Notes & Essays

Sawi Series: Keeping It All In

The bane of unpopularity and staying quiet in the age of social media
ILLUSTRATOR Jasrelle Serrano
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Valentine's Day is when you're most aware of your loved ones—not just of your significant other, but of your family, friends, the people around you. But it also makes you fully realize the love that you don't have. Hence, our Sawi Series, which we are dedicating to the other, less promulgated side of the love parade. Taking our cue from Alain de Botton's The Consolations of Philosophy (2000), writer Paul de Guzman talks about the bane of unpopularity in the age of social media.

The ancient world of mailing lists (Show of hands for people who are still signed up with a Listserv!) and blogs has a word to describe people like me: lurkers. I read through lively discussions and exchange of ideas, but never once say a word. I formulate opinions of my own, and yet just decide that what I want to say has been already said, and better; or what I’m about to say is going to be potentially polarizing, except I’m terrified of having to defend my stand in long e-mail or comment threads. I’m that classmate who hunches over his desk, trying to make himself invisible from the teacher who might call his name. I’m that guy who would like to hide in the bathroom when forced to take part in a small-group discussion where “everyone is welcome to share,” where “there are no right or wrong answers.”

It is easy to succumb to silence; in fact I have, many times, and most probably will, again and again. Still, one must also strive to be a bit like the “unpopular” guys.

I write this as I think about Socrates in the agoras of classical Athens, springing himself upon strangers who were going merrily about their toga-swaddled lives, asking them about their beliefs, and then, while (I imagine) sending out great gusts of body odor—after all, Aristophanes, in The Clouds, called him out for being too lost in his lofty thoughts that he had not “ever shaved, or oiled himself, or visited the baths to wash himself”—methodically challenged their long-held assumptions.

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It’s a bit of a jerk move—like your least favorite professor suddenly appearing and subjecting you to a surprise oral exam, out there in the street—but it did get some people to think about why they believed what they believed. As the ancient Greeks used to say, “Know thyself,” and Socrates certainly led people to a measure of self-understanding, or at the very least opened for them doors to introspection and self-examination. As for those whom Socrates had rubbed the wrong way, they elected to feed him hemlock.

I write this as I think about Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German Lutheran pastor who became part of the plot to overthrow and assassinate Hitler. In the 1930s, when some powerful factions within the German evangelical church became increasingly tangled with Nazism—to the extent that they wanted to establish an “Aryan German Church” where Christians who had come from a Jewish background were excluded from ministry and could not, in effect, be considered genuine Christians—Bonhoeffer stood against National Socialism and the persecution of the Jews. In March 1933, he wrote an essay called “The Church and the Jewish Question,” where he said that “the Church has an unconditional obligation to the victims of any ordering of society, even if they do not belong to the Christian community.” This statement, which he delivered before a group of ministers, made some members of his audience walk out. He added that what the Church needed to do was “not just to bandage the victims under the wheel, but to jam a spoke in the wheel itself. Such action would be direct political action.”

Bonhoeffer became a kind of agent with the Abwehr, the German Military Intelligence Organization, which, while ostensibly serving the Reich, also secretly plotted Hitler’s overthrow. Bonhoeffer traveled to some parts of Europe to inform church contacts about the resistance; he helped some Jews escape Germany by noting in their travel papers that they were Abwehr agents. In 1943, the plot was uncovered, and Bonhoeffer’s wider involvement in the resistance was exposed. In 1945, he was taken to Buchenwald, and then to the Flossenbürg concentration camp, where he was executed.

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I write these thinking about all those who stood, with all their might, against popular opinion, not because they were merely truculently, ornerily contrarian—although several doubtless were—but because they were bearers of a truth not held by some permutation of a “majority.”


Of course, reducing the stories of Socrates and Bonhoeffer—as well as all the men and women of science who were declared heretics and then tortured and burned at the stake, the political dissenters under oppressive regimes, the indigenous peoples who continue to fight for ancestral lands—into an inspirational meme-shaped storylet of resistance can be problematic: they are, after all, complex individuals, and there’s definitely more to their lives than the neat little packages that we’d like them to come in. (“Oh hey! There’s no ‘See more’ link that I need to click!”)

These are dark times: while to some of us the “darkness” of the times involves feeling suddenly exposed to some form of danger; to others it’s the fact that the danger has never gone away, even intensified.

Still, the fact remains that Socrates and Bonhoeffer did not settle for the pat and easy answers, and did not keep their thoughts to themselves. They thought long and hard, questioned their own assumptions, and then questioned them some more; they spoke out, even to the point of endangering their lives.

And so I go back to the idea of lurking. These are dark times: while to some of us the “darkness” of the times involves feeling suddenly exposed to some form of danger; to others it’s the fact that the danger has never gone away, even intensified. There is, from many different sides, the drive to silence criticism and dissent. On social media alone—that map of the world that has become, to many of us, the world—we encounter variations on these statements: “Andami mong alam.” “Troll ka kasi.” “Hay naku, mga naka-‘Free data’ lang ‘yang mga ‘yan.”  “TL;DR.” “___ pa rin, mga ulol!” Decidedly non-Linnaean forms of name-calling. Outright threats of violence and death. The conversation-ending *Seen*. One is driven to to silence by fear, frustration, anger, disgust, exhaustion.

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It is easy to succumb to silence; in fact I have, many times, and most probably will, again and again. Still, one must also strive to be a bit like the “unpopular” guys—like Socrates, torture-testing the crap out of one’s preconceived notions and assumptions; and like Bonhoeffer, speaking the truth, and living it out, amid total noise.

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Paul de Guzman
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