The Long View: The civic imperative: a reflection

The Long View
The civic imperative: a reflection 

By Manuel L. Quezon III
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 21:52:00 03/19/2008

WRITERS can only put forward ideas, and those ideas require not only articulation, but repetition: hence the tendency of writers to hammer away not only at their pet peeves, but at their pet themes as well.

There is a difference, however, between espousing a position, and communicating it, and insisting on a monologue which excludes the possibility of dialogue–yet knowing too, that dialogue has its own dangers, chief among which is to make it impossible to reach a consensus. Particularly if the process of arriving at a consensus is held too dearly, reducing everything to an exercise in futility. If everything is relative, then everything is impossible.

If, for some, the truth is either black or white, for others, there is no black and white, only shades of grey. Which is greater? The danger posed by the fanatic, or the danger represented by the indifferent? To be uncommitted is to be satisfied; to be cautious is comfortable; to be impassioned is to be dubious; Ignorance is bliss! Why then sacrifice tranquility for doubt? Particularly when you doubt the sincerity of those pushing you, arguing with you, bothering you to make up your mind, one way or another? What is the purpose of debate? To present both sides of a question, yes; but most of all, to afford the audience an opportunity to pass judgment and decide which side to take–knowing full well that the audience may decide not to take any side at all. Which is not to say both sides are wrong, but only, that both sides failed. The harsh reality being: partial success is still a failure. But failure to convince does not acquit those expected to pass judgment.

In a court of law, we object to the idea that one person or institution should be judge, jury and executioner. But there is one court where you are expected to be all three, all at the same time. In the court of public opinion, the public is simultaneously the judge, jury and executioner–and properly so. This is where the law comes in. A public that is judge, jury and executioner can be a lynch mob, depriving others of life, liberty and property. Too great a power! Which is why the law tempers the ability of individuals as well as groups to deprive others of these.

But to deprive someone of office, of position, of influence–which are not human rights but temporary advantages conferred by the community–can be taken away by those in whose name he is supposed to serve, and in whose name a position’s corresponding influence is wielded: the people, or those who can be bothered to express themselves as such.

As happens at the end of a debate, so it is with society. There are times that call for division, and there are times that call for unity. Is it better to paper over differences, or to starkly spell out those differences first, and then determine what can foster unity? As in all things, it takes the articulation of both sides to reveal where the majority exists, and where the two contending sides–one pushing for change, the other, insisting on the status quo–have departed from where most people want to be; which in the end may be overwhelmingly in favor of one or the other side, too–if not sooner, then later.

This involves–whether in a spiritual or temporal sense–faith. Individually, and collectively.

As a Filipino, faith in what one is doing, that is, what one does essentially conforms to one’s boundaries as defined by individual conscience. Above all: it is better to have faith in the Filipino than to be contemptuous of the Filipino. That is faith in a collective wisdom and not a lack of faith in the collective’s ability to arrive at a wise choice.

But your belief in one or the other is anchored in what you believe concerning human nature: Is it generally good, or bad? Or does it lie somewhere in between, which I personally tend to believe: people are generally good, but generally bound to be bad, because, as one student told me in Cebu, “in this country it is easier to do wrong than it is to do right.” Which to my mind explains why generally good people end up doing bad things–it is simply a human failing to take the road of least resistance.

The challenge proposed in the pastoral letter of Gaudencio Cardinal Rosales is whether citizens can cultivate the kind of civic spirit that keeps up the fight day in and day out, and turns a temporary victory in the streets into a triumph of the public good.

In other words, the cultivation of a Reform Constituency, which helps officials by keeping them on their toes, protects gains achieved for the public good, and offers up prospects of preserving what has been built, but extending and enlarging those gains, as well.

I wish I could remember which Catholic saint said that when it comes to bishops, wisdom is preferable to sanctity. The ideal, of course, is both, but we can’t have everything. For the same reason that the activism of John Paul II has been followed by the pastoral concentration of the present pope, the flair and drama of a Jaime Cardinal Sin has been succeeded by the contemplative nature of a Cardinal Rosales who offers up a meditation on sin, on the flaws of society, on how sin must not only be resisted, but fought, not once but always; on how redemption is always possible, but requires restitution. But how is restitution, without which redemption is impossible, to be achieved? By voluntary conversion? Or through some sort of secular method, such as our system of justice?

The clarion call of our times, then, unites faith with reason. To rebuild a civic culture. To have a common ground in shared values based on a shared belief in how the system ought to work. Our particular political objectives are secondary to this. It is our generation’s mission

Manuel L. Quezon III.

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