The activism of letters

To be writing is to be in a particular relation to the world; it is to be linguistically in process, not waiting for a wave but engaging it, instincts and reflexes on high alert, whereas simply fulfilling the outer demand to be putting words on a page toward some intended end is never more that waiting for that wave. The former redeems. The latter, merely dutiful, hopes for redemption.”  ~ Sven Birkerts


The university lecture. This was probably the second I’ve conducted this year. For the last 300 or so days, I have shunned the lecture to get back to writing. I’m happy about the decision. The effort saw me finish two raw drafts of non-fiction manuscripts of more than 60,000 words each, and half a collection of fictional stories.

Now, for the more grueling task of rewriting the manuscripts.

I love engaging the young. Test their skills. Goad their thoughts. Stir them to think for themselves. This is easier said than done. Most kids ‘round the age of 14 to 20 are aware of their naïveté. Their inexperience bedraggles them. They’re too young for dark realities yet too old for fairy tales. Neither here nor there, yet hankering, craving for what is out there.

Evermore aware of this conundrum, I recently said yes to a lecture at the 9th University-wide Laguna State Polytechnic University Press Conference in Calamba. The course ran for three days and involved four university papers and their staff. I brought my daughter Rei along to make sure I don’t leave anything behind.

I kicked off my lecture on Editorial and Opinion Writing in the middle of the three-day affair. I’ve conducted this lecture perhaps a thousand times. But each time I stand facing the kids, I’m always awed at the enthusiasm in their eyes.

Truth to tell, this enthusiasm scares me. It reminds me, as writer and lecturer, of my responsibility, this terrible obligation to choose my words well. It’s quite easy to let the ego run amuck, to speak off the cuff, draw attention to one’s self.

To speak to young impressionable minds is no different from walking the tightrope. To continue the spectacle of learning, one must stay alive for the whole duration of the act. To fall is not an option.

As Sven Birkerts says it, like mediocre writing, to be merely dutiful is out of the question. If a writer must create fantastically, then a writer must also lecture fantastically, creatively. To engage the wave and not wait for it to arrive. There are simply no excuses.

I try my utmost best to make sure no two lectures are perfectly alike. I squeeze a handful more details here and anecdotes there, with the mind to stir or provoke the young men and women to breach the stale social and political propaganda they hear and read about each day.

No more is this more important than in the age of the internet and social media. We are in the era of the anonymous commentator, the shadowy figure of the so-called “troll”.

This is the impostor in pixeled clothing. The snarls and howls behind the internet’s dark and dingy closet. They’re the horror story to end all horror stories all because they are real. All because they would do anything, even murder their mothers, for a wad of cash.

I heard myself saying to the kids that crime is captivating and evil intelligent. They never rest. They have every reason to soldier on each day: that is, to rob us blind of knowledge, which is their true wealth. Their strategy is to lure children into a den of lies, this lair of stupidity and illogic, into the fascinating and charismatic world of beasts and monstrosities.

The tactic is simple: keep us from being aware that we are in a war for our very sanity. To accept the lie without question as it is easier and more relaxing than digging for the truth.

“It’s ironic,” I said, “that in the age of information, where a multitude of data is right under your fingers, you would dispense with its use. Where I came from, we searched, we read, we traveled. We spent the meager resources we possessed, consumed time—days, if not mere hours—to arrive at the facts. And even then, we had to test these facts if they can stand the yardstick of trustworthy evidence. Journalists worth their salt back then didn’t only burn the midnight oil, we set our surroundings on fire to see which information can stand the heat. Life was our Google. Testing everything was second skin.”

With these words, I was attempting to show these children the significance of knowing more than your average Juan and Maria.

“Real journalism is a dangerous profession,” I continued. “Not only because dictators think it proper to kill journalists, but because the profession itself puts our very sanity at the risk of being skewed.”

Let me put it this way, I said further. “Growing up we have been taught certain things which we had accepted without question. When the principles of journalism are applied against these accepted ‘realities,’ such may not be able to stand the scrutiny. In the course of a 36-year career in the newsroom and the field, I had to unlearn pretty much 99% of what I was previously taught as a child. The people we once thought of as noble and characteristically flawless may not be noble, but criminal. This or that particular event in history may not be as accurate as we were first taught. Imagine the unlearning I had to go through. It was in journalism where I woke to a world that was nowhere near what I thought it was. It was a very painful experience.”

“Is this the reason why you consider yourself an activist, sir?” A question was hurled from the audience. “Are you telling us it’s okay to participate in rallies and radical activities at that point where we are made aware of these anomalies in society?”

I said, “I have only the highest regard and respect for our political activists for their courage in the face of real threats to their lives. However, I don’t think I fit the mold. I’m not brave enough, I guess, to join the ranks of those whose daring cannot be equaled just like that. My personal choice for activism, if it could rightfully be called activism, is the activism of letters. I’m a writer, foremost. I deal with ideas. This is where I believe I can best serve my countrymen. I believe that for any battle to be won, we must begin in the people’s hearts and minds: the arena of ideas. Not to preach to the choir, not to tell activists what they already know. But to the general public who has yet to open their eyes to the stark realities in our midst. Call me the forger of weapons against lies. As a writer, that’s my activism, my particular relation to the world.”

Across the threadbare string of history and ideologies is where the writer conducts his or her solitary journey. As such the writer’s radicalization is inevitable. A writer’s aching for the truth leaves the author with little choice but to confront the wave. The risks we face stand as our own redemption. G





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