The unexamined life

by Melissa V. Basmayor

A recent message circulating on Facebook discourages Filipinos from blaming the government for its recent response to the calamity. It reads: “They are trying their best with millions screaming at them every day for being dumb and slow. How can someone think clearly with all the nasty remarks you are making?” It goes on with a list of other admonitions, and ends with a message of hope.
The viral image is one of a handful which all have a similar message: for the public to keep quiet, never mind the flak that we drew from media giants from across the globe for the rate of our government’s assistance. Others are more unforgiving: they condemn those who criticize, claiming it fails to add anything good to the situation.
I have no doubt that opinions such as these are well-meant. They wish to offer some form of respite. However, in the same way that these opinions are valid, so, too, are those which voice their dismay at the situation.
I don’t think it is fair, for one to simply dismiss criticisms as unhelpful comments, as incorrect responses to the nightmarish disaster, as if there were only one right way to act after the catastrophe.
Both ways of thinking has its merits, I am sure. I, however, am of the latter camp: those who refuse to sit in complacent silence, those who believe that the victims merit some form of justice for the sheer irresponsibility from the government—the same irresponsibility that ignored warnings from the UNDP that storm surges may devour the Visayan coastal communities, that vetoed the funds that could have been used for precautionary measures. I fail to see sincerity in the national government’s supposed concern for the people, when it attempts to deflect blame on the local government unit, as if its duty to look after the citizens is any less than the LGU’s. I see no point in photo ops of officials “helping,” when their primordial task is not to get photographed in the streets hauling debris, but to be at the helm of command, to organize people to do such tasks. Yes, I complain, about these things and others, but I don’t think it makes me less of a “helpful” citizen.
Complaining, I tend to believe, can lead to something positive, especially when it springs from a desire to change the situation, instead of stopping at the fact. Case in point: the foreign media’s heckling prompted our own journalists to visit the typhoon-stricken areas. This kind of complaining is different from launching tirades at others without basis, with the mere goal of simply discrediting them; from whining when one’s only objective is simply, well, to whine.
The kind of complaining that I approve of draws attention to the fact that something is not right with the way things are getting done. It jolts others out of the listlessness that a catastrophe elicits. Most importantly, it inspires a kind of self-awareness, prompting us to examine our own notions, our own preconceptions, our own beliefs which may turn out to be false or incorrect when fleshed out in arguments. Socrates, perhaps, is instructive here: “The unexamined life is not worth living,” he said, gesturing at the often-understated significance of criticism and self-reflexivity in living a meaningful life.
To suppress criticism is equivalent to what I would call a rational tyranny, where no thought that may hurt the ego of the one in power (in this case, the national government) can even be conceived (especially when it appears to be “trying its best”).
Regardless of what others dictate, regardless of whether it conforms to what is popular, criticism and complaining should be welcomed as signs of the health of our democracy. They provide balance, and keep power in check. These are especially vital in a time like this, when images of the typhoon’s wrath still leave us wordless and dazed, unable to move or react to the flood of emotions that assault us.
To keep thinking, complaining, and criticizing is to move forward. Perhaps, in a wasteland, where even thoughts have died, these would be tantamount to survival.
Still, it’s important to remember that such criticism is a luxury afforded to us by our safe distance. We don’t wonder where our next meal would come from, or whether authorities will find our loved ones in the rubble. Yet despite the fact that this luxury can make us feel uncomfortable, perhaps even guilty, it is this very subject position that demands us to keep asking, complaining, and criticizing. It is this position that propels us to seek change—whether in how we should prepare for calamities, or respond to disasters—until the victims of the typhoon become more than just another trivial historical fact, bound to be forgotten in a century, or until the next strong typhoon hits.


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