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FLEA MARKET OF IDEAS

Five years of ‘opening a vein and bleeding’

/ 04:06 AM October 26, 2020

Exactly five years ago today, I began writing as an opinion columnist of this paper, the Philippine Daily Inquirer (PDI). It has been a weekly ritual of “open(ing) a vein and bleed(ing) onto a page,” as one writer vividly describes the struggles of writing.

I was a bit guilty of misrepresentation when I was interviewed for the job. Asked by then Opinion desk editor Rosario Garcellano and PDI president Sandy Prieto if I was confident I would be able to write an opinion piece on a weekly basis, I lied when I said I was. In truth, I was full of self-doubt: How on earth would I manage to churn out a writing composition each week, given that I was managing a law firm and a human rights nongovernmental organization?

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It’s been a gratifying self-discovery that I could, in fact, push my imagined limits, enabling me to honor my word, because I haven’t missed a week of submitting my writing. I wrote even when I was on a honeymoon trip, when I was anxiously waiting in the hospital for my wife to give birth, when I had sleepless nights changing baby diapers, when I figured in a car accident, and when I was on trips abroad. So far, I have churned out at least 260 opinion articles, still a pittance compared to the output of some of my colleagues who have been writing for decades. But they are nevertheless a milestone for me, who has had no prior journalistic experience.

Writing a weekly column is both a blessing and a curse. It’s a blessing to have your own pulpit from which to broadcast your views before a national audience. It’s a curse in the sense that it’s a constant struggle to sift through issues that unfold or evolve—even dig out ones that are buried—in a weekly search for a topic, and to express a point of view that adds a different dimension to the usual public chatter.

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It has become even more challenging for opinion columnists to fight for space in the marketplace of ideas in an age where every Jose and Maria can readily create their own online pulpits and shout out their truths or falsehoods, where “fast-food” opinions are instantly posted on Twitter and Facebook, and where “junk food” ideas anchored on fake news, with no nutritional value for the brain, are easily peddled on the Web like cotton candy.

There’s a growing propensity for leaders and readers to resort to “fast-food” opinions that are posted with mere phrases, short sentences, or brief paragraphs, but which are bereft of discourse on underlying facts and reasoning. The proliferation of “fast-food” viewpoints has enabled “junk food” ideas to piggyback their way into the public square of debates and discussion, thereby corrupting the square with a yard sale of tall tales. Exhibit A is US President Donald Trump, who has often been caught ranting on Twitter and utilizing sources with dubious authenticity.

We are living in a time when the disharmony in our views on what’s good for our country is at unprecedented heights. In the midst of this unparalleled discord, I persevere in the task of writing, guided by the twin lenses of common sense and empathy.

The lens of common sense equips us with a clear vision. It has always aided me in separating the wheat from the chaff, when different “versions” of the truth are laid before my eyes. The lens of empathy, on the other hand, enables me to comprehend a viewpoint whose discordant nature may spring from a dysfunctional reality alien to those with a life of privilege.

In writing opinion pieces during these times when our people are so polarized in their definitions of good and bad, I frequently find myself at the receiving end of insults, ridicule, and threats. I was even sued by a politician who felt slighted when I wrote about corruption in his vicinity. I’ve learned to shrug everything off, and I have accepted that these all come with the territory.

Every now and then, compliments and gratitude are also thrown my way, and they give me hope that there are still flickering embers of humanity in our midst. And so goes my life as an accidental writer.

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TAGS: column writing, fast-food opinions, Flea Market of Ideas, Joel Ruiz Butuyan
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