  We may hear clearly, but not understand.  Understanding means not just recognizing the words, but making sense of them.  We are able to do this with the help of our background knowledge of people, things, places and events.  The more remote we are from the world assumed in the conversations of people, the harder it is for us to understand their talk.

We can listen to conversations at the literal level, or at the interpretative level.  A literal reading stays on the surface of words. An interpretative reading explores and fills in the spaces between, below, and above the lines formed by words.  An overheard conversation may sometimes cause offense. That is why we take the trouble to explain what we “really” meant.   This may be as simple as saying: “Sorry, it’s not you we were talking about,” or “Sorry, it’s not what you think.”  Those who want to save the President are urging her to say something like the latter.

These conversations sound harmless on the surface, but when one reads between the lines, they take on the character of conspiratorial events.  One of the longer ones of these conversations proceeds as follows:

Garci:         Hello Ma’am, good evening.

Ma’am:      Hello.… Dun daw sa Lanao del Sur at saka sa Basilan, di raw nagma-match ang SOV sa COC.

Garci:         Kwan ho yan.  Ang sinasabi nila… nawawala na naman ho?

Ma’am:      Hindi nagma-match.

Garci:        Hindi nagma-match?  May posibilidad na hindi magma-match kung hindi nila sinunod yung individual SOV ng mga munisipyo.  Pero aywan ko lang ho kung sa atin pabor o hindi.  Kasi, dun naman sa Basilan at saka Lanao Sur, itong ginawa nila na pagpataas sa inyo.  Hindi naman ho, kwan… maayos naman ang paggawa eh.

Ma’am:      So nagma-match.

Garci:         Oho.  Sa Basilan naman, habol na naman ang mga military dun eh. Hindi masyadong marunong sila gumawa eh.  Katulad ho dun sa Sulu, sa Habakon.  Pero, hindi naman ho. Kinausap ko kanina ho yung Chairman ng Board sa Sulu.  Ang akin pa, patataguin ko lang muna yung EO ng Panguntaran, na para hindi siya maka-testigo ho.  Na-explain na ho yung kwan, sa Camarines Norte. Tomorrow we will present official communication dun ho sa Senate.  Doon sa sinasabing wala hong laman yung ballot box.  Na-receive ho nila lahat eh.

Ma’am:       Oo.

Garci:        Tumawag ho kayo kanina Ma’am?

Ma’am:      Yah.  About that Lanao del Sur at saka Basilan.

Garci:         Ia-ano ko lang ho.  Nag-usap na kami ni Abdulah dun sa kwan kanina.  About this, i-aano ko ho.  Na, wag ho kayong masyadong mabahala.  Anyway, we will take care of all this.  Kakausapin ko rin si Atty. Ma…kwan, si Atty. Macalintal.

Ma’am:       Oo, tapos non, si uhm, sa Languyan, meron daw silang teacher na nasa witness protection program ng kabila.

Garci:         Sino ho?

Ma’am:       Yung kabila, may teacher daw silang hawak.

Garci:         Wala naman ho.  Baka nananakot lang ho sila. Kasi…

Ma’am:       Sa Languyan, sa Tawi-Tawi.

Garci:         Ano ho, yung sa Tawi-Tawi?  Wala ho naman ho tayong kwan, wala naman tayong ginawa don, sa Languyan. Talo nga tayo don, talo nga si Nur dun eh.

Ma’am:       Oo, oo.

Garci:         Sige, aanuhin ko ho lahat ng mga yan.

Ma’am:       Oo, oo. Sige. Thank you.

Ma’am is worried over the lack of fit between canvass results at the municipal level (SOVs) and results at the provincial level (COCs).  Is she fretting about this in the manner of a boss concerned about ensuring the honesty and accuracy of election results?  Or is she calling as an anxious candidate worried that the fixing of results done for her by her principal operator, a high official of the Comelec, is being carried out in a crude way?  When Garci, the Comelec operator, assures her that the “pagpataas” (upward adjustment) done for her in Basilan and Lanao del Sur was accomplished in a “maayos” (orderly) way, could they have been referring to anything other than number of votes?

The meaning of words lies in their use, the philosopher Wittgenstein once said.  To that we may add: Words do not lie.  People do.

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