artificial contraception

Journalism as barbarism

Image of World of Warcraft orc by Flickr user Snowball1210. Used under the terms of a Creative Commons License.
Image of World of Warcraft orc by Flickr user Snowball1210. Used under the terms of a Creative Commons License.
The furor that continues to rage around the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) exhibition “Kulô”, and specifically Mideo Cruz’s installation Poleteismo, one of the works featured in said exhibition, has taken the form of a battle between blasphemy and censorship—an unfortunate development, in my view, as both positions seem predicated on a clear-cut, straightforward duality between how the public has responded to the work and how it ought to respond to the work. Whether the situation will shape-shift into something more capable of accommodating a greater, more complex range of possibilities remains to be seen, but that it has been reduced to such crude terms can be attributed in part to the manner that the mass media thoroughly maltreated the relevant issues.

It is highly likely that this ruckus would not have swelled to its current proportions—might never have happened in the first place—had Pinky Webb, host of the ABS-CBN current affairs show “XXX”, refrained from framing Poleteismo, diminished to its details, as a commentary on the contentious RH Bill. (The sense of the verb “frame” as pertaining to false incrimination is useful here.) As someone who has seen Poleteismo for himself, I find that interpretation completely untenable: the only element of the work that could be said to have a connection to the bill would be the condoms, and I saw no compelling reason to draw that connection—not least because the proposed measure is concerned with more than just prophylactics.

But the burden of the blame for the frenzied character of the dispute is not only for Webb, “XXX”, or ABS-CBN to bear. Understanding, no doubt, that anything related to the controversial piece of legislation would serve as a reliable magnet for rapid, even rabid, reactions, which would then translate into increased ratings, several prominent members of the fourth estate wasted no time jumping into the fray in order to whip the public into a state of hysteria.

Granted that these journalists might have been offended by the installation themselves, and were thus less motivated by profit than by piousness, their personal feelings do not excuse or exempt them from their responsibilities as gatekeepers of information. What could have been a teachable moment—that art can be unbeautiful and demanding; that any work has to be experienced in its entirety before being judged; that approval of a thing is not a necessary prerequisite for engaging or understanding it; that the production of transgressive images has a long (art) history; that the CCP has mounted similarly challenging exhibitions before; that the male genitalia in cultures past and present are emblematic of the divine; or that “Kulô” had 31 other, perhaps richer, offerings—was instead exploited for its explosive potential.

Surely there is a world of difference between calling public attention to alleged offense and sensationalizing said alleged offense to the point of extremism. Yet instead of sounding a call to careful contemplation and sober reflection, broadcasters and columnists, with monstrous insouciance and bestial impunity, presumed to think, speak, and act on behalf of their readers, listeners, and viewers. In the process, they did not only betray—as well as encourage in their audience—a false sense of entitlement to spew opinions, no matter how baseless, but also they fueled and inflamed various fears that served as barriers to dialogue, including, among others, iconophobia, homophobia, and phallophobia. (The last could be an especially interesting area of investigation for sociologists and anthropologists, considering that at least half of the outraged commentators are male and presumably have penises of their own.)

Two particularly appalling examples of the foregoing come to mind. The first is “‘Artist’ daw, binaboy si Kristo” a piece in Abante where entertainment reporter Marc Logan passive-aggressively suggests the different ways that a lynch mob of ostensibly devout Catholics could deal with Cruz—by beating him up, stabbing him, hanging him, throwing him into a creek, forcing him to drink muriatic acid, or shooting him—and warns the artist against seeking assistance from the media. The second is “Art as terrorism” a Philippine Daily Inquirer editorial that, though exponentially more intelligent than Logan’s article, contains a tacit apologia for the vandalism undertaken against Poleteismo—not to mention a nearby, unrelated painting, Love to Move by Lindslee—and, by virtue of its title, performs the callous and insensitive rhetorical maneuver of trivializing the indescribable shock and trauma with which any experience of terrorism is bound up, while at the same time implying that Cruz’s installation requires a radical riposte.

Given that both articles clearly intend to stage a defense of the Catholic faith and faithful, is the appropriate, ethical response to Cruz’s supposed symbolic violence the incitement of further violence? Will Abante, Philippine Daily Inquirer, or any other media outfit hold itself accountable should any of the threats that have been made against the CCP, its officers, and Cruz—threats apparently grave enough to warrant the closure of “Kulô”—be carried out?

The media community should take its cue from the arts and culture sector: this is as good a time as any for its denizens to begin the task of taking stock, of questioning themselves and their practices, and of upholding the emancipatory values on which such practices are founded. “The practice of journalism,” as the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR) declares, “involves the use of power: the power to influence the way people look at themselves, their societies, and the world; the power to help shape the attitudes and values of others; and the power to help liberate men and women from the shackles of ignorance so they may exercise their sovereign human right to decide their destinies.” This power should not be used to perpetrate and perpetuate barbarism.

*This article was slightly modified on 15 August 2011, 4:50 AM (GMT +8).

Redrawing the circle

Manila Cathedral

To entrench oneself in a position diametrically opposite to that occupied by a ideological adversary may well be a significant demonstration of whatever convictions one holds dear. That said, the problem with such a move, however ferociously or passionately undertaken, should be obvious enough: it merely reinforces the area and the circumference of the already existing discursive circle. Moreover, antipodal antagonism confirms, if not intensifies, in the foe the power that one is trying to deny it.

Thus, no matter how many individual skirmishes or battles one claims as triumphs, the war itself cannot be won—the terms of the conflict only ensure the maintenance of the status quo, which is to say endless and unproductive enmity, rather than victory, which is to say any hoped-for change: the expansion or contraction of the circle, or its transformation into a different, more feasible shape.

Within such a scheme of struggle, the question of strategic value is often elided or ignored, because the effect and defect of committing to diametrical distance, to absolute opposition, is the reduction of one’s vision—if vision it can indeed be called—to a narrow set of premises, which in turn lead to action that is limited in scope and efficacy. It should be unsurprising that agitators of this stripe tend toward maneuvers that are predicated less on dignity, respect, or logic than on puerility, sanctimoniousness, or auto-eroticism.

One such agitator is Carlos Celdran, a tour guide and an advocate for the immediate passage of the controversial reproductive health (RH) bill—a bill that the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) is strongly against.

Let us call a spade a spade: Celdran’s recent disruption of an ongoing mass at the Manila Cathedral by holding up a placard emblazoned with “Damaso”, yelling at the assembled bishops, and—according to a report from The Philippine Star—later goading police officers on the scene to arrest him is an act not of subversion in the vein of José Rizal, regardless of Celdran’s attire—or utterly destitute notions of Rizal and heroism—but of perversion.

If with his gimmick Celdran had intended to catch the spotlight of national attention, he has certainly succeeded brilliantly. But now that he has drawn our collective notice, I have to ask: So what? Or, perhaps more crucially: Now what?

Perversion, admittedly, has a long and honorable tradition of being deployed in the name of critical commentary. For example, Diogenes of Sinope, perhaps the most famous of the Cynics, deliberately behaved like a dog in order to foreground the falsehoods of civilization and uphold the virtues of asceticism. To my mind, though, Celdran’s publicity stunt partakes of the same kind of perversion that motivates a child to sneak cookies before dinner, draw on the walls with crayons, or grab the shiny new toys of another: for the primitive pleasure of being able to do something that is conventionally forbidden.

Insofar as Celdran can be described as a cynic, it is in the modern sense of word, because if the manner in which he chose to make his protest is any indication, he seems to believe the only way to forward his cause is to sensationalize it, to appeal to the lowest common denominator, to frame a complex matter in the crudest and most simplistic of ways: by stoking the fires of generic underdog rage. Perhaps the bishops did need “to hear what the Filipinos are saying“, but Celdran’s objective did not appear to be so much clarity as it was blasphemy.

Whatever Celdran thought he was doing—in his own words, he wanted to give the bishops “a dose of their own [medicine]“—I have serious doubts that his stunt has helped matters any, chiefly because he and like-minded ilk missed a very important point: engaging the CBCP on the RH bill is an exercise in futility, because, as an institution of the Roman Catholic Church, it cannot and should not be expected to take a stand that runs counter to official Church teachings or defies the Holy See. For better or for worse, the Church accepts as axiomatic that artificial contraception is evil, and the actions of the CBCP with reference to the RH bill proceed from that same premise. Given this, it must be understood that there is no room for negotiation at all.

Nevertheless, it is exceedingly evident that what the CBCP thinks, says, or does as a body clearly does not have much of an impact on the general populace, considering that several surveys have already shown that a majority of Filipinos—including Catholics—favor the passage of the RH bill. Furthermore, as I have pointed out elsewhere, Catholic doctrine allows for the possibility of dissent if that is what one’s conscience dictates. Going head-to-head with the bishops, therefore, is myopic and wasteful, even gratuitous: one might as well bash one’s head repeatedly against a wall for all the good that arguing with the CBCP will do, even if cracking one’s skull open is “gutsy” and “bad-ass”—oh, and, of course, thoroughly mediagenic.

In the realm of public opinion, church and state are already separate, so why bother to fight the CBCP and accord it more power, more influence, and more exposure than it ought to have, entitled though it may be to a voice in the peanut gallery of our rowdy democracy? Enshrined in the Constitution is the freedom of expression, which necessarily includes the freedom to ignore. The battle for the passage of the RH bill, at this particular juncture at least, is not with the bishops, but with the nominally honorable members of Congress. As blogger iwriteasiwrite has suggested, dialogue with the Catholic Church can—and should—resume after the bill has been passed into law.

[This also appears in my blog, Random Salt.]

Photo credit: Manila Cathedral, by Micropawn217, some rights reserved.