Editor’s note: The opinions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s.
Metro Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Wedged somewhere between the months of lockdown, I was enraged by a series of viral TikTok videos made by a family friend from Butuan. Now, I do not intend to use the term “family friend” loosely, but that is what we simply, matter-of-factly, are or used to be. We happen to be neighbors from the same hometown, have grown up in similar social circles, and more or less operate within the same suburban middle-class bubble.
In these viral TikTok videos that have since been parroted by known pro-government influencers, some of whom have been appointed into positions in government, this family friend shares her “hot takes” on matters of national concern. In one video, she proclaims that the police killing of Sonya and Frank Gregorio was an isolated case, effectively exonerating the PNP from any institutional accountability. Never mind the culture of injustice and impunity that has historically plagued the organization and emboldened “isolated” violations such as Nuezca’s, or the material entanglements that enabled him to carry a gun off-duty because of his being a cop, rendering that specific killing possible.
It is bad ideas like hers, armed with a kind of language and platform palatable to middle-class sensibilities, that authorizes dangerous collective thinking: the privatization of violence as a product of individual agency, the blind and misguided attention we put on anything other than institutions, etc. It is what has kept structural forces immune from any kind of critique. The very premise upon which their survival rests.
Naturally, these “hot takes” eventually lend themselves to some form of public scrutiny. Unkind words were said.
In a Facebook post about one of her many TikTok videos, another family friend — a relative of hers — appeals to friends to treat such opinions with respect. To have empathy and kindness for the person behind the rhetoric, as though those bad ideas are without consequence, as though they were well-intentioned. Just one more thing we can let slide by.
It was in that moment that something in me snapped: while I, as well as many other common friends, are able to extend infinite gleaming kindness to her, the same cannot be said for the slain Gregorios. Or the activists she openly red-tagged in her other videos. Or the many others who will eventually fall prey to the same systemic violence she chooses to propagate in her platform.
There is a narrative war being waged and we are caught in its crossfires. Even the very metaphors used to define the state’s perceived enemies — war on drugs, war on communism conveniently lumped together with the war on terror — we are conditioned to believe that the only way to address our so-called “enemies” is through punitive means.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, there have been many efforts, mostly from the liberal center, to counter this narrative through the power of unabashed, unwavering kindness. Virtues flouncing about in a neatly-tied ribbon, as though beauty alone can protect us from the material dangers of a world that is rarely kind nor beautiful.
During the past year, I have developed what I deem to be an increasingly necessary pessimism for the world: disbelief in art’s capacity to tangibly impact lives, a resentment for any language of kindness in addressing those whose political views I am blatantly opposed, and the acute realization that today’s institutional failures are all symptoms that point to our inevitable doom.
As expected, the manifestations of this newfound pessimism have been unrewarding. Scrolling through “kumbaya” content laced with liberal rhetoric, discourse upon discourse that rarely yield material action, and worst, to hear platitudes on free speech and healthy disagreements from peers who support things like undermining something as non-negotiable as human rights — all take up a kind of emotional labor that is difficult to recuperate from. Tomorrow, I shall wake up well-rested to a world that is still on fire. We can debate about it, write poems about it, but the fire will remain unextinguished.
I don’t need to empathize with someone whose middle-class struggles I already share, who already has access to the same education and resources I have access to, and who can defend themselves in whatever platform they choose to tell their stories in.
Rarely do we realize that the moment somebody, in the context of a heated political debate, exclaims “we can agree to disagree”, something is irredeemably lost. Not only lost in the sense that any healthy exchange can no longer flourish any further, but also lost in the way that you have just unnecessarily expended time and energy trying to engage people that were never interested in changing their minds to begin with.
Not only are these kind, pacifist gestures lazy and uncritical — they also posit something more dangerous, insidiously tucked under the guise of peace-making: that all opinions have equal weight. It is to insist that the opinions of, say, a climate-change denier and a climate justice activist have the same value. And it is not as though holding an opinion itself does not pose real-world consequences. Children have died because of parents who refuse to vaccinate them, activists have been killed and jailed over anti-left sentiments dominating the national imagination, and we have elected objectively terrible people into objectively important roles in policy-making.
I understand the need to approach certain subjects with caution so as not to alienate potential allies. But we must also critically examine how someone even qualifies as a potential ally in the first place. Do they simply dislike activism because of, say, how mobilizations in public spaces inconvenience their bourgeois lives? Or do they unequivocally hate it because of how collective struggle actively challenges the state-sponsored violence they genuinely support?
Better use of empathy
Well-meaning as it is, we have to be suspicious over any clamor for empathy and kindness in contexts such as those in response to the TikTok videos of my family friend. We have to examine when all it does is to preserve relationships, to assert some kind of performative moral utterance, and to serve nothing but matters of selfhood. And while none of these things are inherently evil, demanding kindness isn’t always the benevolent call for human solidarity that it presents itself to be.
I still believe in things like empathy, but like anything else in the world, there is only so much of it to go around. If anything, our empathy is best extended neither towards our enemies nor our allies, but towards people whose lives are disparate from our own and yet whose oppression, precarity, and grief we so readily subjectify in these very political debates.
I don’t need to empathize with someone whose middle-class struggles I already share, who already has access to the same education and resources I have access to, and who can defend themselves in whatever platform they choose to tell their stories in. My empathy has better use when expressed towards the Frank and Sonya Gregorios of the world, to the Ina Nasinos, the Randy Echanis, and many others — people whose lives and politics we discuss and scrutinize but who have no power to participate in those very same conversations.
In her 2004 Sydney Peace Prize lecture, novelist Arundhati Roy argues that “there's really no such thing as the 'voiceless'. There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.” These people are the specters that loom over our dinner table conversations, our spicy social media threads, our heated political debates. And while our kind words are immaterial to their immediate survival, we must constantly privilege their narratives in choosing when and where to expend kindness — all in the hopes that by some miracle, we manage to convince more people to rally for their cause.
I have lost many friends over differing opinions, and will lose many more as the world continues to blaze. When our paths cross again someday, in some distant future, I do not hope for newfound agreements over cheap beers and friendly banter, I only hope for fewer fires to extinguish in the world.