In hatred and in haste
A few weeks ago, I was a keynote speaker for a national conference for educators. I talked about teaching critical thinking, which includes encouraging kids to read beyond headlines—and to read carefully before commenting on anything, whether online or offline.
A question came up during the open forum: What do we tell people who say that they don’t have time to read?
My reply became relevant in the weeks that followed.
A few days after the conference, ex-Lamitan mayor Rose Furigay was assassinated on our campus. Within minutes of the event, and despite no official statements or reports, comments sprouted online. A media person claimed that it was the Pinks and Yellows shooting each other down; another wished that Leni Robredo would be next. People laughed at the Ateneo, saying that it got what it deserved for being antigovernment.
The insults kept flying, even when the news later showed that the gunman was loyal to the current administration, hateful toward Robredo, and assassinated the mayor in retaliation for the cyberlibel cases she had filed against him. The mayor deserved it, the commenters said; the gunman, a doctor, was a hero helping the drug war. Commenters even sneered at the security guard who had given his life.
The exchanges were made in such haste, such hatred, and such heartlessness, that they missed the law enforcement issues that should have been at the center of our discussions. Why was the gunman not under stricter monitoring, given his prior convictions and online threats? How did someone with loaded weapons and ammunition get past security? Shouldn’t the Philippine National Police have been more vigilant, given the next day’s State of the Nation Address?
Had people waited, made no comments, read reports closely, and not engaged the trolls, then they wouldn’t have worried about defending their ridiculously wrong stances.
The incident is one among many online, where people operate on an imaginary but imposed deadline for commenting and sharing, even when they are falling for and then peddling falsehoods.
There are the quote cards that people attack with viciousness without having read the article from which the words were extracted. Case in point: my most vociferous critics are those who obviously read only quotes from my work, because they often bring up arguments already present in the column—had they bothered to read it.
And then there’s the director who didn’t think it necessary to check his sources, and who does all sorts of mental gymnastics to justify his “artistic license.” When the so-called source of one of the scenes of his movie came to light, astute internet users found that pronouns and subjects had been mixed up across different sentences in different paragraphs—so much so that suddenly, cloistered nuns were playing mahjong.
There was almost no surprise, then, when the World Bank released its latest Learning Poverty report, which measures, among others, reading comprehension among schoolchildren. The Philippines ranked extremely low, at levels dismal and abysmal compared to its Asean neighbors.
Let’s return to the question: what if I have no time to read before commenting?
My reply then was blunt, verging on brutal.
“Why comment at all?
“If you spent as much energy in reading the source material as you did in writing the comment, then you wouldn’t be a danger to everyone around you. Don’t comment on something that you only pretend to know about.
“You actually have time to find out more about an issue. You just don’t want to. Don’t blame an invisible ‘lack of time’ for your laziness and your constant need to make your uninformed opinion heard.”
The problem, it seems, is not merely a lack of reading comprehension, or even of time. As our children grow into adults, and as they find their way online, they see reading as a mere task to perform for the school. Children are taught to be quiet. Adults are allowed to make excuses for their bad behavior.
No wonder we seem doomed to have a generation of people who cannot think critically, who do not want to find out more, and who are not genuinely curious. We’re well on our way to training the next generation to value hearsay rather than genuine questioning, to confuse what is popular with what is important. They might be the generation that cannot think beyond the straight lines in which they are forced to march.
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