AT the University of Hawaii at Manoa, there used to be a building named after Stanley Porteus, a psychologist known for his cross-cultural research. That building has since been renamed Saunders Hall after protests were launched, pointing to the racist and sexist undertones of Porteus’ scholarly works.
The naming of buildings and organizations after dead people is part of the social process of lionization, which oftentimes is part of the effort of later generations to affirm and celebrate narratives of heroism and exemplary citizenship. This is also why we build monuments to honor them.
However, if unrestrained, it can also turn into idolatry.
During the Marcos years, the idolatry was taken to new heights when a monument, a Marcos bust, was built overlooking a highway named after him, at a time when Ferdinand Marcos was very much alive. The bust has since been demolished even as the name of the highway remains.
Hero worship is nothing new. Elevating people into demi-gods is part of society’s effort to provide logic for its cohesion. It is a part of nation-building.
In the Philippines, this is even extended to an idolization of beauty queens, film stars, boxers and overseas Filipino workers. We become a society in constant search for heroes that we end up edifying our celebrities. This edification, in some instances, has led to deep divisions, from the rivalries between the fans of Susan and Amalia, Nora and Vilma, and “JaDine” and “KathNiel,” to the sheer animosity between the Kapuso and the Kapamilya camps.
We are perhaps the only country where loyalty to television networks has spawned such animosity and competition, both online and real, that a transfer of a talent from one network to another becomes a big deal.
This tendency to turn public figures into demi-gods even while they are still very much alive has unleashed blind loyalty which has become a major impediment to healthy political discourse. Transparency and accountability take a hit whenever people cannot see beyond the lie and the mythology. Political careers then become no longer a matter of performance of public duties, but performance in the political theater, or in politics as a reality show. Thus, political idols are now seen as constructed images of perfection, flawless, free of faults. Any misconduct is easily glossed over, or denied, and any criticism triggers fierce defense, and the one who criticizes is targeted for demolition.
It is this political idolatry that silences and curtails freedom of expression, and unleashes a mob mentality to hush any attempt to point out that the emperor has no clothes.
Loyal political supporters are conditioned to blindly accept and celebrate popular political brands. They become totally dismissive of, if not hostile towards, allegations of corruption and misconduct.
The entry of social media has heightened this celebrity worship. There are now social media celebrities with huge followings. The metric that measures their popularity includes the number of their followers.
The word “follow” is such a problematic construct, for it implies a very passive, objectifying act. A “follower” is one who obeys.
Indeed, the power of social media personalities emanate from their ability to whip up, in real time, mass political activity. They have the power to command obedience, and the power to destroy dissent. Social media celebrities have become the new “idols.” Following them could easily turn into forms of worship. Criticizing them could be treated as new forms of heresy.
It is a fatal mistake to turn social media celebrities into demi-gods, because for all intents and purposes, these people have their own flaws and imperfections. Many of them thrive in the private space of their rooms, punching keys in their laptops or mobile phones, to launch their public discourses. They can easily create a social media personality that may not necessarily be authentic as to who they truly are. Their psychological frames of mind are not as transparent as their witty criticisms and articulations, whether in posts or in FB live appearances.
One sad outcome of social media idolatry is when hurtful words are said by people in defense of their social media idols whom they do not know personally. While it is easy to change names of buildings named after racists, or physically demolish monuments named after dictators, it is hard to repair friendships torn asunder by politics, when lies eventually are outed by later research and expose.
As one of those being followed in social media, I urge citizens to consider us as human. We are not monuments. We have our own flaws and follies. Do not believe everything that we say, even if you give us the opportunity to be heard.
In an age where simulations can easily be launched and consumed in the palm of your hands, the greatest danger is not in trolls in virtual time, or in coup attempts in real time. It is when you surrender your autonomy to people like me just because I have over 90k followers in Facebook.