[ Note : If it sounds like I’m goofing off, it’s only partly true. I wanted to note the similarity between the Philippines and New Zealand as regards the almost painful emphasis on political correctness and the (unsurprisingly) onion-skinned response every time something politically incorrect is said about their respective cultures, and I also wanted to tell you about my news program viewing habits here. But because of a recent event, it might just be as well if I did it in one sitting. Thanks for reading and apologies in advance for the longish rant-and-rave ! ]
I taught a journalism class at Duke (University) for 3 years. The first question I asked on the first day of the semester was always the same : What is objective journalism? After the students gave their answers I’d tell them they were all wrong; there’s no such thing. None of us is objective. We all have biases that we grew up with or that develop through the years. The key is understanding that you’re biased and trying as hard as you can to put those biases aside and be fair. – John Feinstein in One on One.
IT’S NOT that hard to understand. If I take pains to be politically correct and sensitive to the cultural diversity that exists between nations and states (and even within a particular society), common sense dictates that I expect the same courtesy to be granted me, especially when I host visitors from other countries and places. Sounds good in theory right? In practice however, that’s not always the case, and it’s not always a clear-cut case of doing as the Romans do.
Danish minister of parliament Marie Krarup criticized as “uncivilized” and “grotesque” a traditional welcome ritual performed by Maori, the indigenous people of New Zealand, on a parliamentary defense committee visit last week. To be perfectly blunt about it, Krarup said she was “shocked to be welcomed by a half-naked man in grass skirt, shouting and screaming in Maori.” She added several other unflattering details, glossing over the fact that such a dance ritual, called a powhiri, has been a traditional welcome ceremony used in New Zealand for centuries honoring visitors from all over the world.
Whether or not you appreciate the aesthetics of the dance is ultimately beside the point. As many radio commentators have presumed, the Danish official must have been prepped and briefed by her handlers about NZ customs and would at least have basic awareness on how New Zealand fetes and welcomes its honored visitors.
As mentioned, because the majority of NZ society takes pains to observe political correctness, an entire spectrum of Kiwis (and Maoris, of course) have expressed dismay and disdain for Krarup’s comments, ranging from measured criticism to wholesale condemnation.
But it’s not that cut-and-dried, as some people have expressed support for Krarup’s sentiments. Compared to other cultures, Maoris may admittedly appear a bit aggressive and for lack of a better term, in-your-face that it may put off some people. But it doesn’t detract from the rich culture and history of said people, who have rightly shown their displeasure, particularly as it concerns a guest of NZ who should have at least shown a little more tact.
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Taking the devil’s advocate view, doth the media in my host country protest too much? To appear too onion-skinned and sensitive to criticism of native culture, especially from overseas, is a common trait of columnists and opinion makers, often in support of other agenda and interests. A desire to curry favor with the political leadership, increase readership/viewership, or protect itself from appearing to promote specific interest groups are the usual suspects, but in my humble view, most New Zealand TV news programs are often vanilla-safe, fence-sitting or neutral to the point of being unhelpful on what an issue means to ordinary people. I realize this is an extreme judgment, but one thing for sure : you’ll never hear an honest opinion from the TV newsreaders here except by way of occasional funny remarks or tongue-in-cheek comments.
[Content from radio or print media is another matter totally, but we can discuss that some other time. ]
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Back home, I notice that anything highlighting our imperfect Pinoy society is fair game for media, as long as it isn’t coming from foreign personalities or foreign media. If any utterance or reportage (print, electronic or video) comes from abroad, it then acquires a “meddler” or “foreign devil” status that instantly deserves universal scourging, sometimes disproportionate to the original comment.
One example is the prevalence of Asian dating sites, specifically our kabayan Pinays making themselves relatively more accessible to prospective husbands from the First World. Everybody back home in the Philippines knows about this; it’s not only a fact of supply-and-demand relationships, women from other cultures also promote themselves as desirable partners to men in return for favorable migration and economic outcomes. Men, wherever they come from, provide stability and security = Women who offer love, affection and the comforts of life. Pinays just seem to do a better marketing job than others.
But just imagine a non-Pinoy making this observation in whatever medium and you can rest assure that almost immediately will surface (1) a thousand and one aspersions on this person’s right to make judgments (as if anyone needed credentials to make an opinion) (2) numerous conjectures as to the motives of this person, as if you needed a reason to point out the good or the bad in anything and (3) counter-comments and opposing judgments that ironically will only call more attention to the original criticism that otherwise wouldn’t have been noticed that much.
Just one more example of how overkill becomes counterproductive when it comes to our paranoia over other people criticizing us. Few may remember Homeland star Claire Danes in the movie Brokedown Palace above, but after its production, Danes had some colorful things to say about Manila. Quoting Wikipedia :
In 1998, just after the filming of Brokedown Palace in Manila, Danes was quoted in Vogue magazine as saying that Manila was a “ghastly and weird city”. She further remarked in Premiere magazine that the city “smelled of cockroaches, with rats all over and that there is no sewage system and the people do not have anything—no arms, no legs, no eyes”. Kim Atienza, son of then–Mayor of Manila, Lito Atienza, responded to the comments by saying that, “those are irresponsible, bigoted and sweeping statements that we cannot accept”. Her films were subsequently banned from being screened in the Philippines. Joseph Estrada, then President of the Philippines, condemned her publicly , and she was declared persona non grata.
It may have been somewhat over-the-top, but what did Danes say about our beloved Manila that wasn’t true about any other Third World city? The comment about our lack of extremities and eyes should’ve been taken in context, considering that she shot some scenes in our famous National Center for Mental Health in Mandaluyong City. Comments on her comments made by high officials only gave them more mileage and legitimacy, which I’m guessing wasn’t the intent of those officials.
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On the other hand, there is only one case where you can raise a hoot when your culture is offended and get almost instant results : if you’re the number one consumer market in the world. Everyone who cares knows that China (1) trades with and acknowledges Taiwan, but officially refuses to accept the latter’s existence and (2) executes more criminals than the rest of the world combined. In so many words, (1) and (2) are official government policy.
But any official mouthpiece of any nation enjoying diplomatic relations with China who tries making a comment about those things on any media platform (I hope blogs don’t count) risks reaping the whirlwind, or causing a shock-and-awe response from the combine of sanctions and propaganda from the People’s Republic of China with massive ripple effects all around.
The Chinese community is so established in NZ that there are two TV channels dedicated to Chinese content. One station I think airs predominantly pro-Mainland programs, while the other station allows pro-Taiwan content. (I can watch both because they’re free; no cable needed; and I learned passable Mandarin in high school, although I need a lot of practice to speak and understand it well.) Both channels operate in the so-called free market of ideas, but steer clear of any criticism of Chinese government and culture. It would be therefore be hard to imagine either TV station airing any local (much less foreign) entity saying anything negative about China. The closest thing it resembles to me is the late years of Philippine martial law, where it was still unsafe to say anything about government but you constantly tried to test the limits of criticizing authority without getting in trouble.
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I tried, but couldn’t find an accurate translation for the Filipino adjective pikon; the closest was irritable or sore loser. None suits my purposes right now, because pikon may also mean onion-skinned or sensitive to teasing or criticism. I say this because besides the singular exception above, most countries, New Zealand and the Philippines definitely included, should whenever they hear foreign criticism of their respective cultures should remember the common-sense advice : ang pikon laging talo.