The Irony of Vice

Vice Ganda is right: not all who protest are really out there protesting. Some of them were just paid to protest. Some of them were just bribed; perhaps to buy a few kilos of rice for their trouble.

But there’s the rub: that’s the cost of dissent in this country.

I don’t think that Vice was being “elitist” or anything; everyone has the right to opinions, and there’s a lot to be admired in frank comments when everyone’s walking on eggshells. What it was to me, for all it was to me, is a betrayal of biases. There’s a big difference between people being on the take for dissenting, and how much is paid for that dissent.

In doing so, Vice Ganda reveals that we don’t put a lot of stock in our individual actions to move this country forward. In saying so, Vice Ganda also reveals that it has gotten to the point that the price of protest – for those of us who should protest – can be paid for in the form of rice. And in spreading so, Vice Ganda reveals that this is the quality of questioning we like: divisive ones, and not constructive ones.

What follows, I hope, isn’t “cyberbullying” or anything.

It sounds odd now, but when we focus the lenses a bit, we get to see what’s really going on. It’s one thing to ask people if they’re willing to sell their votes, but it’s another thing to ask how much they’re willing to sell it for. That small shift in perspective, I think, illuminates the problem just a little bit more.

I’m not saying that we don’t put a lot of stock into our politics – eavesdropping into kwentong barbero invalidates that position – but that we’re so detached from civics that the vote becomes the highest (and for many, the only) articulation of political action in the Philippines. This kind of detachment reflects the quality of political discourse in the country (which my friend Nik de Ynchausti points out in much more eloquent terms than I can), whether it’s from public intellectuals or from celebrities.

And that’s the irony of Vice’s comment, I think. What seems to be a valid commentary on the state of protest is just that: a question that answers itself. Of course some people are paid to protest, but why they protest for that much creates more nuances.

It’s not simply because “they’re poor and uneducated,” but the injustices of the system profit from poor and uneducated people who believe that strength in numbers matter more than the strength of convictions. That’s why all political parties are the same: why they all have the same platform of government, why differences lie solely in the candidates they field, and why policy is a non-priority compared to celebrity. There’s a lot that social conditioning can do.

Rice as a payment method highlights this: the way to political success in this country is to address nothing more than basic needs. As long as they’re fulfilled, all is right with the world. All a politician has to do is to come to the hall with sacks of rice and relief to get the vote: never mind where it came from or from what fund it was pilfered from. We never really tackled the institutional problems of government – problems that, when solved, could have clarified funding and fiscal management – and choose to see government as a matter of convenience than of consensus.

Never mind corruption, good faith, and the letter and spirit of the law: “marami na tayong natutulungang mahirap” is something we hear from politicians all too often, especially when the time comes for that one political action we’re all encouraged to do every three years.

When all a government does is to address basic needs – and when the expectations of government all revolve around basic needs – there’s something really wrong. And when the critical questions are never asked, the vicious cycle continues. That we applaud for Vice Ganda’s comment is great and all, but really: it speaks a lot about our own commitment to civics to applaud a remark like that.

Vice Ganda is right: not all who protest are really out there protesting. The irony, though, is that a simple rephrasing of the question opens up a Pandora’s Box of questions we should be asking. The answers to those questions may be what we’re looking for all along.

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