Social communication and solidarity

Social communication and solidarity

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Posted on November 03, 2016

In early June, I wrote here about the prospects of a Duterte administration and the plausibility of his promise that “Change is coming!” I wasn’t confident that meaningful social change was guaranteed even under a determined and authoritarian chief executive. As Filipinos, we’re pretty set in our ways. After all, I reasoned, social change happens only when social structures, cultural values, and citizen actions change together in a mutually supportive way.

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Furthermore, even if the President changed social structures by executive intervention, cultural ideals will lag behind. Most importantly, many of those who didn’t vote for him will organize to counter his more radical initiatives. And the contest for the hearts and minds of the majority of Filipinos would ensue.During his inaugural speech, President Duterte himself cautioned that change was going to be a bumpy ride that would need involvement from everyone: “These were battle cries articulated by me in behalf of the people hungry for genuine and meaningful change. But the change, if it is to be permanent and significant, must start with us and in us.”More than a hundred twenty days into the Duterte administration, his supporters and opponents have lost no time in making their views known to each other, especially on the more controversial aspects of the President’s first four months such as the thousands of deaths being linked to the war on drugs, his cursing and, now, the pivot away from the US towards China in Philippine foreign policy. This is great. A vibrant democracy thrives on healthy debate about how the country should be run. Citizens are co-creators of nationhood.Being in a social media crazed country, I wasn’t surprised that the main arena for the ideological contest has been over the Internet. But the result has been less than satisfying because of the widespread use of personal attacks during any discussion of the President’s initiatives. The online fights have been so bitter that we may already be in a culture war among the pro- and anti-Duterte camps.The hotly contested presidential elections certainly left polarizing wounds among many Filipinos. This is a major source of the online animosity that we now commonly see. Even long-time Facebook friends have been blocking, unfollowing, and unfriending each other in the social media site. While democracy is about freedom of expression, a petition to ban the blog of Duterte supporter Mocha Uson got over 4,000 supporters.With such abundant communications technology, why does mutual understanding seem to be at an all-time low? Time Magazine devoted a cover story to the emerging hate culture in social media spread through nasty and vicious comments posted by so-called “trolls.” Anyone who tries to pursue a serious discussion in social media faces the risk of being verbally assaulted. Anonymity and the thirst for a quick laugh at another’s expense is just too tempting a combination for some.What a healthy democracy needs is genuine communication on the hot button issues; not necessarily agreement -- but empathetic communication. Technology discourages empathy. The speed at which messages and postings get around devoid of context and nonverbal cues can actually increase misunderstanding -- especially if people do not make the effort to pause, reflect, and understand what is behind the words being said.The growing online nastiness around political issues should not be left alone. Calmer and more reasonable voices need to step in. This is important because we need critical and truthful discussions if we are to keep our government accountable.

Is the anti-drug campaign really working or are innocents being needlessly harmed? Are we really safer? Is corruption going down? Will China really be able to help us develop? What will the role of the US be? Will development be shared with all?

Nastiness doesn’t get us closer to the truth. Worse, it can become habitual among Filipinos and cause deep divides at a time when we need solidarity to become the true nation we can be. National solidarity happens when we move from violent communication to peaceful discourse.

For the verbal aggressors, let me paraphrase the late critical realist philosopher Roy Bhaskar when he argued for universal solidarity: Any person can empathize with and come to understand any other person. We are not merely separate beings; we are fellow Filipinos. When we hurt each other, we hurt a part of ourselves.

For the receivers of verbal aggression, Marshall Rosenberg, psychologist and advocate of nonviolent communication, advised on dealing with another person’s anger: “Be conscious that they’re not angry at you, you didn’t make them angry. But hear their anger and hear what need isn’t getting met.”

Dr. Benito L. Teehankee is professor of management and organization at De La Salle University and vice-chair of the corporate social responsibility committee of the Management Association of the Philippines.