I WAS away from Manila when news broke about the death in the Buencamino family, a sad, sad death of a young daughter.
Other than posting an old poem by Sharon Olds there was not much else to say. And where social media and opinion columns make us believe that these are spaces for articulating commiseration and sympathy, there are many instances in which this is not what we end up doing.
Social media fail
That Pinoy social media became a grand display of unkind judgments and conclusions was no surprise. This of course did not make it any less offensive.
Because we will never know what might have gone through this 15-year-old’s head, we can never know now the depth of what she was going through. Nothing that she left behind on her social media accounts will provide a complete picture of what it was like being her.
And certainly her art does not speak for her. To presume an artist’s state of mind based on the darkness or light, the sadness and the happiness, the colors she uses, the forms she is preoccupied with, is just wrong. It would be a misreading of the work, and certainly a misreading of the artist.
Our creativities do not reflect our state of being, and certainly it is not a one-to-one correspondence. This is true of anyone, and it is true of a 15-year-old whose body of work is still evolving. There is no point in insisting on specificity.
And had anyone spent the time to look at the rest of her works online it would be clear that people were curating her works to justify their judgment of her. That’s not just wrong. It’s also cruel.
Justifying the misguided
Two women columnists weighed in, and didn’t do any better. Rina Jimenez-David of the Philippine Daily Inquirer on July 10 and Elizabeth Angsioco of The Manila Standard Today on July 11 both spoke about irresponsibility, imploring the Filipino public and mainstream media to give the family the space to grieve.
And yet even Jimenez-David in “There are no words” justified the misguided reading of the young girl’s works by asserting that “these hint at something bothering her — but whether these were signs of “typical” teenage angst or a deeper, more desperate sense of meaninglessness, only her loved ones can tell, and this only in retrospect.”
And then she goes on to talk about how parents “dread the onset of the preteen and teen years of their children’s lives” in the process speaking really of the grieving parents, pegging them to a general assertion about parenthood, at the same time that the daughter now lost is pegged to the stereotype of the “sullen secretive creature.” She then creates the image of parents who “recoil in pain and resentment <…> giving the child plenty of space.”
She continued: “Many times, the situation is resolved, and one magical day, the sullen teen is taken over by a mature, open-minded young adult. Other times, the distance and silence of the teen years are never mended or bridged, leading to estrangement and continued resentment.”
It is beyond me how Jimenez-David could draw these conclusions about the situation that surrounded this young death. And one is hard put to defend the use of generalizations and stereotypes to talk about a child we did not know, and a family, the dynamic of which is beyond our understanding.
Paraphrasing the unkind
Angsiako’s essay “Social media irresponsibility” was just as … well … irresponsible.
Because while she was questioning how social media had pounced on this story, Angsiako herself drew her own conclusions about the parents’ only publicized decision. She asserts that since the parents “come from the media industry, I suppose they knew very well that there would be those who would capitalize on this distressing event to make a quick buck, and in social media, to increase traffic on blog sites. Thus, the request for authorities to no longer conduct an investigation because they are convinced that their daughter took her own life.”
That the writer actually reached this concluding statement via the premise that the parents “come from the media industry,” confuses me. I don’t know that it was fair to imagine that any parent would be thinking about social media and increased traffic on blog sites when they are faced with a tragedy.
Neither does it make sense that while Angsiako was scolding people about being “uncaring about the family’s feelings” given social media posts and re-posts, she herself did a run down of these websites and blog entries, certainly drawing traffic to those sites, and repeating – reposting really – what she says are hurtful presumptions and baseless conclusions.
How’s that for the pot calling the kettle black?
A forgetful public
It seems that in the face of this tragedy what social media and mainstream media engaged in is a form of forgetting.
We forget how to operate with compassion for the family left behind. We forget the need to be generous with the distance that this requires, the space and privacy that are no extraordinary demands. We forget that real life tragedy is not a soap opera on TV that lives off public reactions, a story that can do a plot twist to cater to public opinion.
In the process we forget to operate with kindness, at a time when it is all that this family needs. No judgments, no conclusions, no critiques. Because we cannot know what happened. Nor can anyone know what it’s like. And more than anything we forgot to operate with the quiet of kindness, the calm of sympathy.
There was a time when we all knew how to do that.