Friday, August 24, 2007


For the past couple of weeks, the Malu Fernandez issue has made headlines in the local blogosphere. What happened was that Fernandez, a travel and lifestyle writer, wrote up a summary of her recent travels to Boracay, Greece and Dubai in People Asia magazine. The article, however, turned out to contain some... interesting... statements about Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs), which caused an uproar in the local blogging community.

It's difficult for me to summarize the entire situation right now, so I'll refer you to Anton de Leon for the whole morbid timeline. Anton's site also does us the benefit of providing scans of Fernandez's published article.

"Seething With Anger": The offending passages

"Let's Grab Her and Bang Her Head": Blogger reaction comes to light

"Malu Fernandez on Everyone's Mind": High-profile reactions

"Malu Fernandez, Let Me Show You How Many...": The initiative

"Malu Fernandez Finally Resigns": Surrender and apology

While part of me is glad that everything reached a fitting conclusion, part of me remains appalled at the developments.

I engaged in a little blogging activism back in 2005, when an incredibly offensive IT "beauty contest" started making the rounds of the business community. After the initial shock and reaction, I was surprised to learn that the organizers were willing to sit down and discuss the offending circumstances with us. I actually went to their conference, sat among other bloggers to debate both sides of the issue, and came away thankful for the opportunity we had all been given. I liked to think that the organizers knew exactly what they had done wrong, and that they learned a valuable lesson from the experience.

Two weeks later, the organizers canceled the contest completely. It was not because they were convinced by sound logical arguments, though. It was because they began receiving grave threats from any number of anonymous sources. Someone went as far as to say that he was going to throw acid on the contestants.

I read their official press statement and couldn't believe the words that were right in front of me. I had pressed for civilized discussion, after all. I had tried to show them exactly why they were doing this wrong, and I had tried to drill the lesson into their heads: It wasn't enough for them to know what audience reaction was -- it was important for them to know why their terms were offensive, and to prevent themselves from doing anything like that again.

Now they learned nothing. Now they only knew that they couldn't hold such a contest because people would hurt them for it.

This is intimidation, plain and simple. This is not a "blogstorm", or a "cyber-counterculture movement", or whatever crap you choose to call it.

This is mob rule.

Read Malu Fernandez's apology again. Here -- I'll reproduce it for you from Anton's site if you don't remember where to find it:

"I am humbled by the vehement and heated response provoked by my article entitled 'From Boracay to Greece!' which came out in the June 2007 issue of People Asia. To say that this article was not meant to malign, hurt or express prejudice against the OFWs now sounds hollow after reading through all the blogs from Filipinos all over the world. I am deeply apologetic for my insensitivity and the offensive manner in which this article was written, I hear you all and I am properly rebuked. It was truly not my intention to malign hurt or express prejudice against OFWs.

As the recent recipient and target of death threats, hate blogs, and deeply personal insults, I now truly understand the insidiousness of discrimination and prejudice disguised as humor. Our society is bound together by human chains of kindness and decency. I have failed to observe this and I am now reaping the consequences of my actions. It is my fervent hope that the lessons that Ive learned are not lost on all those who through anonymous blogs, engaged in bigotry, discrimination, and hatred (against overweight individuals , for example).

I take full responsibility for my actions and my friends and family have nothing to do with this. To date I have submitted my resignation letters to both the Manila Standard and People Asia, on that note may this matter be laid to rest. "

Did Malu Fernandez learn anything from the experience? Maybe. For all we know, she'll never write another statement of "acerbic wit" again.

What disturbs me is that she learned it from looking at us.

Malu Fernandez never got a rational discussion of why her article was wrong. We never sat down and talked with her. Instead, we pelted her with whatever scraps of mud and excrement we could find. We called her terrible names and made horrible parodies of her work. We jeered, and grinned, and dared her from our own little recesses of anonymity.

Malu Fernandez didn't apologize because we taught her to become a more sensitive person. Malu Fernandez apologized because she saw a disturbing reflection of herself in our words and actions. Malu Fernandez apologized because she did not want to sink to our level.

I don't care if you're merely comfortable with the results. Contrary to what you might think, results are not everything.

We intimidated her with insults, with threats, and with violence when we could have invoked a perfectly rational response. Maybe we were just angry. Maybe we were working under duress. Maybe we just became completely hostile at the mere thought of her words.

Whatever the case, Malu Fernandez saw exactly what we were: a mob that was intimidating her into submission. Maybe she just wanted no part of our epithet-spewing mess. Or maybe she only apologized because we had threatened to do terrible things to her family.

We may be happy with what happened, ladies and gentlemen. But I've also seen how we were able to make this come about. I've seen the threats, and the humiliation, and the rows upon rows of horrible little words.

I now ask how high the cost was, and what kind of people we've become. I don't like any of the answers.

Tell me that this was not worth it.




banzai cat said...

I do think that everyone was at fault in the matter: Malu Fernandez for writing the article and being insensitive to the consequences to it; and some parts of the blogging world who reacted quite badly about it (well, acted more like anger-roused shit-throwing chimpanzees).*

But to be frank, I do think you're a bit too forgiving of Malu Fernandez. After all, what she did was W-R-O-N-G and the decent thing she should have done was to apologize. But like you said, she didn't apologize because she had wronged the OFWs-- she apologized because she was FORCED to.

So where is the sincerity of the apology? Moreover, where is her realization that she had done wrong to begin with?

I have no sympathy for her but then again, I have no sympathy for people who think that the art of being witty means putting down other people for the sake of a few laughs. Moreover, I definitely have no sympathy for someone who has no consideration for other people.

*which is to say, I do agree the blogging world acted badly

Dominique said...

My take ->

Sean said...

Banzai Cat: Don't get me wrong: I loathe Malu Fernandez for writing that original, defamatory, anti-OFW piece. I disliked her even more when she wrote a rebuttal that actually attempted to defend her incredible brand of humor. In my eyes, she wrote something of substandard quality and ethics, and then actually had the gall to defend herself. To say that I am not about to forgive her would be an understatement.

But I recognize that people like Malu Fernandez will always live among us. I recognize that people like Malu Fernandez still have the right to say what they want. I recognize that they still have the right to write what they want, no matter how much it may inflame us.

If Fernandez shows no sincerity in her apology -- no indication that she has internalized her lessons at all -- then I blame the knee-jerk reaction of the blogging community. We demonstrated nothing but our capacity for irrational hatred to her. It got us the result that we wanted in the end, but not once did it ever try to redeem her. She did not apologize because she felt sorry for what she had written -- as you said, she apologized because we forced her to. She learned only from the products of our hatred, and little else.

Dominique: I've seen a lot of comparisons to the Don Imus case floating around, but I think your first analogy is far better: Instead of helping to rehabilitate crooks, we instead decide to beat them up, and then plant a few more kicks once they're down.

Was the issue worth complaining about? Yes. Was her demeanor worth advocating a boycott of the paper? Yes. Was everything worth pulling her hair, calling her names, and demanding her execution? No.

If this is how most of the Philippine blogging community reacts whenever a controversial issue comes our way, then we're doing something wrong. We're doing something terribly wrong.

banzai cat said...

Crap. The internet ate my lengthy response.

Good to know that we're on the same page. Though I still think you're more accepting of the inescapability of the stupidity of people. Me, I have occasional road rages so what do I know. ;-)

Likewise, I do think you're giving the blogging community too much credit. If Malu Fernandez has no sincerity in her apology, then it's because she had no intention to apologize. You know people like her: they're the type who think they cannot do anything wrong. Why apologize then?

On the other hand, am not surprised about the local blogging community's reaction, i.e. the 'pile-on'. Except of course we don't have the civility of international netizens, maybe given our too-passionate and personalized way of dealing with other people. If ever, that I think is what the local blogging community needs to learn, that threats and the threat of violence is never an appropriate rejoinder or reaction.

Ida said...

Aww... and here I thought I wasn't going to see this issue on your blog. :P I was just about to comment and tell you "Yay, Sean! Your blog's still different from everyone else's!" but then I saw her name, and oh well, it's been on the titles of most of the blog entries this past week.

I'm not saying your blog is no longer is different (as we are all different anyway), just that, well, I guess some posts just can't be helped. Ahehe.

Angel said...

values are formed over time. we cannot expect fernandez to change over night. it is wishful thinking that she has been enlightened by the comments bombarding her left and right since it has been her stand from the very beginning that she does not see anything wrong with her article. in fact, she finds it amusing.

she may have been bullied to resign. and she may still be a bigot. but at least, her expression of her prejudices has now been curtailed.

Sean said...

Banzai Cat: The blogging community wanted her resignation, and they got her resignation. I don't think that this would have materialized without the efforts of a hundred independent bloggers. Whether the apology was sincere or not, I have to give at least some credit to the blogosphere. It's tainted credit given to a very tainted campaign, but it's still credit.

Ida: I was planning to avoid this issue entirely, until I scoured the Internet for reactions and didn't like what I saw. My issue is less about Malu Fernandez and more about the blogging community's inhuman reactions. I honestly wouldn't give her a whit of attention under normal circumstances.

Angel: This issue has ceased to be about Malu Fernandez. This issue is not so much about her bigotism than it is about ours.

Yes, we got results. That's fine and well, I suppose. But our method for getting results both appalls and angers me. Something must be done about this before we end up ruining someone's life.

patrick said...

i actually wrote one of the entries that appear in a lot of lists about the issue. what's interesting was that i started writing the piece with an angered tone but finished it with a saddened one.

yes what malu wrote was dead wrong but upon reading how a lot of people reacted, i knew that the issue was bound to transform from something between right against wrong to who's got the bigger gang, shriller noise or more guns, (the latter meant in a metaphorical sense though.)

Anton said...

thanks for a very nice and fittingly organized post.

I do agree with some points you have raised and i hope nothing like this ever happens again.

thanks sean.

Hailyn said...

I didn't want to post another Malu article since it had died down already but just wanted to air out my points:

1. It just seems amusing how similar the Malu case is to Philippine politics. Erap did something bad, people wanted him to resign. Malu wrote something distasteful, people wanted her to resign as well. I wonder - does this really solve anything? Will she really learn from this experience or will she just learn to fear mass reaction and not write anything from her heart again?

2. I know that I will never work for Manila Times and People Standard, after seeing how they reacted or "non-reacted" in this whole crisis. Granted, I don't expect my employer to stand by me blindly. But I do expect them to either a) guide and coach me, their valued employee, from making a bigger mess of things OR b) face the issue head-on and not just wait for things to blow up in your face. All in all, Malu's ex-employers' passivity in this whole mess does not give employees-to-be a sense of confidence to join their company.

I do admire people who have passions in life. This means that they actually care about how certain things impact other people. But anything done to the extreme completely eradicates the original good intent and just focuses on the negative vibes. I don't think this was what the people wanted either.

Sean said...

Patrick: I noted the original posts, but I didn't expect this to mutate into the resultant hate-spewing mob. Somehow I expected that the blogging community had evolved in the last few years, that we had become far more civilized people in the meantime... but I was sorely disappointed. It will apparently take a long time before we can possibly approach any issue with some form of maturity.

Anton: Thank you for all your efforts. You dedicated yourself to this issue longer than others, and yet you never fully entered the same trap of name-calling as much as others did. I only wish that we had taken this earlier on somehow. Nevertheless, you were a very valuable source of information for everyone.

Hailyn: Unfortunately, this was precisely what people did, and this was precisely what people got. We may prefer to maintain good intent however we want... but if we decide to fall into bad intent somewhere along the way, then I suppose that we deserve what we get. I only hope that we realized that here, whether we directly engaged in the name-calling or not.

Prudence said...

I am afraid of the mob that is forming in the blogosphere nowadays. This is going to do as good in the future. I'm really quite disappointed with how some of the bloggers and commenters reacted to the issue. Many people are mistaking this as an emotional issue that could only be solved by being emotional. These people refuse to acknowledge the fact that emotions can be acknowledged to make an intellectual discourse. The emotions and the intellect should not be considered separate but rather should be considered together to be able to form a rational course of action.

My take on the issue:
Show Malu Fernandez What 'Wit' Is: Be Intellectually Mean

Prudence said...

This is going to do as good in the future.

--- Ooopppsss, error. I meant "This is not going to do us good in the future".

Sean said...

Prudence: Is it instinct, then, that drives us to address issues like this from a purely emotional standpoint? Why do most of us seem unable to take things on from an intellectual point of view? I mean... we had a very real chance of being civilized people here. We had all the background and all the history... and we blew it, big time.

Moreover, your post seems to point out that we have a habit of baiting, bullying, flaming and teasing those people who we simply don't agree with. I've seen this as well, and I constantly ask why. Are we this self-destructive?

Miguel said...

Insightful post; I was actually worried that my opinion on the situation would be an unpopular one, but I'm glad I found out that it's not just me.

Sometimes, I worry that this observation retroactively cheapens our history. Nowadays, when I try reading about things like the student unrest back in the 60s and 70s, the first thing I think to myself is "if only they had blogs to complain on back then."

Sean said...

Miguel: If it's anything like what I've written here, then I assure you that your opinion is definitely not an unpopular one. Quite a few blogs have been critical of the community's behavior in the past two weeks.

Does this observation cheapen our history? Personally, I think that our history has already been cheapened -- but that it was done by people who acted out of misguided emotion, spite and thoughtlessness. If our history has been cheapened, then it is certainly not by mere observation of the facts.

Prudence said...

@Sean: Our emotions does show that we are human beings, so perhaps maybe it is a knee-jerk reaction to these issues that kindles emotions. I don't think that it's the inability to approach the issue from a more rational point of view. I think it's a matter of choice, though I wonder, indeed, why choose to be irrational when we've got all the capabilities to be rational.

In a manner of speaking, based on history, it is unfortunate that we often cause our own destruction. So, I guess the answer is we do have the tendency to be self-destructive. I just don't know how to explain it.

Prudence said...

@Miguel: In some ways, our views may be deem "unpopular". There's a sizable mob out there who'd rather scream burn the offender at the stake than to settle the issue rationally. But you're not alone in this. I'm still glad to know that there are just those who chose to be rational.

Sean said...

Prudence: I will note, though, that I wrote this post after a night of looking through multiple pages' worth of irrational reaction. So, in a way, this post might be seen as an irrational action in and of itself.

But I do feel that "mob" is a appropriate way to describe matters. Maybe we choose an irrational course of action because others seem to be choosing it as well. Doing something self-destructive certainly feels more logical when you everybody around you is doing the same thing. And it does take quite a bit of common sense to break from the rest of the pack sometimes.

Prudence said...

@Sean: "Doing something self-destructive certainly feels more logical when you everybody around you is doing the same thing." - yup, that is mob psychology.

Have you seen the media in focus episode in ANC in which the Malu Fernandez issue and it's impact in media practice has been discussed?

Sean said...

Prudence: Unfortunately, no. I regret to say that I haven't had much time for TV lately; the last week of every month is usually very hectic for me. I hope that the show raised some good discussion, though.

Prudence said...

@sean: You could visit my site and see the youtube videos I posted there. There are about 6 parts, I think. Or you could just go to youtube and search for media in focus malu fernandez. Bluethehero was responsible for uploading the videos

Sean said...

Prudence: I was already able to catch a reply last Sunday. I felt that the answers were quite scattershot, and indicated a general detachment from the situation at hand... but I thought that the questions were very intelligent ones. All in all, it was fine.