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‘The University is under siege’

/ 04:03 AM March 02, 2021

Last week, at the 3rd National Conference on Democracy and Disinformation hosted by the University of the Philippines Visayas, new UPV chancellor Dr. Clement Camposano joined the program not only to welcome the participants but to serve as a resource person himself, later joining in the rough-and-tumble of the Q&A. It was my first time to hear Camposano, who has degrees in political science and a PhD in anthropology, speak. I had the distinct sensation that I was seeing an important public intellectual we should all heed take his place in the national spotlight. Camposano was clear and courageous (the courage sharpened by the clarity of his thinking); but he was also insightful, original in his approach to the problem of disinformation, gifted at answering questions and using the rolling phrase. He spoke on the role of campus journalists, but I would like to run extended passages to highlight other themes he struck. The entire speech can be read on the new website of the Consortium on Democracy and Disinformation, at fightdisinfo.ph.

Keep our campuses free. The University is under siege because there is a campaign of vilification against it, a campaign intent on portraying our campuses not only as breeding grounds of radicalism (nothing wrong with it, if you ask me) but also as safe havens for enemies of the state.

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Nonetheless, this is a teachable moment. A good opportunity for us to learn about democracy and disinformation. The first point I would like to make is that a large part of the struggle to keep democracy alive in this country—in any country — will be the struggle to keep our campuses free. Our democratic impulses are not part of our genetic inheritance. One is not born with them. These are learned; habits of mind we very likely imbibed when we were still students finding our way in the intellectual wilderness. To keep democracy from breathing its last we need to keep our campuses alive. Alive with ideas, with disputations, with political dreams of all sorts. Alive with politics, broadly construed.

This is why the notion that the state needs to protect students from certain ideas is profoundly undemocratic. And dangerous. How does one learn to be democratic without practicing democracy? How does one learn to ride a bicycle without actually getting on top of one and risking a fall? Are some ideas dangerous? Well, most great ideas are dangerous! Leaving room for ideas that upend our received views of the world is the price we pay for keeping society free, especially from those who presume to think for us. Critical minds cannot be nurtured in the protective shadow of a paternalistic state.

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Activism is good. The other point I wish to make is that disinformation — not third-rate, would-be dictators — is today a far more serious threat to the University, and by extension to democracy. The volleys of disinformation, distortion, and fakery leveled at the University are threatening in two ways. First, they justify the work of those who would constrict the democratic space that our campuses signify, in behalf of the patriarchal presumption about the need to protect “children” from political exploitation (at a time when we need to stop treating young people as children!).

Second, and more seriously in my view, the current campaign of disinformation directed at the University works to distort and downgrade public understanding of the role universities play in society. Providing skills leading to gainful employment is not all that universities do. Universities exist primarily to ensure societies do not stagnate. Universities are purveyors of innovation in all spheres of life, from the technological, to the political, to the sexual. Innovation requires daring, and daring is born of latitude and a restless spirit. Activism is good for society (there, I said it).

Social media as trap. Let us stop thinking about the internet and its associated technologies simply as tools of communication. They are not. In fact, technology in general cannot simply be thought of as means to an end. Digital technology has restructured human interaction, and this can have profound consequences for the way society works. As Daniel Miller (2005) said, “the things that people make, make people.”

Allow me to briefly discuss what I mean here. Steffen Dalsgaard (2008) argues that offline social life is fundamentally different from online sociality. Let us consider arguably the most popular social media site today: On Facebook, a person is always at the center of his own social universe, even as he must also see his “friends” as similarly situated—i.e., as centers of their own social universes. Most interactions on Facebook are framed by an exchange relationship created when one user admits another into his or her network (McKay 2010). Facebook users sustain themselves mainly by receiving and giving affirmation.

This prompted sociologist Zygmunt Bauman (2016, Online) to bewail that what social media sites create are networks, not communities. “The difference between a community and a network is that you belong to a community, but a network belongs to you,” he points out. “[It’s] so easy to add or remove friends … that people fail to learn the real social skills, which you need when you go to the street, when you go to your workplace, where you find lots of people who you need to enter into sensible interactions with.”

For Bauman, social media are not conducive to dialogue. He says that “most people use social media not to unite, not to open their horizons wider, but on the contrary, to cut themselves a comfort zone where the only sounds they hear are the echoes of their own voice, where the only things they see are the reflections of their own face.” He ends by saying that “[social] media are very useful, they provide pleasure, but they are a trap.”

On Twitter: @jnery_newsstand, email: [email protected]
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TAGS: Clement Camposano, democracy, disinformation, John Nery, Newsstand, social media
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