The RH Bill Debate and Responsible Participation

By Nicole Paula Curato, PhD and Jonathan Corpus Ong, PhD*

Posted at Sep 29 2012 12:11 AM | Updated as of Sep 29 2012 08:12 AM

The RH debate has become one of the bitterest controversies of our time. Major television networks have aired confrontational public debates. A number of strongly-worded position papers have been written on the subject. Key social institutions including churches and universities have been altogether compelled to intervene, take a stand, and articulate official (and unofficial) statements on an issue that has acquired genuinely national significance.
To a certain extent, the scale and degree of public involvement on this issue is indicative of an engaged citizenry. The energy and creativity of campaigners–-from sending statues of the Virgin Mary to pro-RH legislators to circulating graphic photographs of destitute mothers suffering from birth complications–-convey active participation towards a public issue. And in our culture of pervasive entertainment/celebrity, the consistent presence of #RHBill alongside #CallMeMaybeand #missworldphilippines2012 on Twitter (Philippines) must be taken as a positive indicator of civic engagement.
However, as the RH debate begins to wind down and the final vote for its future looms, we find it necessary to take stock and reflect on how we, the public, conducted ourselves during this debate. If the aim of our participation is to be heard and in the process, influence public policy, it is important to judge our behaviour based on democratic rules of discourse. This entails reciprocity or communicating with others regarding terms and persuading through reason. After all, this is what sets democratic citizens apart from irresponsible populists, gossip columnists, and gangsters whose influence is derived from dramatized falsehoods and manipulative threats.
More fundamentally, we also pose a challenge to the ethical foundations of our public participation. This involves reflection on how attentive or inattentive we were in listening to the voices whom we do not often hear or necessarily share our beliefs. Communication ethics also spotlights the mediated spaces of television, radio, and social media that permitted and regulated discussion. We consider how minority voices were invited or not to speak in these public spaces, or merely spoken for by others claiming to speak for “the good” of women or an imagined masa.
And so here is where our discomfort lies. While we celebrate public engagement on this important issue, we find much to lament about the quality of our participation. Based on our current research on the content of public discourse and the communicative environment by which it took place, we argue that we, as the public, can do more to uphold these democratic virtues.
Polarizing rhetoric
By and large, the rhetorical styles of opposing sides have been adversarial. Name-calling has been prevalent, with some bishops labelling proponents of the bill as “modern-day Herods,” “fascists” and “mass murderers” while pro-RH advocates call the bill’s opponents as “extremists” and “Talibans.” Demonization is equally evident in threats of excommunication from the anti-RH camp and RH advocates’ labelling of the religious as “stuck in the dark ages” or simply“stupid.”
Rhetoric can be constructive if it creates bridges rather than barriers. Political theorist John Dryzek defines bridging rhetoric as one that seriously takes the outlooks of an intended audience and considers the appropriate style of speech that can persuade others to accept the speaker’s views. Martin Luther King Jr. is an example of a successful rhetorician by appealing to the liberal values of a white audience while at the same time putting forward the interests of African Americans. In contrast, rhetoric that stirs dangerous emotions and moves similarly-disposed people to take extreme positions is dangerous for democracy.
In the case of the RH debate, calling the other a Satanist or a moron does little in deepening the debate by promoting a fair examination of the other’s reasons and coming up with a more considered view. The population management-economic development nexus, for example, has almost reached a level of gospel truth for some RH advocates, with some conveniently citing expert opinions or invoking “common sense” without feeling the need to engage with “delusional” people whose ideas are dismissed as “out-of-date.”
However, charitable understanding can go a long way in unpacking this issue further. Gabriela, for example, took a position that appeals to basic social justice which, deliberately or inadvertently, bridges the RH advocates’ “feminist position” and the opponents’ scepticism of the bill’s developmental agenda. Representative Emmi de Jesus chose to present a qualified position. She argued that while the bill is important in upholding women’s rights, women’s wombs are not to be blamed for economic underdevelopment but the government’s refusal to establish an equitable and just economic program that evenly redistributes wealth and supports public services. While this position is not incontestable, it demonstrates the value of placing nuance on one’s position and having the courage to reach out to the positions of those from the other side. Contributions in a debate should be measured by how opposing participants appeal to shared values and basic premises rather than simply proving one’s superiority by claiming for another’s stupidity.
False dichotomies
Some try to put forward an argument masking as reasonable by distorting ideas in forms that even their originators would disown. This usually takes the form of unfair binaries, as in the case of Congresswoman Mitos Magsaysay in GMA7’s public debate, “Ano ang makakasugpo ng kahirapan sa ating bansa, ang edukasyon o pagbibigay ng condoms at oral contraceptives?”
As mentioned earlier, there is reason to question the developmental agenda of the RH bill but framing the issue in terms of easy dichotomies is not only intellectually lazy, it is also misleading and manipulative. RH advocate Congresswoman Janet Garin responds to this question, emphasising that “there is no single solution for eradicating poverty,” but includes “family planning, employment, equity, conditional cash transfer and good governance.” To this, Magsaysay responds, “kung ikaw binigyan ng condoms, hindi ka binigyan ng skills training, paano mabubuhay ang pamilya mo?” Only when pushed by subsequent questions was Magsaysay able to bring out the point about prioritization of budget allocation, which could not have happened outside a formally-structured debate format where speakers are compelled to answer the questions of their peers.
A similar style of simplistic argumentation is also present in some of the online visual campaigns in recent months, such as a picture which capitalizes on the emotional appeal of a helpless child figure. The dissonance created by his identity-claim as an elementary student and the word “condom” forms a powerful, if manipulative, message that went on to be shared by people to members of their social network who would likely share their position. Messages that employ binary-thinking, when shared in social media, would tend to push people to take more extreme positions, as other case studies on group polarization demonstrate.
Confirming our biases, marginalizingother voices
While the operations of our democracy greatly depend on the representation of ordinary people by their elected officials in conversation with their respective constituents and various experts, participatory practices in the form of public speech, protest, and letter-writing are nevertheless significant for democratic health. The social media platforms of Facebook and Twitter extend the public arena by which political debate is conducted by offering new opportunities for information-seeking, positioning, and conversation. There is much to study how and why some of our “friends” and “followers”, many of whom typically avoid political debate, felt compelled to speak into the air and voice their positions. Our ongoing research also aims to explore the relationship, if any, between extensively tweeting on the #RHBill and actually meeting people face-to-face to formally campaign about the issue.
The intrusion of the public arena into our very own homepages and mobile interfaces throws into relief the problem with engaging with political commentators-–and their uncomfortable points of view–-from the comforts of “home”. Here we recall an example from our study when an anti-RH Bill respondent publicly admonished her Facebook friend for sharing a pro-RH Bill article on her homepage, knowing that this would only “upset” her. Such a practice, along with blocking and hiding friends whose opinions differ from our own, may indeed maintain smooth relationships with our extended social network, yet also create social boundaries and limit moral imagination. The ease by which we draw boundaries between like-minded “friends” and the occasional “spammer” whom we quickly label jejemon illustrates how social media debate is reinforcing of existing hierarchies rather than positively transforming democratic participation. It has made boundary-drawing more convenient, with several Facebook users conducting “Facebook purges” of individuals they consider to be mindless, i.e., those whose views they do not share.
While social media are routinely regarded by our technophiliacelite as offering solutions for political apathy and ushering a new era of governance and development, the most publicly visible representation of the masa point of view was not through blogging or Twitter but continued to be either the opinion poll (for the pro-RH Bill camp) or the televised tableau vivant of the crowd (for the anti-RH Bill camp). Statistics of how 71% surveyed Filipinos “support” the RH Bill contended with claims for 10,000+ Catholic devotees turning up at EDSA Shrine to rally against the RH Bill were alternately marshalled by experts in both camps, yet of course, these numbers inadequately capture the complex and diverse thoughts and feelings of those most affected by the fate of the bill. Recognition of minority voices, including members of other religious groups, the rural poor, indigenous peoples, and cultural minorities, remain limited in the public sphere.
Even our “old media” of television and radio, with their long and profitable history of masa-oriented programmes, granted limited airtime to hearing out what poor people had to say for themselves. While their problems are freely heard and spectacularly displayed in Face 2 Face and Willing Willie, their participation was limited, if altogether absent, in both GMA’s RH Bill: The Grand Debate, and ABS-CBN’s Harapan. In both televised debates, the poor were spoken for by experts, politicians, “youth leaders,” and celebrities, yet lacked an opportunity to stand up, pose a question, and articulate a position for themselves. The failure of our media here lies in their system of gatekeeping where the poor are barred from public discussion, yet conditionally welcomed to perform talk show catfights, spin-the-wheel contests, and pitiful monologues about their children’s condition of hydrocephalus.
Developing civic friendships
The RH debate has become a test case for us as a nation to think about how we can live in a socially-differentiated society, where its members subscribe to a plurality of forms of knowledge arising from different experiences. Though a good number of us cling desperately to the promise of a unified nation from our beleaguered history of political fracture and cultural regionalism, the ability to engage into dialogue and learn from those whose backgrounds are so different from us is precisely what is needed for democratic participation. Other-regarding citizens are needed in this debate, those who, in the words of sociologist Randy David, “do not merely speak, but initiates new beginnings.” To deepen democratic practice in contemporary Philippines, it is no longer enough for us to say what we think, but understand its implications to the broader polity. The idea is not to always to push for consensus on truth claims which are often irreconcilable in a context where there are no longer timeless and authoritative sources of moral validity. Instead, we should aim to speak in terms that are noble and ennobling, the kind that generates “civic friendships.” Much like friends whose disagreements deepen rather than terminate a relationship, citizens must commit to communicative norms that allows us to disagree again tomorrow. And just like friendships, this relationship can grow into one that is trusting and mutually satisfying through time and effort, constant engagement and openness.
Given the depth of social division and polarization today, it is becoming more apparent that the lasting consequences of the RH debate lie not just in the outcome of its vote, but in the relationships forged and fractured as a result of the words we have used against each other to argue, persuade, overwhelm, and ridicule. We should take the challenge of critically reflecting on our behaviour in the past months as a shared future for both camps is possible if each would seek to understand the thoughts that they hate.


*Nicole Paula Curato, PhD is Assistant Professor in Sociology at University of the Philippines Diliman. She was previously a postdoctoral fellow at the Australian National University and is the current Associate Editor of Manila Review.

*Jonathan Corpus Ong, PhD is Assistant Professor in Sociology at Hong Kong Baptist University. A recent graduate of the University of Cambridge, his research on media, politics, and migration has been published in both local periodicals and international academic journals.

Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.