Shots were fired. But not in the form of bullets that ricochet off concrete, triggered by criminals on the loose. And no, these aren’t the shots that make up prime-time news, the kind that involve police in hot pursuit of some bandit in a bonnet. Neither did the firing take place between juvenile delinquents who fight in packs in dark corners and tight alleys, nor between matinee idols and hated villains in some old action film. Oh, no. Not that kind of shots fired.
I meant words thrown and accusations tweeted—insults exchanged and raunchy jokes hashtagged. I am thinking of brute statuses and nasty remarks flung to and fro—shots fired, not across battlefields, but across cyberspace. Not between heroes and villains but between ordinary persons and average citizens, masked, not by bonnets, but by filtered profile pictures and fake accounts. Not exactly deadly but scathing. Not so much harmful as hurtful. Not physical but quite a blow.
Indeed, shots were exchanged in the course of what is perhaps the most divisive and polarizing election season in the country’s newfound democracy. That Filipinos were very passionate and committed to their choice of leaders was evident, as shown by the 81.62-percent voter turnout. It can and should be expected, though, if social media were to be examined days and months leading to the ninth of May.
The mudslinging between parties and political candidates was not at all surprising. But the heated discussions and exchanges online were startling and discomforting, not so much because of the content as the questionable veracity of the claims made, the violence that fragments of ideas were capable of insinuating, and the recklessness by which they were presented.
From a dark period in our history being reduced to a “martial law thingy” to shocking words flung by a political leader’s child against another political leader seeking high office, all these did nothing to inform the electorate on the candidates and their platforms. What was revealed in the thick, toxic, vitriolic tweets published and statuses posted in the course of the past few months was the fact that we have commoditized words, bastardized their purpose and power, and negated our responsibility of using them truthfully. What has happened is that we can spew lies and express hate for everyone to see and read, and then absolve ourselves of the responsibility by hashtagging “justsaying.” Juxtaposing the words “just” and “saying” implies that we place little reverence on the words we say, all in the praise and glory of the gods of self-expression, under the dogma of “freedom of speech.”
Whoever said that “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me” had no idea what the internet and audience-driven platforms can do. Back when 3G connection was unheard-of and setting up a blog in Blogger or LiveJournal was like learning how to code, it was considered both a blessing and a privilege to be granted a small space in what was then a young internet world that would facilitate our thoughts and our words. The audience was small, and it felt quite undeserved. But years down the road, when our Facebook accounts can hold for us 4,000 friends and posting a tweet takes seconds over smartphones, the privilege became an entitlement and the sacredness gave way to trending topics. How much could it have been back when people’s only platform was made up of pen and paper journals!
I was raised to give words—whether spoken or written (or posted, in this age)—the sanctity they deserve. Like time, words are intangibles we cannot take back after they are said, or spent. Likewise, I was raised to believe that the words we use reveal the kind of upbringing we have had, the education we received, and the quality of media we embrace. And in more instances than one, I have violated the rules.
Is this too old-fashioned a belief in this age of publish and delete? Are these the traits that belong in the distant past? As antiquated as the belief in the importance of lineage, pedigree and “proper” family background (as some have claimed that “the son is not like the father”)? Has it become so customary to establish our infallibility simply because social media does not require us to footnote and reference the claims we make? Can we now cuss and threaten and bully others because we can hide behind anonymity or assumed identities?
This is not an opinion on politics, from which we would probably like to take a hiatus. This is not an opinion about freedom of speech either, the constitutionality of which I have no deep knowledge anyway. This, instead, is an opinion on discernment, and our responsibility to give credence to our words by meaning what we say and standing by them even without the safety of online fortresses. Besides, isn’t that what freedom really means? Freedom being, not the privilege to do whatever we want to do, but the privilege to choose what is right?
Words may not hurt physically and actions still speak louder than they do. But in the highs and lows of our emotions, in the face of whatever is thrown our way, may it be of matters of the nation or matters of our own private lives, we sanctify what we put out. For indeed, if the words we spoke appeared on our skin, would we still say them?
Let’s be “watch your words” in this world of “just saying.” Hashtag that, too.
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.