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Social Climate

Disagreement and freedom

/ 12:26 AM March 03, 2012

If any citizen is free to openly agree, but not to openly disagree, then freedom of expression does not prevail. An individual’s option to openly express disagreement without risk of any personal injury is a key part of the definition of a free society.

The Constitution guarantees freedom of expression to all, at all times, on all issues. This freedom is to be enjoyed not only by some, even if those some are a majority—indeed, however large a majority those some are.

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Of course, one should be wary of expressing disagreement in ways overly offensive to those who aren’t sportsmanlike, and have the power to retaliate. Is it offensive, in general, to cover one’s ears to avoid hearing an unpleasant voice, or only in court? Is it excessive to punish ear-covering as contempt of court?  To me, these are matters of opinion too.

Individual versus collective opinions. The right of any one person to free expression was granted by the collective will, when the Constitution was democratically ratified.  A free society protects individualistic views.

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Opinion polling is essential to modern democracy. It scientifically ascertains the balance of opinions, and reports the plurality (which could be less than a majority), the various minorities, and those neutral (which is a valid position too) regarding any issue.

Opinion polling is not dogmatic, but open-minded. Today’s majorities may become tomorrow’s minorities, and vice versa. Filipinos are free to change their minds, and have done so. Pollsters consult the grassroots, not the treetops.

Opinion polls might be able to sense the beginnings of people power on some issue, or of bandwagons for some candidates.  But they do not create such movements.

Not the same as popular sovereignty. Last week, Fr. Joaquin Bernas, S.J. reminded us that: “Surveys … are not manifestations of popular sovereignty. They do not authorize public officials, no matter how highly placed, to disregard the law or the Constitution. Nor does a repeated claim of massive popularity enhance a public official’s power to a level higher that what is given to him or her by the law and the Constitution.”

To these, I wholeheartedly agree. It means that one should obey laws, including those laws one disagrees with. But note also that opinion polling provides guidance as to how the laws, including the Constitution, should be changed, and whether the people will assent to such change.

What about “media bias”? A recent letter (unedited—ED.) said:

“You seem to have forgotten that the media has a powerful impact on the opinions and views of the general public. Unfortunately most of media in the Philippines is biased.

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“I know because I read most of the major publications everyday and listen to the various TV stations and I can easily discern the slant in the choice of headlines; the manner the headlines are worded; the choice of front page news. Probably because I was an editor in chief of our school organ.

“Some important news items don’t appear in some leading publications. Some news articles are not as comprehensive or miss out some items in favor of one side. Some news articles are not even consistent with the headlines.

“In the TV, more minutes are given to one side as against the other. Some news also do not appear. Reporters are biased and leading questions are asked.

“This media bias affects perception of people just in the same manner as advertising and public relations do affect the persuasions of customers. In war it is called brain-washing.

“Hence your poll surveys could be measures of perceptions that may in actuality be far from the truth.

“For instance, a poll survey that would show a majority believe CJ Corona is guilty of amassing ill gotten wealth does not necessarily mean that indeed he is guilty.

“Just as the jury in the States are insulated from the news to avoid bias in their judgment, the Senate-Jurors should likewise be insulated and the best way to do that is to forego any poll surveys on the impeachment trial.  We cannot afford to have a mobocracy.”

I replied:

“Everyone is affected by the media—your neighbors, your friends, your family, yourself. Why do you bother to listen to them at all? Why do they bother to listen to you? Should you then insulate yourself from their opinions? Should they then insulate themselves from you?

“In a democracy, there is no compulsion to heed anyone’s opinions. What is compulsory is to allow everyone to speak. Freedom of speech includes freedom to do opinion polls.”

Polling about the impeachment trial. The quarterly Social Weather Survey always deals with important current issues, and so the impeachment trial is part of the 2012 First Quarter agenda, of course.

The survey will not disqualify respondents for having excessively followed the trial via the media. On the contrary: it will filter out those, if any, who aren’t aware of the trial at all.

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Social Weather Stations condoles with the family of the late Horacio “Boy” Morales, an SWS Fellow (a basic stakeholder in the SWS governance system) since 1989. As executive vice president of the Development Academy of the Philippines when I directed its Social Indicators Project in 1974-75, Boy was the one who secured the funding for our pilot survey in Batangas province, the first Philippine experiment in estimating self-rated poverty and other quality of life indicators regularly used today. SWS salutes Boy Morales for his key role in social science research, in those critical years.

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Contact SWS: www.sws.org.ph or [email protected]

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TAGS: Constitution, democracy, featured column, freedom of expression, opinion polls
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