Conversations: normal and faked

The so-called “X-tape”, that Ilocos Governor Luis “Chavit” Singson has brought to the public’s attention, which supposedly implicates former president Joseph “Erap” Estrada in a plot to assassinate President Arroyo, seems so patently fabricated he cannot possibly think people would swallow it.  Its real intent must lie elsewhere.

My view is that the Chavit tape simply aims to show that real voices can be lifted from an original source and then mixed with other voices to simulate a conversation that in fact never took place. Thus, the public is prompted to suspend its belief in the authenticity of any recorded conversation — including the ones allegedly between President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and Comelec Commissioner Virgilio Garcillano.  This is invalidation by contamination.

While cultivation of a critical attitude is essential to any civilized society, I doubt very much if this is the objective of Gov. Singson.  I think what he wants us to do is to put on hold our faculty of reason – our ability to know things, to decide their meanings, and to act on the basis of our personal discernment – until the experts and jurists have spoken.  This is the same line being peddled by those who seek to belittle the citizen’s commonsense truth on the ground that there is a higher truth waiting to be discovered.

The fixation with authentication, both in its legal and technical sense, dissuades ordinary people from trusting their own commonsense in interpreting the recorded conversations.  This is absurd.  What equipment do we use to understand one another in everyday life but our commonsense? We may not be able to explain how we, as ordinary human beings, are able to make sense of the most cryptic conversations.  That is the job of analysts.  But just because we do not know how the mind works does not mean we cannot use it.  We do not need an expert to tell us what is unnatural about the following alleged conversation between Erap and a supposed hired assassin:

Sir:  Ah ganon.

Man:  Ganun nga sir.  Pag napatalsik na si Pandak at may transition government na, magkakasakit na si Tanda.  Puwede na nating ipitin seguro ang kaliwa, sir.  So tuloy na plano, sir.  Puwede na i-sacrifice si Tanda.  Tutal tapos na siya, sir.”  

What’s wrong with this conversation?  For one, it is unnecessarily detailed and chatty.  The man exhibits conversational incompetence. He is either a fictional character or from Mars.  They’re supposed to be talking of the grave business of murder on the phone, yet he breezily outlines the whole sequence of an elaborate plan of murder and revolution as if he were doing a powerpoint presentation. I think we can reasonably presume that Erap, as the mastermind, would have been knowledgeable about it.  So why is this operative giving Erap a lecture on the plan as if he were hearing it for the first time?

Emmanuel Schegloff, a scholar who has written extensively on conversational practice, formulates a basic rule in conversations as follows:  “Do not tell a co-participant what he already relevantly knows, use it.”  The man that Erap was supposedly talking to was speaking to the ex-president as if he were describing plans for a weekend of fun to a 5-year-old boy.

“Talking is acting,” says Wesley Sharrock, a British sociologist. “Members (of a speech community) do not have a general problem of describing or explaining  ‘everything’ that happens.  They do not typically produce actions and then, separately and independently, try to describe or explain what they have done.  Sometimes, of course, when what is happening is ‘specifically senseless’, members will explicitly offer descriptions or explanations to make sense of something – they will produce what Garfinkel calls ‘formulations’.”

Compare the conversations in the “X-tape” with those in the “Hello Garci” tape.  Here is an intriguing one from the latter, possibly among the most incriminating of the Garci conversations:

Garci:   Hello Ma’am.

Ma’am:  Hello, atsaka ano, ano, yung kabila, they they’re trying to get the Namfrel copy of the municipal COCs.

Garci:  Saang Namfrel ho?  Namfrel copies ho?

Ma’am: Uhm-uhm.

Garci:  Ay wala naman, ok naman ang Namfrel sa atin.  They are now sympathetic to us.

Ma’am (mumbling in a lowered voice):  Oo,oo,oo….(garbled) Namfrel does not tally…  Pero yun nga, yung dagdag, yung dagdag. Garci:  Ah, oho, we will, we will get an advance copy ho natin kung anong kwan nila.

What makes this conversation credible?  Ma’am brings up a ticklish problem she does not state till toward the end.  Instead she refers to a seemingly harmless event – namely, the other side is trying to get Namfrel copies of the municipal COCs. Garci does not see right away why this is a problem.  So he answers with a question: Namfrel where? He knows which Namfrel groups he controls.  He allays Ma’am’s unease by assuring her Namfrel is cooperating.  Ma’am seems aware of that, but that’s not what she is inquiring about.  The point is the “dagdag” (the padding), a bad word she is hesitant to utter but could not avoid.  She wants Garci to make sure the Namfrel copies in the concerned municipalities reflect the “dagdag”, but nowhere does she explicitly tell him so.  She assumes he understands what she’s saying and what he needs to do.  Garci finally gets it, and so he tells her:  We will; we will get an advance copy so we will know what (“kwan”) they have.  He does not elaborate.

Such is the nature of normal talk.

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