Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Played

Culturally, we're predisposed towards powerful emotional images. Images direct our emotions, our decisions, even our entire philosophy. Case in point: "Girl, 11, loses hope, hangs herself."

What could be a more powerful and more emotional image than that? In the midst of economic plenty and conspicuous consumption, Marianet Amper lived in a shanty without water or electricity, her parents get by on P200 per week, and despite her best wishes, cannot afford the fare to go to school. Thus, she hung herself.

Except that, when you read the fine print, it looks like the immediate catalyst was the P100 she couldn't get from her father for a school project. Does this subtext alter your perceptions at all?

Change the circumstances somewhat. What if it was a middle class girl, instead. What if, after her father refused her P100 (or P1,000 or what have you), and she killed herself? Would we still get the headline: "Girl, 11, loses hope, hangs herself?"

In my own street corner, this is what I see: children who scour garbage cans for leftovers and scrap; young vagrant mothers tugging at your sleeve for coins; toothless old women who hold out their hands for alms. Doubtless, you will have your own very real images but they pass you by, invisible, as yet more urban annoyances. These are the ugly realities that we face every day.

So why does it take the suicide of a hitherto anonymous young girl in some faraway place, over what simply might have been an allowance not given, for us to realize that yes, Virginia, poverty is real and poverty is tragic?

Is it because it was on the front page of the broadsheet, placed strategically along the news of payola and economic growth? Is it because it fits in the romantic image of our middle class minds of what it means to be poor? Is it because that stark image manages to justify whatever it is we believe in?

There are many beliefs we need to justify to ourselves and to others.

Girl hangs herself in the middle of multi-million peso bribery deals -- as if such high-level corruption were not already evil enough in itself.

Girl is second to youngest in a brood of seven -- we need population control (never mind that her five older brothers and sisters were already married and living on their own.)

Suicide girl refused services in church -- the Catholic church is callous and medieval (never mind that the services did take place in a side chapel instead of the main altar.)

But let me ask: beyond the emotional imagery, did Marianet Amper's death prompt you to take concrete and institutional steps to address poverty in your community?

I ask this because, in light of recent events, I read someone tearfully say: "If I had given Marianet the P100, it would have saved her life." How gracious...and how useless.

Even if you were to give away your entire life savings to a thousand poor families, it wouldn't solve the problem of poverty in your community, much less the Philippines. Unless your contribution goes to the support of an honest and effective institutional infrastructure, it will all simply go to waste.

And there's the rub. Culturally, we're predisposed towards powerful emotional images. But not so towards the real and difficult work that goes to the organization necessary to fix our broken society. We want a magic wand to make it all go away. "Now na!" Otherwise, we're not really interested: "Ang hirap kasi, eh. Trabaho iyan ng gobyerno."

So instead of substantial change, in a few weeks' time, we will simply move on to the next stark and powerful emotional image, except...darker! bloodier! more spectacular! more tragic! more dramatic! more heart-wrenching! and most importantly, more entertaining!

Because when you get right down to it, all this tearful chest-beating has not really been about Marianet Amper or about poverty in the Philippines. It's been about us. It's always been about us. We've been played and we liked it. And then, our appetite for drama sated, we move on.

Just like the time we howled over the execution of Flor Contemplacion. We've moved on, and we still send maids to Singapore anyway.

Just like the time we pleaded for Sarah Balabagan. We've moved on, and Filipinos still land in Middle Eastern jails.

Just like the time we capitulated to terrorist demands in order to secure Angelo de la Cruz's release. We've moved on, and still Filipinos sneak into high-risk prohibited areas.

And poor Marianet Amper? Just another footnote in our pathetic history, going the way of Mang Pandoy and the Bangkang Papel kids, in death abused more than she was in life. By us.

God have mercy on us.