The photo shows several high-profile Filipino politicians, some of them smiling as they sat or posed self-consciously among the somber concrete stelae of a memorial to millions of massacre victims.
The site was the ‘Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe’ (Denkmal für die ermordeten Juden Europas) in Berlin. It commemorates the six million Jewish victims of the Holocaust who died in a mass genocide perpetrated by the Nazi regime.
Among the politicians in the photo were Vice President and Liberal Party chairperson Leni Robredo, Senator Francis Pangilinan, and Ifugao Rep. Teddy Baguilat (who posted the photo to his Twitter account).
Netizens from all sides of the political spectrum called them out for insensitivity and disrespect. Baguilat deleted the photo almost immediately, saying he and the others did not mean to demean the memorial.
“We, as human rights advocates,” he said on Twitter, “fully understand the plight experienced by Jews under the Nazis and we would be the last to disrespect their memory in the same way that we condemn injustice anywhere in the world, including our own country.” He added, “I apologize for this lapse in my post.”
The party of pols were in Berlin on a governance, social justice, and poverty alleviation study tour funded by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation-Philippines.
Unsatisfied with Baguilat’s apology, some indignant Twitteratis kept up a bombardment of criticism and insisted on a similar apology from Robredo.
Others mounted a defense of the touristy pols, saying that the artist’s intent was for people to enjoy the monument as they liked, and pointing out that there was no disrespect because there is no one buried there (Jewish tradition dictates the burial of Jews and and their body parts only in Jewish cemeteries). Whereas, they said, people take smiling selfies at the Rizal Memorial where Rizal’s remains interred and no one complains.
The Twitter battle raged back and forth for a couple of days until last Tuesday, when Robredo issued a formal response to the issue: “While there was no malice in it, I take full responsibility so I would like to apologize for whatever offense to the sensitivities of people it caused.”
Commenting on Robredo’s apology on Twitter, lawyer Florin Hilbay said: “What you want in a leader: courage to admit mistake; strength to assume responsibility; no excuses; no sense of infallibility.” He added, “The Vice President is sooo…presidential.”
Former deputy speaker Erin Tañada tweeted “It shows that the VP has the courage to take responsibility and apologize for her actions.”
There are several points in this issue worth noting. First, the proper demeanor to display at memorials. While there is no one buried at Berlin’s Holocaust Memorial, the fact that it stands to remember millions of murdered people should give pause for proper reflection.
Smiling and other hijinks could be misconstrued as flippancy, disrespect, and ignorance of right manners and conduct.
Second, the Filipino penchant for taking pictures. We take them everywhere and anywhere, without thought sometimes as to whether it is appropriate to do so or not. And when a camera is pointed in our direction we automatically smile. We need to think first whether we ought to take that photo, or if we need to be in it. Sometimes a plain landscape picture should suffice.
Third, the urge to share to social media. There is no need to share everything, and sometimes it gets you into trouble. ‘Less talk, less mistake,’ one of my managers often said in my youth, and it extends to today’s trigger-happy thumbs that press ‘share’ or ‘send’ without thought for consequences.
Fourth, the call-out culture. Asam Ahmad, writing for Briarpatch Magazine, defines it as the “tendency among progressives, radicals, activists, and community organizers to publicly name instances or patters of oppressive behavior and language use by others. People can be called out for statements and actions that are sexist, racist, ableist, and the list goes on.”
In the Philippines, the call-out culture has become a tool for public shaming for all sorts of transgressive behavior, aided by the ease, speed, and wide range of communication provided by the internet. Done wrong, it can be used to bully others. Done right, it acts as a check-and-balance and directs attention to issues that need to be addressed.
In this case, the admirable outcome of this exercise were Baguilat and Robredo’s unequivocal apologies made without excuses or self-justification, something now rare in a society where some of the highest in the land show no remorse for worse misdeeds.
Dr. Ortuoste is a writer and communication consultant. FB and Twitter: @DrJennyO