Not a dinner party
If the protesters at the University of the Philippines Diliman are “loathsome hooligans,” then why is it that until today the 1970 First Quarter Storm and the 1971 Diliman Commune are still cited as high points in the democratic struggle? These involved students either barricading a campus or pelting a president with sticks and stones. Or why half of those we honor at the Bantayog ng mga Bayani are idealistic students who took to the hills and suffered the ultimate hooliganism—death in torture chambers or by the barrel of a gun?
This is not to glorify the threat to the physical safety of Budget Secretary Florencio Abad, or to deprecate the university as a sanctuary for unpopular ideas. Abad faced his critics and earned “street cred” for his courage and
daring. The acts committed against him were deplorable. And if the mob had actually seized him? That would have been downright criminal.
But the students’ critics also owe us a coherent account of what makes campus protest illegitimate. We cannot isolate the Abad incident, and ignore the egg-throwing incident involving Gen. Hermogenes Esperon (because of forced disappearances under Gloria Arroyo), or the attack on a UP Board of Regents member, retired Supreme Court justice Abraham Sarmiento, whose car was surrounded and damaged by students protesting tuition increases.
Either these were all bad, or how do we pick and choose?
As has been famously said, “A revolution is not a dinner party… It cannot be so refined, so leisurely and gentle, so temperate, kind, courteous, restrained and magnanimous.” Why ask the protesters of UP Diliman to debate over cocktails with raised pinkies when they’re convinced that the moment calls for raised fists?
Still we must respond to two powerful arguments against the students. One, the times are now different. Marcos is frozen in his Batac mausoleum and we are no longer under martial law. Two, the students must honor the democratic space we regained at Edsa, most especially in academia, its most sacrosanct district where reason reigns supreme.
The first argument is correct but easily surmountable. “The times they are a-changin,’” and they’re much better for civil rights. But liberalism says we cannot impose that premise upon the students. They protest because corruption by predatory politicians continues unabated. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. We shouldn’t demand that they agree with us and accept our conclusions as their starting premise. It is illiberal, even fascistic, to say to the youth, If you want to have your own opinion, I’ll give it to you.
The second argument is a bit more formidable.
Aggressive protest is okay anywhere else but not in our academic backyard. The economics professors said: Secretary Abad is “covered by the same blanket of academic freedom and safe passage that the University guarantees to all who set foot on campus. … The purpose of that high privilege is to guarantee a free traffic in diverse ideas … which is the lifeblood of a liberal academic institution.” That was lyrical and elegant—and indeed it’s astonishing to discover the inner poet in the people who write soporific prose like that found in Neda’s Medium-Term Development Plan.
Their theory is correct but incomplete. Indeed, the learned guilds must be preserved as a haven for sober debate. But shouldn’t there be a place for righteous outrage in the high citadels of learning? Have we forgotten that at the height of Marcos’ rule, when the Filipino people were still apathetic before Ninoy Aquino was murdered, that we feared the loss of our capacity for moral outrage? That we had become political eunuchs unable to lust for justice? And now we tell young people to moderate their passions?
The theory is most incomplete when it asks that, in effect, the protesters be hunted and punished despite the fact that, providentially, no one was hurt. How worrisome when those who preach the Invisible Hand in things economic call for the use of the iron hand of the state on things political.
They are very correct on one point: The university is where “debates are won not by assault but by argument, not by shouting down but by speaking up.” Then let everyone—the faculty, students and administration—speak up on the issues of the day: corruption, human rights, hazing, rising tuition, etc. It will be the height of irony for those who do not speak to pass judgment on those who do, and then get finicky about good manners and right conduct. They are scandalized by the crudeness of protest but not by the indecency of keeping silent.
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