Benigno Aquino III has done it before: lamented the “negativity” of his critics as well as that of the Philippine press and media. “Negativity” and “negativism” have been an even more noticeable part of his public vocabulary in recent times, together with their supposed opposites, “optimism” and “being positive.”
Last February, for example, in a speech during the 114th anniversary of the Manila Bulletin newspaper, Mr. Aquino asked the media to “raise the level of public discourse, instead of fueling unnecessary speculation and negativity that contribute to national apathy.”
He did say that he wasn’t asking the news media to print only the good news, but his praise for the Bulletin for not emphasizing bad news, which he said only provokes public despair, suggested otherwise. The Bulletin, he said, provides the public “a true accounting of the facts, and reason enough to be optimistic,” thus “exhibiting discernment and accountability through sober and responsible reporting.”
Mr. Aquino hasn’t been as sanguine about other newspapers and media organizations in the past, at one point assailing them for inaccuracy and bias, at another for focusing on his love life—or absence of it.
One can take issue with Mr. Aquino on his assumption that the news media exist as some kind of handmaiden of government, here only to sing hallelujahs to it while turning a blind eye on its failings, and to the problems that every society including ours inevitably faces, ignoring such uncomfortable truths as corruption, crime and violence, poverty and the mass misery that no amount of media hype over “progress” can conceal. But there is no accounting for taste, including one’s preference for newspapers, and Mr. Aquino is entitled to his opinions, the right to express which is incidentally protected by the Constitution his allies in Congress are in the process of tampering with.
Early this past week, during the celebration of National Heroes Day on August 25, Mr. Aquino harped on the same theme again. He described the Filipino nation as “a nation of heroes.” Apparently, however, not every Filipino belongs to that category, since he said, some are the opposite of heroic, “hurling criticism and spreading negativism.”
“Nation of heroes” or not, and even if, he said, “The days of colonizers, of wars, of Martial Law are long gone,” “ there are still a select and selfish few who remain determined to bring back the old and abusive political system.”
“This is the fight that confronts us today: to remain vigilant against those who seek to sow doubt and lies; to stand firm and refuse to allow ourselves to be manipulated by those who only pretend at reform; to reject the crooked, and resolve to stay on the straight path.”
Mr. Aquino was of course right about the need to distinguish between true reformers and false, but wrong about the assumption that the “old and abusive political system” has gone the way of horse-driven carriages, that system being built on the solid foundations of the dynastic system.
That system hasn’t fallen just because Mr. Aquino is at the moment on top of it, change—whether political, social, economic or whatever else—being achievable only if the energies of the Filipino millions are harnessed for that purpose. Mr. Aquino came close to saying so when he wondered aloud what Filipinos working together can’t achieve, but failed to say outright that what this country needs so it can indeed march forward rather than stay in place is a vast, concerted effort based on a vision of an alternative future rather than on the simple-minded view that wishing for something and being “positive” makes it so.
It’s simple only to the simple minded: If you’re critical you’re being negative, while you’re being positive when you agree with and praise what the powerful say. To one thirteen-year old from Bacolod, whom Mr. Aquino took the greatest pains to paint as the ideal Filipino citizen, nothing can be simpler than agreeing with all those wonderful claims about how poverty’s being addressed, corruption being rooted out, law and order being restored, jobs being created, social services being provided, and the victims of disasters helped.
That thirteen-year old was in the news the next day as a consequence of Mr Aquino’s citing her for being “positive,” for lamenting the criticisms against Mr. Aquino and—isn’t that “negativism” too?—for herself criticizing the critics. That thirteen-year old had declared in an article in one of the newspapers that “the latest trend is to hurl criticism, even at those who are doing everything in their power to uphold the interests of the people” and “in the face of the challenges our country has experienced, instead of remaining open-minded and searching for the truth, there are some who choose to spread baseless accusations.”
Interesting. But who exactly are “doing everything to uphold the interests of the people,” and who are “making baseless accusations”? Is the first Mr. Aquino and the second his critics? Or is it the other way around?
Someone should take the trouble to begin the education of Mr. Aquino’s latest heroine by telling her that criticism by itself isn’t the evil she presumes it to be, informed criticalness being among the aims of authentic education. Perceived as “negative,” informed criticism implies standards against which something has been measured, and, in one of those paradoxes characteristic of the human condition, at the same time argues in favor of the observance of those standards. A critic who laments violations of human rights is at the same time arguing for respect for those rights, for example, in the same way that a critic of the pork barrel system is at the same time arguing for honesty and accountability in governance.
Criticism is invaluable in recalling those standards—honesty, good governance, justice, the right to dignified, productive lives—against which reality has been measured and found wanting. The critic, to paraphrase the Nobel laureate Albert Camus, is someone who says “no,” but by so doing is also saying “yes” to certain ideals.
Meanwhile, being “positive” too often results in ignoring what’s really going on, and in celebrating those illusions fomented by those “pretenders at reform” who would lull others into believing that while they may be sleeping in the streets and unaware of where the next meal is coming from, this is the best of all possible worlds, and they should stop complaining.
First published in BusinessWorld.