"Democracy is not about us being right, and others being wrong."
When I was younger and none the wiser, I used to simplistically draw an imaginary line separating two types of people in the political sphere: the allies and the antis. In my mind, the line that divided my black-and-white view where there are only winners and losers was definite and sacrosanct. In fact, for me, it was unthinkable, even reprehensible, to think of crossing that line.
For example, I was – and still am – a staunch believer in a consistent ethic of life. My personal and political stand on divorce, marriage, euthanasia, and abortion all reflect an underlying conviction that all life is sacred and marriage is an inviolable social institution. Not only was I strongly against the Reproductive Health Act, I actually believed it was impossible for me to work with people who believed otherwise – so much so that I declined an opportunity to be a youth advisor to an UN agency working on adolescent reproductive health. For me, it was a matter of personal integrity, strongly believing that I was right, and shamelessly concluding that those who disagreed with me were wrong.
Late last year, however, I started to work closely with non-government organizations whose advocacies on reproductive health issues ran counter to my own personal convictions. While it was difficult at first for me to put off my own biases, I was candid enough to respectfully ask them that we focus on issues that we agree on, and just leave to the side those on which we differed. Turned out, there were more issues that we were in agreement, much more than what we disagreed about, allowing me to discover a newfound respect for people that I would have once labelled as antis – those from the other side.
Recent events in our country have reinforced this imaginary wall that divide our people into allies and antis – and the rhetoric between them is divisive, sharp, and cruel. So we ended up with the Duterte supporters and the anti-Duterte Yellows, those who supported the recently passed Anti-Terrorism Act and those who rejected it as an affront to our freedoms and liberties – and just last week, those who are in favor of the renewal of ABS-CBN’s franchise and those who support denying another lease on the media giant’s broadcast rights.
Each side believes itself to be right, and the other to be absolutely wrong, recklessly simplifying politics to a question of picking sides. Common sense and reason are among the first casualties, resulting in both sides’ stubborn inability to compromise and to resist trying to discredit the other.
Take for example the passage of the Anti-Terrorism Act. Those who disagreed with the measure believe that is a threat to our rights and freedom, notwithstanding the fact that the law itself is a product of our country’s constitutional process. In fact, the lower House simply adopted a version of the bill that already had broad support from the Senate, including from members of the opposition.
Paradoxically, democracy as we ideally believe it to be is far from how imperfect it has become as a way to govern society – and believing that for one political side to succeed, the other side has to fail is actually like pushing the system to its breaking point. If we were to persistently divide society into allies and antis, leaving no forgiveness for moderation and compromise, democracy itself is in danger of collapse, and a darker intolerant extremism may take its place.
The truth about people is that if five persons will at times find it difficult to agree on what to order for dinner – it will be impossible to get a nation of one hundred million to agree on abortion, divorce, death penalty – and even on timely issues such as the anti-terrorism measure and the renewal of the ABS-CBN franchise.
This see-saw view of our society is exactly what has dragged our nation’s path to progress, when for every step forward, we had to push back one step, taking away collaboration and compromise out of the question, and replacing it with one complicated gridlock after gridlock. In the end, our democratic idealism begin to serve – no longer the people – but our own individual biases and ideological tendencies.
It would be best to be reminded that democracy is not about us being right, and others being wrong. In fact, a “government of laws, rather than of men” mean that our political institutions – such as Congress – are larger than those who for a time carry the burden, or enjoy the comforts of political office. That is why as citizens, it is our duty that no matter what, we must hold these institutions in trust, that instead of simply unfairly criticizing politicians for their political decisions, we must work to preserve and strengthen these institutions so that despite the imperfections of today’s leaders, the next generation will know how to choose better. Too often do we forget that our political institutions will outlive our politicians and that we cannot allow the worst of times to take away the better of us – and those who will come after us.
This brings us to the second point, that our political leaders, despite our lofty democratic ideals, are human beings who fail, make mistakes and at times fall short of their own better nature. Their mistakes, however, are theirs alone, and we should not confuse or impute their failings with the government office that they hold. There is no one among us who has not failed at something in his or her own life, or at one point tread the wrong path. While there are and there must be consequences for one’s political decisions, it is unfair to measure a politician’s worthiness by simply marking out their failings. More so, should we remember that we cannot appraise the usefulness of our political institutions with the performance of people in politics. Our institutions will survive, as elections will periodically afford us with the chance to make a wiser choice moving forward.
Reflecting on recent events on our country, it is good to be reminded that as a society, we are not doomed simply by the actions of one or even a few individuals – but by the incalcitrant refusal to believe in the capability of others to be good and to do better. Blindly asserting that others have failed, our politicians included, will not make us any stronger. Our political institutions are weakened not by the flawed individuals that inhabit them, but by our corrupted insistence to see things other than what suits us. Our democratic way of life is not served by insisting on a hegemony of ideas but in our ability to respect diversity of beliefs and opinions.
Needless to say, conflict and disagreements in politics are unavoidable. If we could simply wish them away, we wouldn’t need politics at all. Limiting our political society to where “I win and you lose” blind us from the real solutions that our differing perspectives require, and these even turn our anger and conflict into another problem. Consequently, instead of condemning political excesses, our collective rage will continue to fuel them and in the process, destroy us.
In the end, politics is no different from the mundane realities of human relationships. People can reasonably disagree and they often do. Oftentimes these disagreements do not necessarily have to end with a conclusion that one is right, and the other is wrong – but they can provide us with the opportunity to process our own preferences and perceptions, as a result, generating even better solutions to the problems ahead of us. Sadly, what we see on television, hear on radio and read online is that the message is lost through all attacks on the messenger. But when both sides begin to blame, criticize and ridicule the other, when they begin to lie and use half-truths and fake news to push their agenda, the end becomes nothing less than mutually assured destruction.
Mistakes are not corrected if assigning blame is the only action you take. It may sound naïve, but disagreements should be an opportunity for us to listen and to ask ourselves to be more honest not only about the wrong that needs correcting but more importantly about the right-left undone and the lessons that we may have learned. Having competing views of the same issues have helped shape democracy in the past, and the more respectful we are of divergent perspectives, as well as, differing decisions by our leaders, the closer we are towards becoming a more democratically inclusive society.