Building an audience

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By Arnold Alamon

Wrapped in Grey

Thursday, May 22, 2014


AFTER delivering a talk before Anthropology majors from UP Diliman who were in field school here in Cagayan de Oro just recently, a young student approached me.

It must be the topic of my short presentation on the political economy of the Mindanao roads and how the island is a showcase of national contradictions, which was the subject of one of my recent columns that caught her interest about what I do as a writer.

It was actually her sharp critique, shared humbly and timidly, that caused me more than a moment’s pause. I am paraphrasing her and adding more vitriol to reflect my agreement with her points. She asked, what is the point of writing a column in English in a local newspaper if my intention was to awaken the marginalized? She seemed genuinely baffled by what appeared to be for her was an exercise in futility considering that by and large my readers are probably part of the establishment. I could be preaching before the wrong congregation.

All of these are valid points of course. And every writer faces these dilemmas every time one puts ink on paper, or in this case, a set of pixels on a screen. Like a mantra going on and on at back of one’s mind as one strings ideas and words together for public consumption, the question for whom does one write and why hovers over any conscientious author while banging away on the keys.

I recognize that answering these also involve facing the question of how does one write. The language that one employs frame and manage the delivery of the message and often times, as McLuhan observed, the medium itself happens to be the message. So how relevant is an opinion column done in the language of the colonizer, and at times, heavy in academic social science discourse?

The student got it right, I would demure. It is not very relevant. Like her, I acknowledge that the sphere of influence of this space is very limited. After all, I am not a swashbuckling columnist important enough to receive bribes and death threats. Instead of attacking personalities, I endeavour instead to highlight the systemic ways that breed impunity and corruption, inequality and grief lapsing on occasion to indulge in personal human interest pieces.

The student’s observation should hurt but it does not. In the one year of labor in putting out a column twice a week, I have not changed the world nor come to the direct rescue of the down-trodden and oppressed. I have not cause the passage of an important legislation nor have I, singularly, ushered in the collapsed of a bankrupt political and economic system. Before I have accomplished such things, there is no room for an inflated ego, I now chuckle to myself.

So has this been a waste of space therefore? Not really and this is the gist of my reply to that smart student.

It is fortunate that writing columns is not the only thing that I do and I say this while extending my solidarity to those that do this for a living full-time. This is hard work and great responsibility I realize. It just so happened that my profession as a teacher complements the demands of writing where one provides the imperative and inspiration for the other. I write about what I teach and teach about what I write. It has been a helpful tool in organizing my ideas for classes and hopefully the occasional reader will also appreciate the nuggets of sociological thought they come across in this space.

And as a teacher, I recognize that the benefits of imparting critical education cannot be felt or seen overnight. My handicap is that I was schooled in the language of the colonizer and that will always remain a challenge. Which brings me to my more important point.

It is foolhardy to imagine that one could change the world by stringing together words and making sensible arguments. It is romantic to imagine the writer-hermit spinning morality tales that would touch the hearts of readers all over and our broken ways of living will mend. That I believe is like reaching for the moon, a kind of wanderlust that has inebriated countless writers about their perceived individual power with words as swords while standing atop their soapbox platforms.

I told the student that it may seem like I am in a lonely crusade as a writer without an audience. But I am not alone, and together with others, we are building an audience, I told her. I write alongside countless others who have decided to bear witness not just about the truth about their themselves but also about the suffering of others. I teach not as a solitary reformer out to change the world by myself but in league with an army of progressive mentors who struggle to change mindsets with every class lecture.

As a parting shot, I told the student to join an activist organization and perhaps she will understand better what I mean.

***

(Arnold P. Alamon is an Assistant Professor IV, Sociology Department, Mindanao State University-Iligan Institute of Technology.)

Published in the Sun.Star Cagayan de Oro newspaper on May 23, 2014.

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