SOCIAL media conceals, but it also unmasks. It divides as effectively as it connects. That’s a reminder for Sen. Sherwin Gatchalian (@stgatchalian), who sparked plenty of virtual fireworks during an otherwise subdued New Year’s Eve.
Three days later, the senator said he saw no need to apologize for calling a few people names during a Twitter exchange. He asked ABS-CBN News Channel anchor Karen Davila why he should express regret when the people he insulted were “paid individuals, robots that are designed to destroy you and to bring out the worst in you.”
Here’s how the public display of disaffection began. Rappler CEO Maria Ressa posted a link to a story that quoted some Liberal Party officials as saying that 2018 “may be the fight for the nation’s soul.” Gatchalian responded: “The nation already lost its soul in the last six years.” That’s his opinion, and there’s nothing wrong with how he expressed it.
But then Twitter user Nestor D. (@nad0227) posted images showing a few of Gatchalian’s tweets from 2010 to 2013, in which he praised the former administration for building “the fundamentals of good governance” and for an anti-corruption effort that has brought the country “needed international exposure.” Another Twitter user, Sonny Candazo (@certifiedsonny), called Gatchalian and his colleague Sonny Angara “trapo” (traditional politicians).
At that point, the first-term senator had several options. He could have ignored the taunting or pointed out that there was nothing wrong with changing one’s mind, especially in the light of new information. Instead, Gatchalian responded by calling some of his fellow citizens “gago” (crazy) and “ulol” (deranged). Briefly, the senator slipped from being the kind of public figure who tweets thought-provoking questions about controversies brought to the Senate’s door, to one who cannot bear to face unflattering facts.
In the ANC interview, he said that like all human beings, senators reach a breaking point, too. And that “bashers will always bring out the worst in a person no matter what good the person has given in the past.” This is a battle-tested politician, a former two-term congressman and a three-term city mayor, who has somehow forgotten that you cannot control what others say about you, but you can control your response.
He isn’t the first public official to have made such a blunder on social media. Last May, after President Rodrigo Duterte declared martial law in Mindanao, Gatchalian’s colleagues JV Ejercito and Sonny Angara belittled those who were merely commenting on the declaration. Ejercito observed (sarcastically, it seemed) the increasing number of “constitutionalists and security and defense experts,” and Angara chimed in: “A nation of armchair experts.”
“Let your character be superior to the requirements of the job,” the Jesuit philosopher Baltasar Gracian advised. “Here is where one needs a lofty spirit and well-grounded confidence in oneself.” Gatchalian will probably survive this faux pas. Most of the nearly 15 million persons who voted for him in 2016 or the 27,000 followers he has on Twitter will likely remember his track record more than they will his recent outburst.
Still, it’s a pity that someone who describes himself as a “public servant of the Filipino people” can miss an opportunity to show how patient he can be with the people; how faithfully he can embody “the highest degree of excellence, professionalism, intelligence, and skill” that are supposed to be the norms for our public officials.
Public figures perform on social media. That’s to be expected. It’s when the mask slips, when the personality behind the performance breaks through, that social media helps us remember some useful truths. We choose our leaders, but that doesn’t always mean we, too, will win.
(On Twitter: @isoldeamante)