An assault on critical thinking

Published January 26, 2021, 11:51 PM

by Former Vice President Jejomar C. Binay

GOVERNANCE MATTERS

Former Vice President Jejomar Binay

The term “enemies of the state” was used loosely by repressive regimes worldwide in the 1970s to justify the persecution of political opponents and activists.

The Marcos regime used it as an all-embracing label against the broad range of citizens opposing the military-backed dictatorship. For those of us who were labelled as such, it was considered a badge of honor and a mark of true citizenship. But it also exposed us to real dangers, as we were considered legitimate targets for harassment, arrest, even assassination.

The military and defense establishment resurrected the disgraced label last week with the announcement of the unilateral termination of a 1989 accord between the Department of National Defense (DND) and the University of the Philippines (UP). It was used to describe UP students and graduates who had joined the armed rebel movement, unassailable proof, they said, that the State University has been providing “safe haven for communists” and has become a “recruiting ground” for the New People’s Army (NPA).

The officials offer little in the way of facts or evidence to support this claim. And by invoking the “protection of the youth” as their motive for terminating the accord, they only invited scorn from most of the UP community. I say “most” because the present administration has its share of supporters from UP, including senior  government officials. That alone exposes the fallacy behind the sweeping statement.

Apparently, the military considers UP students as gullible or misguided youth in need of protection from communists, the same argument advanced by Lt. Gen. Antonio Parlade Jr., the spokesman for the government’s anti-communist task force, when he red-tagged several female celebrities a few months back. But the military, as well as the Philippine National Police (PNP), could barely qualify as protectors of the youth, given the documented cases of torture, abuse, and killing of youth and students in the hands of the military and police.

The justifications offered for terminating the accord are logically and legally untenable. But it has both tactical and strategic value for government.

Observers see it as a diversionary tactic. In the face of widespread hunger and poverty brought about by the pandemic, government’s rudderless response and the series of scandals, the assault on UP has indeed preoccupied the time and energy of activists.

In the long term, however, the accord’s termination can be seen as advancing the military’s purported agenda to end the communist insurgency by 2022.

Defense and military officials, therefore, were not indulging in nostalgia when they dusted off the “enemies of the State” label. They were signalling that the military’s drive against so-called elements of the left has entered a higher, and more dangerous, level. This should be cause for concern for all of us.

The problem with the military’s “take-no-prisoners” approach is that it makes no distinction between hardcore leftists and liberal-minded advocates. Merely sharing the same advocacies as so-called leftist groups makes one a communist in their eyes. A student or graduate of UP is automatically branded as a communist and, therefore, a legitimate target, an “enemy of the State.”

If it were up to the military, UP should only produce obedient and uncritical graduates who will neither raise voices nor arms to question authority. They would be no different from the youth supporters of socialist totalitarian regimes, whose collapse in the 1980s reshaped global politics, and whose guiding communist ideology the military remains in conflict with.

The irony seems to be lost to the military, and so is the lesson that even the most repressive regimes failed to suppress critical thinking. Sooner or later these regimes were toppled by  mass movements that emerged as a result of widespread poverty, repression, and injustice, not because of “gullible” students.

The military’s assault on UP is an assault on critical thinking. It is an assault on the principle that no authority, idea, or convention is sacred and beyond questioning. Critical thinking leads to advances in science, medicine, arts, and society. Stifle it and you choke progress.

The assault on UP is also an assault on democracy itself, since democracy draws its strength from critical thinking and the process of renewal that it proffers. In a democracy, the role of education goes beyond providing a steady workforce for enterprises. It is imbued with the noble purpose of providing citizens the tools to think independently and critically, to see themselves as contributors to the regeneration of society.

Without critical thinking, democracy and its institutions will atrophy. Incessant assaults, unless confronted and defeated, could lead to its demise.

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