A Culture of Impunity

Photo Credit: Beegee49 via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: Beegee49 via Compfight cc

They say that Duterte has created a “culture of impunity” with his statements for police and even civilians to go after and kill criminals. They blame him for the recent spate of cardboard killings regardless of whether he actually ordered the hits, or if they were really “extrajudicial killings” in the first place. It doesn’t matter, they say, because his words have enabled people to think that murder is justifiable. Those who are riding the bandwagon can do so because he created the environment for them to do so.

Well, maybe so. But remember that his “shoot them” or “kill them” statements are always prefaced with “if they resist arrest or fight back.” Now you may argue that these words are just for show but I can counter-argue that that is merely your opinion. I mean, the instruction cannot be any clearer than that. I have several friends who own guns but I don’t see any of them going trigger-happy or rushing to buy rolls of duct tape or reams of cardboard.

But let me share my perspective on this so-called culture of impunity. I will not argue that there is none. On the contrary, I will argue that it has long been there.

I lived in Metro Manila for around 15 years of my life. These are some of my experiences there:

***

My then-girlfriend-now-wife made a U-turn on a street. A policeman came out from behind a tree and motioned for her to pull over. He said, “You can’t make a U-turn there.”

My wife then argued, “But there’s no sign that says you can’t make a U-turn.”

“Well,” said the policeman, “there’s no sign that says you’re allowed to make one either.”

***

I was driving along Sta. Mesa near SM Centerpoint. At the intersection of V. Mapa, I took the middle lane and went straight ahead. A bunch of policemen were waiting at the other side and motioned for me to stop.

“Sir, you went straight on a mandatory left-turn lane,” they said.

Say what? I have yet to see a traffic rule book that says the center lane is a mandatory left-turn lane and that one has to take the rightmost lane in order to go straight. This was clearly another attempt to fleece motorists of their money.

***

At one time, I was going to fetch a friend from the airport. Since I arrived quite early, I parked at one of the sidestreets to wait for the plane to arrive. A few minutes later, a couple of airport policemen drove by and got down. One of them approached me and asked me for my license saying I was parked at a no-parking zone. I said, “There’s no sign or marking here that says ‘No Parking.’” Then the guy walks over to his older companion, who then approaches me. I make the same objection, and he says, “No parking nga dito. Gago lang hindi alam na hindi pwede mag-parking dito.” (Only stupid people don’t know that you can’t park here). I was incensed and asked for his name, but he refused to give it to me.

Later on, after fetching my friend from the airport, I was still fuming mad so I went to the airport police station to report the incident. I got to talk to the police chief and told him my story. He said, well, that’s really a no-parking zone and I said, never mind about that if it is, but your officer treated me with disrespect.

Then I noticed that the guy was there at the other desk, his back turned, typing on a computer. So I told the chief and he confronted the man who took one look at me and said, “Oh him, he tried to bribe my partner with a P500 bill.” His companion suddenly appeared from an adjoining cubicle and chimed in, drowning my protests to the chief. My companion whispered to me and said, “Let’s go. We won’t get anywhere here. It seems they’re all in this together.”

So I told the chief as I went away, “You know, you think about this. Do you think I would have the gall to come here and complain to you if I had knowingly tried to bribe them?”

He mumbled something about reassigning the old guy to another department but I really didn’t care anymore.

***

You talk about a culture of impunity? How about policemen who disregard traffic lights? Who make left-turns in front of a huge no-left-turn sign? Who ride motorcycles without helmets? Who collect bribes and protection money? How about rich kids and influential people who can get away with almost anything because of their connections? How about government officials thinking of one scheme or the other to victimize innocent people? Laglag-bala anyone?

It was only when I came back to live in Davao when I saw the huge disparity between here and there. Here, I am not afraid of being stopped by policemen for trumped-up charges. Here, policemen follow traffic rules and they wear helmets. Here, even the mayor’s son or daughter was ticketed for breaking the speed limit. Even the mayor was ticketed for not wearing a helmet.

No, I do not agree with Duterte’s every move and action, but I am willing to give him the benefit of the doubt because of the results I see in my city, where law and order are more obviously followed than elsewhere in the country.

Duterte did not bring a culture of impunity. It has been there all along, but it has always favored the rich and powerful so they have kept quiet about it. Now that their cages are being rattled, they are feeling fear, perhaps for the very first time.

Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

Email me at andy@freethinking.me. View previous articles at www.freethinking.me.

An Atheist Who Believes In God (Part 2)

Photo Credit: gabrielsaldana via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: gabrielsaldana via Compfight cc

Click here to read part 1.

Last week, I discussed how the word “atheist” can mean different things to different people. It could refer to degrees of unbelief like strong or weak atheists. It could refer to one’s activity — like an anti-theist who actively promotes atheism and puts down theism, and so on. The point here being that someone calling himself an atheist may mean one thing while other people who hear the pronouncement may have another idea in their heads of what an atheist is.

The same can be said for the word “God” which can also mean different things for different people.

Many of the ancients believed in a pantheon of Gods. There was a God or Goddess for different kinds of phenomena or domain. Hence we read of a God of Thunder, a Goddess of Beauty, a Goddess of War, or a God of Death.

For Christians, Muslims, Jews or almost any monotheistic religion, God is the Creator, the Supreme Being. He is perfect, eternal, omnipresent and omniscient. They also believe that God intervenes in worldly affairs. Prayers can move him to act in certain ways, and he acts as the final judge and arbiter of one’s fate when one dies.

For some such as pantheists, God is not separate at all from creation but lives in and through every being. Everyone and everything is a different surface in the infinitely-faceted gem called God.

For others, God is simply a state of being, an attainment of perfection or what buddhists call Nirvana. It is as if a drop returns to the ocean or a part once again becoming whole.

Now I consider myself an atheist if God were defined according to the first two descriptions I outlined above. While I do not say that I am sure there is no God (of that sort), I live my life as if there were none. I do not depend on prayers. I recognize that bad things happen even to good people, and that’s just how life is. You work hard and strive hard, and sometimes you get lucky and win the jackpot of life.

I don’t believe there’s a guy up there keeping a scorecard or a record of your deeds, then giving you a pass or fail mark at the end of your life. Yes, with respect to that, you can call me an atheist.

However, of the latter definitions of God, I cannot really say anything against them. Perhaps because they render the point of belief moot. If I am a facet of God, what would it matter if I believed in God? And if God were a mystery, what is the point of striving to understand? The more important thing would be to live a life worth living, because, well, what else can you do?

I believe that if there were a God, then he, she or it would be a mystery too deep to be fathomed by our minds. Any attempts to describe or define him fall short. It is like using a thermometer to measure what shade of red a wall is. It is like trying to describe to someone what a rose smells like, or trying to describe what a green mango tastes like. Yes, it’s sour, but is it sour like vinegar? Nope. Is it sour like a lemon? Not that too. We simply do not have the proper instrument nor words to adequately express the experience.

So saying that I am an atheist who believes in God is a way of nudging the reader into looking past the obvious paradox and thinking about what the words really mean, to fight the initial impulse to consider it nonsense (although many still will do that), and to do your own reflection.

Some eastern mystics describe the dynamic between God and creation as dancer and dance. When you look at the dance, you are also looking at the dancer. They are forever intertwined. When the dancer stops, there is no dance to speak of.

I don’t know why but this is an image of God that I find endearing.

 

Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

Email me at andy@freethinking.me. View previous articles at www.freethinking.me.

An Atheist Who Believes In God (Part 1)

Photo Credit: Wouter de Bruijn via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: Wouter de Bruijn via Compfight cc

A few weeks ago I mentioned Frank Schaeffer’s book,Why I Am An Atheist Who Believes In God, and quite a few people wondered how he could hold such contradictory notions in his head, or how I, who claim to be a lover of logic and reason, support such a statement.

I will not speak for Schaeffer though. If you want to know his ideas, I suggest you read his book yourself. This article will explore how and why I think it is possible for an atheist to believe in God.

It’s not easy being an atheist these days, just as it is not easy being a Christian. Two thousand years ago, one would just say “I’m a Christian” and that’s that. Although I suspect that there were already arguments back then whether you were a Christian in the tradition of Peter or Paul or Apollos (which Paul wrote strongly against in 1 Corinthians). These days, being a Christian is even more confusing as various sects and denominations lay their own claims to the name. Some are inclusivist (accept other sects as Christian) while others are exclusivist (only they have the right to the name and only theirs is the true way).

You have Roman Catholicism, Catholic Universalism, Greek Orthodox, Baptist, Methodist, Episcopalian, Evangelical, Pentecostal, Charismatic, Seventh Day Adventists, Latter Day Saints, and even homegrown groups such as the Aglipayan Church, El Shaddai, Iglesia ni Cristo and the Kingdom of Jesus Christ the Name Above Every Name, and many more.

In a similar fashion, many atheists find themselves trying to explain their atheism in one way or another. Richard Dawkins, in his book, The God Delusion, identifies seven stages in the spectrum of belief. Three stages pertain to theism (stages 1, 2, 3), one pertains to strict neutrality (stage 4), and the other three pertain to degrees of atheism (stages 5, 6, 7).

There is the weak atheist (stage 5) who “leans towards atheism.” This type of person says “I do not know whether God exists but I’m inclined to be skeptical. I am more likely to doubt than to believe.” (Incidentally, the word “weak” should not be taken as a criticism of character but only a descriptor of the degree of unbelief. The same goes for the word “strong” below.)

There is the de facto atheist (stage 6). This type of person thinks there is a very low probability that God exists although he cannot say for sure. But he lives his life on a very naturalistic level. This person says, “I cannot be certain whether or not God exists but it seems very improbable, and I live my life on the assumption that there is none.”

Then there is the strong atheist (stage 7) who says, “I KNOW for sure (100%) that there is no God and I reject any notions of god or gods.”

He further goes on to mention in recorded interviews that most atheists would only go as far as identifying themselves in stage 6 as there is no way they can really know for sure of any god’s non-existence, although as far as degrees go, he puts himself at 6.9 or very close to 7.

But Dawkins is not the only one who makes these distinctions. Christopher Silver and Thomas Coleman from the University of Tennessee conducted 59 in-depth interviews and derived 6 types of unbelievers: Intellectual; Activist; Seeker; Anti-Theist; Non-Theist; and the Ritual Atheist.

Luke Muehlhauser, who runs the website Common Sense Atheism, goes several steps further by defining 17 types of Atheism, with each type not necessarily exclusive to another. So one can fit into types 1, 5, 10 and 13, for example, which can result in thousands of combinations depending on what suits you.

So when one claims to be an “atheist,” what is he really saying? Even the simplest definition of the word is the subject of debate. Some would say that the prefix “a” simply means “a lack of” and since “theism” pertains to a belief in god or gods, then a-theism would mean a lack of belief in a god or gods. This would then mean that babies and little children and even dogs and cats are, by default, atheists.

Others however, take the word in a more active sense as the “rejection of belief in god or gods” or as the secondary definition of Merriam Webster puts it, “the doctrine that there is no god.”

This lays the groundwork of part 2, which I will discuss next week.

Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

Email me at andy@freethinking.me. View previous articles at www.freethinking.me.

Intent and Meaning (Part 3)

Photo Credit: caterpiya via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: caterpiya via Compfight cc

Click here for Part 1

Click here for Part 2

There wasn’t supposed to be a part 3 for this series, but one of my readers sent a strongly-worded reaction that meant either he was misreading what I wrote or that I didn’t do a good enough job of explaining it. In any case, I thought it would be a good idea to publish his response alongside my own reactions to his response in order to clarify my point, and so other readers who have similar reactions can also read what I have to say on the matter.

I will be publishing the reader’s comments plus my reaction in dialogue form, so you can immediately see my response to the current point being made.

Comment: These arguments are always a loaded mess. Through manipulation, all you are really saying is the only meaning that really counts is what someone wants to accept. A nugget of truth wrapped around a buttload of lies.

Me: The first sentence is a faulty generalization made to make people think that I am deliberately confusing them — as evidenced also by the last sentence in that paragraph accusing me of wrapping truth “around a buttload of lies.” I want to ask though, what arguments are you referring to when you say “these arguments?” I’m not aware of any other arguments currently in the discussion. Are they “always” a “loaded mess?” Always? That’s a pretty sweeping statement you’re making. It makes you seem knowledgeable though, as if you’ve gone through many similar arguments as mine and have come to conclude that ALL of them are a mess.

But that is an unestablished claim and I would like a list of what other sort of arguments you’re referring to that are ALWAYS a mess.

Comment: The world tolerate used to MEAN that you accepted the person and treated them like a human being. Through manipulation, it has now come to mean that the other person’s views are true, whether or not it really even could be.

Me: I’m not aware of using the word “tolerate” in my article, and not in the fashion that you say it has come to mean,  so I don’t know where this is coming from. If you are just making an independent point though, let me say that I disagree with your statement. To tolerate someone else’s views doesn’t mean that the other person’s views are true or that you affirm them to be true.

In fact, tolerance is not about truth at all but about acceptance of differences. It means that even though I don’t see eye-to-eye with someone else on the matter, I will grant his right to have his own opinion on the matter, and I will treat him with dignity and respect as a human being, however wrong I think his views may be.

Comment: A famous story this reminds me of goes like this:

“Hillary, an amateur genealogical researcher, discovered that her great-great uncle, Remus Rodham, a fellow lacking in character, was hanged for horse stealing and train robbery in Montana in 1889. The only known photograph of Remus shows him standing on the gallows.

On the back of the picture is this inscription: “Remus Rodham; horse thief, sent to Montana Territorial Prison 1885, escaped 1887, robbed the Montana Flyer six times. Caught by Pinkerton detectives, convicted and hanged in 1889.”

In Hillary’s Family History, her staff of professional image consultants cropped Remus’s picture, scanned it, enlarged the image, and edited it with image processing software so that all that’s seen is a head shot.

The accompanying biographical sketch is as follows:

“Remus Rodham was a famous cowboy in the Montana Territory. His business empire grew to include acquisition of valuable equestrian assets and intimate dealings with the Montana railroad. Beginning in 1883, he devoted several years of his life to service at a government facility, finally taking leave to resume his dealings with the railroad. In 1887, he was a key player in a vital investigation run by the renowned Pinkerton Detective Agency. In 1889, Remus passed away during an important civic function held in his honor when the platform upon which he was standing collapsed.”

In the end, a lot of words were used. The truth was the same, but the meaning was manipulated. Remus was still a horse thief.

Me: This shows that you missed the point of the entire article. Your story is a perfect example of an assertion I did NOT make. Determining the meaning of a text is not about manipulating it to get it to mean what you want. In fact, I wrote about this explicitly in part 1 when I said: “Is meaning then determined by the reader? Can the reader then take any piece of literature and then make it mean whatever she wants it to mean? The answer is of course, no, because if you could make anything mean whatever you want, then that would render any text irrelevant. Anyone’s opinion on what a text means could be just as valid as anyone else’s, no matter how absurd…And that in itself is absurd.”

My point was simply that if you want to say the text means this or the text means that, then you have to base your arguments on the text itself, and NOT on an appeal to what the author really meant (for reasons already mentioned in the previous articles).

In fact, I said in part 2 that if someone were to present a weak argument, then I would “dissect his arguments, showing from the text how his interpretation was off the mark, or why his arguments were weak…I would show where his analogies break down, and why [my] interpretation is more on target because paragraph so-and-so supports it, and so on.”

If you notice also, that is exactly what I am doing here. I am quoting from my own text to support my arguments against your comments. I do not simply say, “Well this is what I really meant.” I use the text that I have already “released” to make my case.

If you notice also, I made no effort to manipulate or change your comments. I copied and pasted them as is (except to correct a couple of obvious typos). So what I did and what Hillary’s image consultants did in your example are worlds apart.

So no, sir, I am not talking about manipulation nor am I condoning it. In my arguments and examples there is a presumption of regularity and honesty in one’s search for meaning.

I hope this sheds more light on the matter.

 

Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

Email me at andy@freethinking.me. View previous articles at www.freethinking.me.

Intent and Meaning (Part 2)

Photo Credit: sjrankin via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: sjrankin via Compfight cc

Click here to read part 1.

I began this article last week by asking the question, how do we determine the meaning of a text? Is it dependent on what the author really wants to say, in other words, his intention? Or is meaning up to the reader to interpret as she sees fit?

I then gave three reasons why authorial intent cannot be taken as the absolute source of meaning:

  1. The author could be lying when he explains the text;
  2. One’s intent does not always translate to clarity of execution. In other words, I may intend one thing but the execution, the actual writing, may be so faulty that it is difficult to determine what I really mean;
  3. The author could be dead and so be unable to explain his intent.

You can look at it this way, that once an author releases the text, it is akin to giving birth. The child takes on a life of its own apart from the parent, and sometimes it takes a completely different and unexpected personality.

My longtime reader, Charlie5, wrote to me about this saying,

“In college, I got put into advanced placement English, and they wanted me to read 500 pages a week of English literature I wasn’t interested in, and write papers, so I thought I’d make it interesting, and come up with a unique and rather psychotic interpretation that I was sure was unique and out of left field, and write that up as my paper, but when the teacher read it he said, “No, that’s not how you are supposed to interpret it, we told you in class how to interpret it, rewrite the paper and interpret it the way we taught you to.” This led to me dropping out of college, looking it as a dangerous ‘thought prison’… I learned a colorful phrase from 19th century Germany writings, ‘a flung stone is the devil’s’, meaning once you compose your speech and have your say, you have no more control over how it’s going to be interpreted, it’s just out there for anyone to use in any way they see fit, unless you’re in ‘thought prison.’”

He then makes an interesting analogy:

“Writing, I think, is like a cook making stew, (or a witch her broth), putting the elements into the pot according to a grand mystical scheme, confident it’ll be good but having no way of knowing exactly how it’ll taste to each eater.”

So is meaning then fully dependent on how the reader wants to interpret the text? Is it a purely subjective affair? Last week, I said no, but the more accurate answer is yes and no. When a reader approaches a text, she always does so in the context of her own experiences and outlook in life. That is the subjective part. But the objective part, which keeps the exercise of interpretation from turning into a free-for-all, is the text itself.

To use Charlie’s cooking example, if I throw in ingredients such as chili peppers, lemon and garlic into my stew, different eaters may vary in opinion as to how spicy it is or how sour it is. They may argue about what kind of pepper or how much lemon was used. However, if someone says the stew tastes very sweet, like pure honey, then you know either that person is lying or something is wrong with his taste buds. One can refute his claims by showing the ingredients list, or getting a chemical breakdown of the stew, and showing that none of the ingredients can produce a “sweet as honey” taste, and so on.

So there is range of interpretation (our teacher used the phrase “field of meaning”) that is acceptable and defensible and one can make arguments based on the text itself. If I were the teacher in Charlie’s story, I wouldn’t tell him “No, you don’t interpret it that way.”

I would instead try to dissect his arguments, showing from the text how his interpretation was off the mark, or why his arguments were weak (I am assuming, for the sake of this example, that they were weak as Charlie himself admitted he deliberately gave a far-out interpretation). I would show where his analogies break down, and why the more “conventional” interpretation is more on target because paragraph so-and-so supports it, and so on.

In other words, interpreting a text is akin to a lawyer defending her position in court. She needs to show evidence and produce witnesses to make her case. The stronger the evidence, the better her case looks. But what if the opposing side uses the same evidence and yet comes up with a different interpretation? Well that’s where the fun begins and each side has to try their best to win the jury over with their arguments. So that is where we see the delectable tension between subjectivity and objectivity — the field of meaning from which we can draw our conclusions or argue about them.

Works that are considered classics, such as those of Shakespeare, Byron, Machiavelli, Dante, and so on, are such because they have stood the test of time and continue to be meaningful even though the context and environment have changed drastically from the time they were written. They still provide useful insight into the human condition with people finding interpretations beyond what the authors intended, but still valid nonetheless.

That is a testament to the depth and richness of the text.

Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

Email me at andy@freethinking.me. View previous articles at www.freethinking.me.

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