Over the holidays, one of my daughters chanced upon my mobile phone and was dismayed to see that I had 37,805 unread e-mails in my mailbox. “Why do you have so much unread mail, Papa?” she asked, half-amused and half-worried. “Because so much time is taken up just reading them, and even more to answer them,” I replied. “Then why not just delete them?” she shot back.
She was right. The truth is, a number of these unread e-mails are from individuals who like to send unsolicited messages to multiple addresses. I feel quite certain there’s no obligation to reply. Still, I’ve hesitated to delete them, partly out of an old-fashioned sense of duty to read and to acknowledge mail, and partly out of a feeling that I may need to refer back to them for some reason or other.
But, I didn’t realize until now that one could get into trouble for merely being the recipient of what is presumed to be a “conspiratorial” e-mail. Yesterday morning, I woke up to find an accusatory e-mail in my Public Lives mailbox with the subject line “You are a Pest then.” It came from a “former avid fan,” whose name I will not mention because I haven’t asked for his permission to do so.
It read: “SIR Randy! Are you part of the team to oust President Duterte? I have been respecting you as a journalist, kindly respect the 16 millions Filipino who voted for him to be the Chief Executive of this land too. WHY ARE YOU SO BITTER? RESPECT US, SO THAT WE WILL RESPECT YOU. Thank you!”
My first instinct was to ask where this rant was coming from. I normally don’t bother to reply to letters of this sort, but something about this one made me think it deserved a response. I sensed that it came from a young person who was expressing a genuine concern. I showed it to my wife, wondering if she had come across anything in social media that might have provoked this e-mail. Indeed she had. It was an e-mail addressed to me and a couple of other people I know, written by an old UP friend from the ’60s, Ted Laguatan, a vigorous human rights campaigner against the Marcos dictatorship and now a prominent US-based immigration lawyer. In that letter, he was basically proposing the organization of “mass protests against Duterte’s extrajudicial killings and Marcos burial.” Vintage Ted, I thought to myself. Young people were already busy organizing around these issues long before anyone could tell them.
I did not reply to Ted’s e-mail because, in truth, I had not had a chance to read it. When I checked, I realized it was one of the thousands of unopened e-mails in my inbox. Having just read it, I can say in all honesty that I found no reference to, or any intimation of, any plan to resort to extraconstitutional means to oust President Duterte.
Mr. Duterte’s most ardent supporters, some of whom I used to count as friends, are therefore looking in the wrong direction. Public commentators like myself, because of our visibility and limited mobility, are not suitable candidates for recruitment for sinister plots such as those allegedly being hatched against him. Serious plotters need low-profile people who can stay below the radar when they move around building a network. Moreover, they would not use Yahoo Mail to plot a conspiracy.
Obviously, there is a reason for posting screenshots of these otherwise harmless e-mails on social media. One way to erode a social analyst’s credibility, or whatever influence he or she may have on public opinion, is to link him/her to some attempt to unseat an incumbent president and install a puppet. Discerning readers would quickly see through such crude attempts at malicious
innuendo. But many others who will believe anything that confirms their impoverished view of the world would not think twice about baring their teeth in righteous anger.
If its army of trolls succeeds in intimidating critics, this administration would soon find itself trapped in an echo chamber of its own making, unperturbed by criticism, and hearing only what it likes to hear.
Criticism has an essential function to play not just in a democracy but, indeed, in any political system. For, every wielder of power occupies a blind spot from which he/she perceives the world and makes distinctions. Only critical observers can see this blind spot and cast light on the way it affects a subject’s actions. If the people around the President are either too intimidated or too much in awe to tell him of his shortcomings, then they are creating a narcissistic ruler who will not be able to free himself from the self-referential world he has constructed.
I can almost hear what his admirers will say: But, how can the 16 million Filipinos who voted for him be wrong? To this artifact they will now probably add Pulse Asia’s most recent finding that 83 percent of Filipinos trust President Duterte and approve of his performance.
As impressive as they are, these figures have no inherent meaning. No one can really tell what is behind them. The only thing certain is that these numbers disguise an existing power relation—in the sociological language of Pierre Bourdieu, a complex system of forces and tensions that can never be adequately expressed as a percentage.
My conscientious reply to my disgruntled former fan went like this: “Thank you for your e-mail. Am I a part of the oust Duterte ‘team,’ assuming there is one? My answer is: NO, I am not. You also asked: Why are you so bitter? My answer: No, I am not bitter. But I am critical of some decisions of President Duterte, as much as I have been of all the wrong policies of past presidents. Should I be silent because 16 million Filipinos voted for him? I don’t think so. Please respect my right to express my opinions too.”