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Telling the truth

/ 12:24 AM September 22, 2016

I once egged a soldier who became a friend to reveal to me his deepest, darkest truths. I used all the tricks I knew—from batting eyelashes to alcohol to trying to convince him that I was harmless (still true), to emotionally blackmailing him into believing that only I would care to know these things, and that the burden of knowing would be too heavy for him to bear alone.

Finally, he caved and said, “Can you handle the truth? Kaya mo ba talaga yung katotohanan, o papalag ka lang?”

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His answer was a punch in the gut that sobered me up, enough to stop asking. It’s only now, recalling this exchange, that I am able to glean its lessons.

In the months leading up to the May elections, a friend who writes for this paper correctly pointed out that the biggest casualty in our conduct of politics is the truth. It was a glaring insight and one that could not be ignored. Of course, the downside was that it would eventually become trite and people would use his insight as a convenient sound bite to avoid conversation altogether. What is the point of an exchange, after all, when we have settled into our convictions and conceded that nothing can be true or properly argued with fact?

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In the current context of social media, we are slowly being conditioned to think one of two things: that everything we read online is true or that, conversely, nothing we hold to be correct or of value can be true anymore. It’s as if going viral and having a great number of likes and shares could now determine the veracity of one’s message and of one’s right to speak up and be heard. It does not help us that trolling has become a profitable industry, or that thinkers, whom we have relied on for years to shape our opinions, are currently beguiled enough to debate with Anonymous and share articles off fake news sites with reckless abandon. Have we really lost our capacity for truth or thrown caution to the winds by siding instead with Who Says What loudest? Or is this also about opinions that are loud enough to protect us from having to actually think for ourselves?

We all want the truth, but my headstrong soldier’s question is now ours, too. Can we handle the truth, or do we only pretend to seek it to pay lip service to an unrealized dream of democracy?

Maybe I really appreciate that President Duterte brings out facets of our character that we do not often like to recognize? He speaks candidly about what he thinks when he thinks it. There’s no room in his sentences for embellishment, and the words coming out of his mouth confound us in their rawness. He is so direct, attacking on all sides, that we are all left feeling assaulted. He has exposed every fiber of our democracy as having been stained with corruption to the point where no single authority can hold sway any longer. Every institution that once held a formidable power—the government, the Church, media, civil society, and, to some extent, even our own history, which we have been learning (or forgetting)—has been made vulnerable by the paralyzing revelation of corruption. That we are so mired in our own filth and cannot even smell the crap we hurl at each other is a mystery to me. But believe me, we stink.

In the face of recognizing how cheap life has become, we forget that in this country, it has always been cheap. Otherwise, we would have invested enough in our people to keep them here, earning a decent living and sending their children to capacitated schools instead of having them languish as cheap labor abroad. We would have poured more money into healthcare and built hospitals we women could all labor in regardless of our class. We could have nourished our people, planted on greater expanses of land, and distributed labor and wealth more equitably instead of allowing only a few accesses to our yield.

We forget that we have consumed the truth as a matter of getting entertained rather than informed.  Is it any wonder that media moguls have made billions out of our satisfaction for the sensational? Have we forgotten that dailies and news shows have, for years now, covered crimes left and right, feeding off people’s misery so that we can have something to discuss with our friends and gossip about? I won’t even go into the production of narratives, into the framing of our indigenous as indigents or into the corruption of communications, where the message, to be compelling, must always, always exploit the subject. The extrajudicial killings of today have nothing on a culture of impunity that we have long participated in but learned to deny. We blame crimes easily on monolithic governments, on armed forces we don’t come to understand, and on whoever it is that sits on the throne.

Today, we sit paralyzed over our leaders, fumbling and stumbling over each other, trying to get seats closest to the king. We bemoan the lack of a genuine opposition that tells us what to believe when we hate who is in power. We crave voices that bolster the ideas we have long cherished but never challenged. No, I don’t want to march down Edsa anymore or topple the ghost of a dictator. I simply want to traverse it with some facility, with some sense that we aren’t always stuck in mind-numbing traffic, as it were.

The truth of our moral poverty stupefies us if we care to admit it.  Yet, it is in that same admission of culpability that we are best poised to reckon with it. Here lies our redemption, not in abeyance of what is good and true, but rather in acceptance of who we are and what must be done.

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Can we handle the truth? Perhaps. But to commit to it, let us first admit to it.

Nash Tysmans, 28, is a teacher and community worker.

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TAGS: politics, Poverty, Rodrigo Duterte, social media, truth
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