Saturday, August 27, 2011

Missing the point about James Soriano's essay!

I do not know James Soriano but those netizens who know him say he is an Ateneo de Manila senior. The essay he wrote for the Manila Bulletin is honest on his experience in the use of English and Filipino in Filipino society. The mass of Filipino society especially on the net will label him as conyo, but we cannot fault him for that.

The class stratification in Philippine society is sharply demarcated by language use as this blogger writes. This cuts across regional and cultural boundaries. Since in almost all political jurisdictions, those who are elected to public office belong to the elite, we can observe that signs in public buildings are in English or may be bilingual but the sign in a Philippine language is less conspicuous than the one in English. I have seen and stared at these while peeing  in countless toilets in the Visayas and Mindanao, where a warning (pahibalo) in not flushing the toilet will result in a fine. The warning is in large font English and the one in a Visayan language is in a small font. And forget the national language by law established, Filipino. It does not figure at all in a Visayan toilet. English as stated by Dr Mike Tan (an Inquirer columnist, and dean of social science science and philosophy in UP Diliman) in a  recent lecture to my Science Technology and Society undergrad class, is a medium for enforcing the law, and since the enforcement of the law and justice in this country is defined by class lines, the language becomes a barrier to keep the lower classes away from the upper classes. This is exactly what the American colonizers hadn't intended.

And does not the policy of a school with a tarpaulin banner stating "English speaking school" reinforce that class barrier? It is not just the language but the school fees that reinforce the class barrier and this is extremely true for many schools in the Philippines which include the Ateneo and the nationalist University of the Philippines. While the latter universities do not have an English only policy, the medium for most discourse is in English. We cannot fault James Soriano for pointing that out. And for rights to language use, we have to doff out hats to the French high court justices who ruled in the late 1980s that it is against human rights to force a person to speak a language not of his choice.

The Americans, who had no experience in administering an empire,  but forced to have  imperialist policies after defeating the Spanish in the late 19th century, embarked on a program of democratizing access to education in their new colonies at the start of the 20th. And with it came the English language. Some products of this era are alive like the celebrated writer and Magsaysay laureate Frankie Sionil Jose now in his late 80s who in his essays has always insisted that the English language liberated him. In the "nationalist" 1970s some people have criticized him for not writing in Filipino.  In no way did the English language made him less of a Filipino or even as an Ilocano. His novels, essays and short stories prove that is not the case. But Sionil-Jose does not belong to the conyo class that Soriano does. Sionil-Jose comes from the peasant-working class. And in his social realist novels and much later essays, the language  is used as a call for Revolution (not in the Marxist sense but the sense of the Katipunan of 1896), similar to what Dr Rizal used Castillian for.

Criticism against Sionil-Jose is somewhat similar to small minded criticisms against balladeer Jose Mari Chan for his refusal to sing in Tagalog/Filipino but in English. Chan said that he can't express his being Filipino in a language he wasn't used to. Chan offered to write and sing songs in Ilonggo instead. But is Chan less of a Filipino than let us say labour leader and national artist Amado Hernandez (who wrote in Tagalog)? Little do people know that Chan composed a hit song in Tagalog but had another balladeer sing it.

The English language thus for Sionil Jose must become a medium of liberation and not a way to cling to privilege. Of course the use of English does confer privileges but perhaps that should make one realize and work for reducing the inequities in Philippine society. English can be a medium for that  too. The use of a certain language  does not make a Filipino less than a Filipino. It is what he/she does for the nation and the national identity that counts. One of my professors at UP learned Filipino/Tagalog in middle age but he gave the Filipino nation an international reputation in the sciences. Is he less Filipino than a Filipino who just spouts nationalist rhetoric?

The blogger linked in this post shoots the painful barb. The conyos who were offended were themselves conyos too. It is like the pot calling the kettle black. If the conyos truly read Soriano's essay they should have seen the problem with James Soriano. Mr Soriano appears to be unwilling to trade his privileges and connections as being part of the elite, for a Filipino identity.

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