Thursday, April 09, 2009

When Satire Fails, Chip Tsao and his defenders

HK Magazine/Asia City apology

HK Magazine/Asia City apology

Based on web postings, Tsao has apologized twice. His magazine pulled the article and apologized. Nevertheless, a handful of Manila pundits continue to defend Tsao on the grounds that it was: (a) a satire, (b) the country’s political-economic policies and situation have led to the export of Philippine labor as commodities, and (c) Louisa is not real.

The three reasons are not acceptable reasons for insulting people, worse, a nation, worst, a vulnerable population.

Tsao’s cheap satire failed because:

  1. It wasn’t funny at all;
  2. It did not create an exaggerated view or a dissonance or unbelievable scene of what is real and what he wrote about—that is what satire is suppose to do;
  3. It can and was interpreted in different ways by different readers and audiences;
  4. The target audience, what blogger Kenneth Maclean calls the “teachable audience”, in this case, will take some time and more explaining to appreciate/understand Tsao’s piece;
  5. It can and will reinforce racist and elitist stereotypes of Filipinos, OFWs, and the working poor. The rule of thumb in lampooning OTHERS is first to be part of that community;
  6. Those who appreciated Tsao’s piece are a narrow swath of the readers;
  7. The dynamics for ONLINE satire include greater chance for misinterpretation, reaction, including emotional reaction, diverse readership, diverse cultural interpretation of the written word, and the possibility of instant fact-checking, including background checking to establish the credibility of the satirist. These require a greater sensitivity, skill, and nuance, which Tsao obviously does not have.

Thus, Tsao’s intended goal of his piece (satire of HK politics) is vastly different from what Filipino Tsao defenders cite (critic of Philippine government) and from what many Filipinos interpret (racist and elitist).

Contrary to what a few have said, facts do matter. This is especially so when attempting a satire concerning an emotionally and politically charged issue such as OFWs or even the Spratlys. See the Seven Rules of Satire.

When satire goes wrong, the consequences are personal to the author. Rough examples include:

A good discussion on satire and when it goes wrong can be seen in the articles The Carnival Mirror: Political Satire and How it Does, or Doesn’t ‘Work’ and Satire is hard to write, not for everyone. The satire scholar is Paul Simpson and his On Discourse of Satire.

The question is: who would you allow to control the discourse on fundamental issues?

Recent history and events show that insulting and maltreating OFWs is bound to cause conflict. The Flor Contemplacion case, the Desperate Housewives saga, the beheadings in the Middle East, etc. In the US, Google Philip Vera Cruz. In all these, the common theme is OFWs striving for dignity or pagkatao.

When Filipinos post articles related to and supporting Tsao’s satire or actually write and defend Tsao, I interpret it to mean that they support Tsao’s satire, which many of us find insulting. Where does that leave us? I think they are pushing a political or ideological agenda at the expense of the dignity and pagkatao of the OFW. If one doesn’t understand what I’m trying to say, read up on Vicente Rafael and Reynaldo Ileto.

I will be the first to admit my thoughts on not talking ill of the vulnerable are not original. My dissertation research on Gawad Kalinga these past few years made me realize that work with the poor programs start with trying to understand how the poor feel, think about, and experience their situation. The books of Reynaldo Ileto and Vicente Rafael practically rewrote the groundbreaking work of T. Agoncillo and R. Constantino. Katrin de Guia’s Kapwa is another must read. What I realized from them is that when we, “educated, modern,urban, middle class, even western trained” people, look at the emotional or even juramentado acts of the masses as only that we totally miss the point and their worldview. These emotional outbursts were actually a search for “kalooban” and “pagkatao”. In other words the poor are constantly in search of human and personal dignity. The last chapter of anthropologist Fenella Cannell’s dissertation and book on a Bicol community, Power and Intimacy in Christian Philippines, is a great summary of this perspective. In Brazil it is Paulo Freire and his Pedagogy of the Oppressed.

Tsao and his Filipino defenders need to be “transformed” by this realization that the poor need emotional nurturing. As Gawad Kalinga’s Tony Meloto likes to say, “We must treat the poor as if they were our own children.” Filipino pundits and intellectuals, especially those from the University of the Philippines, know this somewhat already, hence the risk of taking it all for granted. They along with other Filipinos “factor in” the poor in their/our lives. So the comment is “alam na natin yan” (We know that already). We risk looking beyond the poor…until the next insult.

Second, migration is caused by both push and pull factors. Corrupt officials and politicians, economic difficulties, environmental crises, etc. push people to migrate. Pull factors include demand for labor, better opportunities, personal ties and networks in receiving areas, an urge for travel, risk, and exploration, etc. The OFW phenomenon is dynamic. Indeed, they have been abused and exploited at both ends. However, OFW are humans, therefore they have agency. They are not passive. In case you have not noticed, they are mobilizing, online and offline. They are making demands. And one thing they will not tolerate is being insulted by a satirist who is then backed up by pundits. Tsao’s article was not funny to them.

My last point about OFWs. Every day abroad is a learning experience. It is experiential, thus they grow everyday. The loneliness and the lonely nights alone, away from their families allow them to reflect on their situation and their lives, i.e. reflexivity. They are more observant, more thoughtful. This is their re-education. They protested with their feet. When they return, they will take with them a more assertive voice, resources to spur change, and the skills and outlook needed in national development. Manila’s intellectual pundits have failed to account for these.

If anyone wants to change Philippine society and promote an ideological agenda, that person should not support and rationalize acts that insult the Filipino identity and insult a vulnerable segment of the Filipino population, the OFWs.

Change starts with identity formation.