• Idolatry in the age of social media

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    ANTONIO P. CONTRERAS

    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.

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    9 Comments

    1. Next time just get to the point – that you have 90 thousand followers on Facebook. A long essay is not needed to stress the point you really want to brag about.

    2. We confuse and substitute idolatry for ideology, it is the flaw of our Filipino character that we don’t have core beliefs, that is why our nationalism is superficial.

    3. Rudi Miranda on

      AP Contreras maraming salamat! Wala kang patawad hanggang JaDine at KathNiel mula politica, ngunit enjoy at minsan kirot tumatama e. Bwahaha…

    4. Before there’s no loyalty to tv networks, until the lopezes returned (courtesy of cory) and polarized the viewing public. Before artists can works with any network and no network wars which is healthy for the artists and the viewers.

    5. The strength of any argument lie in its logic. Thus, no matter how clever the language is – if the reasoning fails – the point is meaningless or false.

      There is a difference between idolatry and honoring someone.

      To honor someone for exemplary deeds such as naming a building, a highway, a bridge or a school after a person is a practice that has been with us and most civil societies. It is not idolatry. Thus, we see such structures (or even prestigious awards such as the Ramon Magsaysay Award) dedicated to these individuals in recognition of what they have done for the community or the nation. They have earned the distinction.

      On the other hand, idolatry implies extreme admiration (or deification – imputing God-like characters) on an individual. You mentioned President Marcos as an example when he build a bust for himself only to be taken down after he fled. However, there is one severe symptom or expression of idolatry which you missed – one I call MBSS (Malaking Bilib sa Salita at Sarili) – when one deceives oneself, because of his (own perceived) stature that he/she has absolute “sovereign right” or “intellectual ownership” over issues and concepts – and which manifests itself by being less tolerant of different (or opposing) viewpoints.

      This kind of behavior is most alarming. It is not hero-worship but self-worship. A holier than thou attitude like Pharisees of olden times.

      It manifests in many “forms’, even disguised in academic accolades (and armed with archaic “cold war” philosophies) – appearing to be “principled”, “unyielding” and “steadfast” but subtly twists facts to justify ones point of view and in reality, behaving the exact opposite of these ideal character traits.

      It is compounded (and concealed) when there are conflict considerations – such as axe to grind, that play into the equation.

      Such a scenario does not bring out the best of breed positions. Clearly, it stifles innovation and positive thinking because a “me right, you wrong” psyche prevails. Such a mindset is counterproductive, defeatist and simply “creates” an imaginary, non-existent and tense situations. Something we must not accept and endure.

      To quote you,

      “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.”

      I welcome your appeal and I heed your call.

      • Amnata Pundit on

        Where is the list of clerico-fascist puppet Mrs. Robredo’s real achievements? Lets compare them to Bongbong’s. Logically, the one with a longer list of real achievements should be more deserving, right? The clerico-fascist puppet Mrs. Robredo opposes practically everything Duterte stands for, isn’t that ” me right, you wrong” also, which makes her Bilib sa Sarili, worthy of deification if her Jesuit handlers can have a say on the matter? I suggest you look up the difference between logic and sophistry because that is a subject you obviously did not take up in Industrial Engineering, but is a subject thoroughly mastered by Jesuits. Here is a hint: logic is, I have this list of real achievements, therefore I can be a good Vice-President. Sophistry is, my humble late husband wore slippers to work, therefore I will make a good Vice-President. Get it?

    6. “idolization of beauty queens, film stars”… speaks a lot of our national priorities: the superficial.