Citizens vs. Sotto: Speaking Truth to Power

Nicole Curato

Sotto meme

Plagiarism is “not a crime”,i but neither is it a “storm in a teacup”. ii At the heart of plagiarism are issues of integrity which undermine the foundations of democratic practice.

I teach qualitative research methods to undergraduate students of sociology in the University of the Philippines. One of the first things students learn in class is that research findings are only as good as the process of collecting and presenting data. Researchers must ensure that data, no matter how uncomfortable or divergent from our personal views, are presented fairly. This, I sympathetically told them, is not easy. Researching in the age of new media makes it challenging to keep up with the speed and volume of knowledge shared online. Writing research papers usually happens during an academic term’s hell week, making it even more tempting to sacrifice integrity for the sake of efficiency.

I reckon this was the same situation Senator Tito Sotto and his staff faced. The RH debate was going through a critical phase, and compelling arguments had to be made immediately. Authoritative research on contraceptives is numerous and has evolved through the years, making it impossible to comb through every single one of them. It is under these circumstances where research ethics plays an important role.

While the Philippine Senate is “not the academe where it is grave… not to attribute something to its source or author”,iii it is an institution built on public trust. Legislators and, in effect, their staff have a social contract to represent the public’s diverse views through the complex yet dignified process of deliberation. Like academic research, a bill or a speech is only as good as the process of crafting it.

An intellectually dishonest speech undermines the process of democratic deliberation. Senators engage in a systematic exchange of arguments based on the ethical belief that persuading their peers based on reason, compromise, and mutual respect is better than creating laws through coercion, manipulation, or deception. ivThis explains why a good number of senate staff exert so much thought and effort in ensuring that the bills they file are evidence-based and responsive to public needs. It is this rigorous process that legitimizes senators’ roles as lawmakers. By providing a reasoned account of their positions, senators treat the public not as subjects of paternalistic legislation but as citizens whom they owe an honest account of their actions.v

This is the principle that Senator Tito Sotto transgresses every time portions of his speech are discovered to be intellectually dishonest. He or his speechwriters presuppose that citizens are uncritical and manipulable recipients of information from supposedly honorable members of the Upper House. Lifting passages and distorting them to fit his position is not only intellectually sloppy, it is an affront to democratic practice. It violates the limits of civility by failing to accord respect to the public he is trying to convince. This makes Sotto no different from the architects of the Iraq War, whose public justification for the surge is based on a plagiarized dossier.

From a democratic standpoint, the outrage against Sotto’s plagiarism is indicative of an engaged citizenry, or netizenry, who are ready and committed to contest views that are unacceptable or based on inaccurate information. Sotto’s refusal to engage his critics, on the other hand, illustrates the senator’s lack of civic magnanimity and democratic ethos. If there is anything good that came out of this series of shameful incidents, it is the cultivation of the public’s habit of “speaking truth to power”,vi of serving as volunteer fact-checkers in the outbreak of lies and rhetoric on a future-defining issue. It was through a bottom-up form of crowdsourcing that the series of Sotto’s mistakes were discovered, as in the case of an anonymous reader that informed blogger Janice Formichella of the way in which Sotto’s speech twisted the content of her pro-choice post to put forward an anti-choice position or the Twitter user that spotted and broadcasted the literal translation of Kennedy’s speech.

The challenge, however, lies in sustaining this habit, for netizens to consistently confront senators, political personalities, journalists and pundits in the spirit of democratic deliberation, if not basic fairness. However, part of this challenge is for the public to also subject itself to the “ideals of democratic discourse it supposedly champions.” Name-calling, demonization and class ridicule prohibit dialogue as much as dishonesty.vii While references to Wanbol University and VST & Co. provide light-hearted moments in a heated controversy, we must remain cautious that these forms of oppositional discourse must create space for democratic engagement instead of barriers for dialogue with the beleaguered senator and the broader public. As political theorist Jason Scorza puts it, citizens must ensure that their contestations and disagreements today are conducted in a manner that allows them to disagree again tomorrow.viii

This brings me to the challenge put forward by my fellow Manila Review editors Leloy Claudio and Miguel Syjuco. While I personally prefer the debate to be a one-on-one between a woman (preferably a mother of ten who recently suffered from birth complications) and Senator Sotto, any form of systematic public debate on the bill is worth welcoming. It is through this mechanism where participants can address issues point by point and overcome the limitations of traditional and new media where sound bites are king. Instead of aiming to tear down the opposition, however, I envision this debate to be one that encourages dialogue, to seek clarification on complicated positions and generate understanding on shared values. Indeed, democracy does not have to be a blood sportix. Civic magnanimity and fairness are democratic values that must be upheld by both government officials and the engaged citizenry.

A group of concerned academics and bloggers have recently taken a step towards this direction. A formal ethics complaint has been filed against Sotto, with complainants essentially demanding for better conduct on the part of the Senator. This approach, hopefully, will be taken seriously by the Committee on Ethics, given that plagiarism, while not a crime, is an issue of fairness and honesty – values that are necessary not only for a democratic but civilised society.

footnotes

  1. Vicente Sotto III in Ayee Macaraig, “Sotto blasts critics, backs blogging bill,” Rappler, 29 August 2012, http://www.rappler.com/nation/11405-sotto-blasts-critics,-backs-blogging-bill

  2. Ferdinand Marcos Jr. in Ryan Chua, “Senators downplay new plagiarism charge,” ABS-CBN News, 6 September 2012. http://www.abs-cbnnews.com/nation/09/06/12/senators-downplay-new-plagiarism-charge

  3. Miriam Defensor-Santiago in Cathy C. Yasmuan, “Plagiarism common practice, OK in Senate, says Sotto’s aide,” The Philippine Daily Inquirer. 23 August 2012. http://newsinfo.inquirer.net/255890/plagiarism-common-practice-ok-in-senate-says-sottos-aide

  4. John S. Dryzek, Deliberative Democracy and Beyond (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000).

  5. Amy Gutmann and Dennis Thompson, Why Deliberative Democracy? (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2004).

  6. Edward Said, Representations of the Intellectual (London: Vintage Books, 1994)

  7. thank my friend Jonathan Ong for this idea.

  8. Jason Scorza, Strong liberalism: Habits of the Mind for Democratic Citizenship (Hanover, NH: University Press of New England/Tufts University Press, 2007).

  9. Bill Clinton, Speech to the 2012 Democratic National Convention, 5 September 2012