Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Facts, logic, and the problem with "good vs evil"

My niece had sore eyes last week and, like any five-year-old, kept scratching her eyes and touching everything and everyone around her to the chagrin of her elders. While we were admonishing her it hit me: the kid had no idea of the germ theory of disease. She was too young to know about bacteria and how physical contact transfers them. To her it was just us scolding her for doing things she usually did.

So I tried to explain and it helped, for a bit. She was still a kid after all.

At about the same time I was arguing online (as I was wont to do) against young’uns who were sharing Marcos memes and actually, truly believed, contrary to evidence or logic, that Ferdinand Marcos was the best president the country ever had, citing the list of stuff that supposedly wouldn’t have been built if not for him.

True story.

And it hit me as well: these kids were like my niece – unable to form valid opinions because they lacked the knowledge of someone who has read and analyzed facts and the perspective of someone who understands politics and governance. The kid doesn’t understand the concept of “hawa” in the first place, so how can we expect her to be conscious of where she puts her hands? Similarly, these kids seem to have only a vague notion of how government works, why corruption happens (and how), and how various forces, events, and decisions interact, resulting in what we have today.

Opinions are like a**#oles, everyone has them

There’s this mistaken notion that classifying something as “opinion” inoculates it from criticism. What most people don’t realize is that for an opinion to be valid it must be (1) based on facts and (2) reasoned properly. Facts are things we know to be true, and can be verified independently. And no, assertions are neither facts nor arguments. Saying it louder or more often doesn’t make it any less false.

“Boy Abunda is a terrible talk show host” is an opinion that, on the surface, can be assumed valid. But it begs the question “why?” If the opinion-holder’s response is “Boy Abunda is a terrible talk show host because he has dreadlocks” then the opinion is wrong for two reasons: (1) Tito Boy is bald and (2) one’s hairstyle is not the sole criterion for hosting ability. This isn’t to say that Boy Abunda is not terrible; it’s just that the statement, as argued, does not stand up to scrutiny.

In other words that opinion is wrong.
Wrong. So, so wrong.

Facts and logic

So when an infographic claims that “Marcos is the best president ever” then cites “facts” like “the dollar exchange rate was 1:2 during martial law” or that we were “second only to Japan” back then, it fails the basic fact check (1). The dollar exchange rate reached 1:20 (it dropped during the Marcos regime) and there is no credible source saying we were “second to Japan.” Just because someone on the internet says so doesn’t make it true.

That huge spike was the 97 Asian crisis.

More importantly (2), the dollar exchange rate and our ranking in some list of Asian countries isn’t enough to declare someone “best president ever,” regardless if he was the one behind it. That opinion is wonky at best.

And don’t get me started on that laundry list of infrastructure projects Marcos supposedly had built. While that may pass criteria (1) (although I haven’t seen anyone fact-check it thoroughly), the reasoning is spotty because it assumes that (a) none of these would’ve been built under another president, (b) these projects are actually necessary and were executed properly, and (c) these projects did not result in crushing debt and weren’t approved just to benefit Marcos’s cronies. It also glosses over the fact that Marcos was in power for 20 years – thrice longer than any modern president. Of course things will get done. But that misses the point.

No one is saying he was incompetent – the problem was he was ruthless and greedy.


But why do these memes persist?

Luis Teodoro attributes it to “lack of context,” an inability not only to reason correctly or check facts but also a failure to ask the correct questions. Like my niece who doesn’t understand why her sore eyes means her hands are off-limits too, these kids can’t fathom why, despite all the scandals and corruption, the post-Marcos presidents are still better than the dictatorship. In fact, the very na├»ve can’t help but wonder: if Marcos was really terrible, then why was there no traffic in Metro Manila during those times? Why were all those roads and buildings built? Why weren’t balikbayan boxes taxed in the early 80s?

If you’ve made that same argument (even in your head) and can’t reason yourself out of it, then please, read a lot more.

The youth today, despite (and most probably because of) the internet, are easily swayed not necessarily because they can’t think properly (although there are huge lapses in logic in a lot of pro-Marcos posts) but because they’ve been fed the wrong questions.

Hero, shmero

There are infographics and videos circulating online claiming that Ninoy was a shrewd politician who was out only for himself, the ultimate message being “he’s just as bad, maybe even worse” and that we were all manipulated so that his family would rise to power. Aquino, they say, was a “communist sympathizer” and was shot because all he did was talk – he’s no hero.

So now the average lower middle class 16 year old who gets his info online and whose parents and elders aren’t that knowledgeable either gets swayed by the idea that Aquinos = bad therefore Marcoses = not that bad / victims of bad PR. Add to that the fact that his personal life may not be all that great and he’s incensed by all the current political scandals and it’s not surprising that he can fall prey to false nostalgia. He has no idea how bad it was under martial law and some elder with a faulty memory (a taxi driver, it’s always a taxi driver) might even tell him “buti pa noon, walang trapik / mabilis ang construction / malinis ang kalsada” regardless what the conditions really were back then.

[Quick rationality check: heavy traffic is a function of car/population density. Of course there was less traffic in the past. And oh, boys and girls, Marcos created Metro Manila and it was originally managed by Imelda. How’s that for tracing who to blame?]

According to one of these posts, Ninoy Aquino should not be considered a hero – he was just some politician who didn’t have any charitable institutions, colluded with the communists, and coasted on rhetoric alone. But you can say the exact same thing about Jose Rizal (substitute revolutionaries for communists) or Martin Luther King. Heck, Rosa Parks was a hero and all she did was sit down. 

This is where the lack of context comes in. There’s a whale of a difference between the situation then and now. Today we place little value on rhetoric because everyone can talk. During martial law, the bravest thing you can do was talk. 

For a wonderful perspective on the political opposition during martial law, read this long-ish piece from MLQ3.

The problem with “good vs evil”

The easiest way to get everyone’s attention is to tell a story. And not just any kind of story – you need stories that resonate with the majority, hence the reliance on tried and tested tropes. One of the easiest stories to tell in politics is the clash between “good vs evil.” Just take a gander at all the political ads on TV and it’s a variation of malinis/mabuti vs kurakot/masama (Cayetano, Poe, Gatchalian), or painting someone as a savior (Villar, Romualdez, Binay).

It’s done this way because it works.

The problem is it oversimplifies things. Of course Binay helped people (that’s not the problem), of course Taguig improved (but what if the court rules that BGC is Makati’s). We somehow think of good people as saints in all aspects of their lives and evil people as complete sociopaths who are terrible in everything they do.

So in painting Aquino as a hero and Marcos as the devil, propagandists left a crack open for doubts to seep in. You could picture my hypothetical 16 year old’s brain working (light bulb moments everywhere): so Marcos did some good stuff while he was president – why are we vilifying him? Aquino acted all politician-y when he was a senator – why is he a hero?

The problem with good vs evil is that it’s true only in the broadest sense and the kids get confused by nuance.

Hank Scorpio was a really good boss. His henchmen have dental coverage.

Historical revisionism

This confusion primes the pump for historical revisionism. Instead of martial law being a generally terrible time for everyone except cronies and military officers, it’s now being painted as a golden era of discipline and prosperity. Instead of Ninoy being the symbol of the opposition, he’s being pictured as a noisy politician who helped the communists.

People believe this because (1) they don’t bother to check the facts (the communist insurgency grew under Marcos, because he gave moderates very little choice) and (2) their reasoning is spotty at best (in times of oppression, speaking out is the bravest thing to do, just ask Rizal).

This revisionism takes hold because people, young and old, had very little idea what happened before their time. Come to think of it, can we call it revisionism at all if nothing is actually being revised in their heads? This is the first time they’ve heard of these things and their minds are struggling to find a perspective. If all you knew about Ninoy was that he was a martyr without understanding why, then any propaganda countering that can get a foothold.

Most people have been taught the grade school version of history and never got past that.

So what do we do?
For my niece, we just kept chiding her whenever she’d scratch her eyes – that’s how you get a kid to do things – but we try to process the scolding after. The kid needs to know why her elders are acting the way they do. Hopefully, she grows up with a better understanding of why things are and she can make proper decisions (based on fact and reason) on her own.  

The same thing for the generation that doesn’t understand why we of a certain age throw fits whenever they praise Marcos and martial law online (especially when they use false info): we talk and teach and hope they get better when they grow up. ###

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