OpinionStories break down walls
Stories break down walls
October 31, 2015
October 31, 2015


I left TLS with dreams of becoming a journalist. Rarely do things pan out the way we expect them to.

After about a year of working at a non-profit, I find myself again with the equally non-profitable and lowly job description of “university researcher”. Both have involved doing what I love best, which is to write stories that matter. The main advantage this gives me is the time and freedom to explore stories in a way that the pressures of a 24/7 media job, with all its pretensions to neutrality and commercial air time, would never allow me to do.

Overall, I have no regrets. I have found myself going to and writing about places that I thought was only possible with a career as a high-flying CNN correspondent. But perhaps this is a false dichotomy. The media and the academe are both engaged in the politics of remembering; the business of story-telling.

Indeed we all are. Every day I am reminded of the fact that the stories we tell ourselves, from the seemingly pointless to the epic, from the mundane to the out-of-this-world, have world-shaping power. And the most powerful narratives are those heard and spoken in the presence of Others, those seemingly silenced and stripped bare of the resources with which to speak. With them I have found myself stripped bare, of my own assumptions, presumptions, and fears. As a scholar, writer, and one-time activist   the challenge of listening has often been the most disillusioning, and I need to remind myself constantly that everything is part of a greater story that is still unfolding.

We enter a world with the words already written, as it were, on a map drawn in advance. The task of scholarly or journalistic witnessing is to seed our own narratives in and through the ground of the old ones, carving out spaces of creative resistance and hope in defiance of the cartographies of power.

In July of this year I attended a conference on critical geography in Palestine. From East Jerusalem and Ramallah to Hebron and the Jordan Valley, I and many others were taken to places whose histories of conflict and dispossession under the Israeli occupation there is no space here to recount.

I found so much of it familiar. Gradually I came to realise why: how different, after all, is the situation of Palestinian refugees to the plight of thousands of refugees in the south of our country, displaced by generations of conflict, or of those dispossessed more generally by entrenched processes of structural poverty and neglect? The only difference is that state and corporate violence in the Philippines is far more geographically dispersed. Rather than one big wall we have many. Walls that segregate elites from the hoi-polloi. Walls that divide private subdivisions from slums. Walls around indigenous villages and fishing communities sequestered and militarised prior to their eviction from lands sold to real estate investors and large-scale mines.   Demolitions, arrests, and extrajudicial killings of activists take place regularly. Most are justified in the name of National Security and Development.

What happens here is certainly not as dramatic (or international media-saturated) as events in Palestine. And yet here, as well as there and in countless other places, many of those privileged enough to stay above the fray pass on these on-going tragedies in silence, shrugging their shoulders and admitting acceptance of the gristly status quo.

We live in a colonial present: a society that erects walls and reinforces divisions between who speaks and who cannot, who lives and who dies, who matters and who does not, through the very promise of breaking those walls down. We are told constantly about Freedom, Democracy, the Nation, Development, even Peace – through narratives that are meaningful and profitable only to those who own the monopoly on their telling.

The point is that we cannot extricate ourselves from this drama. Whether we admit it or not, we are part of this story. Listen carefully, at the words of the powerful, and you will realise that each word spoken amounts to a subtle denial of all alternatives to things-as-they-are.

Some of our professors and media idols participate actively in this very silencing. A striking example is a column, written by an academic I once looked highly upon, about indigenous activists, which questioned the legitimacy of their resistance and accused them of being pawns of the “Left”.   It seemed to me the worst possible betrayal, coming from a woman in a position of privilege to assume that indigenous Others have no voice.

The myth of the ivory tower is real, and the violence of our society consists equally on denying the far greater violence that has so successfully colonised our hearts and minds that we have come to see it as normal. After all it’s easier to believe the fiction of a world unfolding the way it should. It is much more difficult to understand why reality so often does not.

I remain convinced that our task as writers, journalists, academics, and the like is to break walls down, to test the limits of common-sense understanding. The risk we take is to be misunderstood, threatened, ridiculed, even silenced ourselves. The only alternative is to commit the worst possible crime we can commit, having presumed the privilege to speak: staying silent in the face of overwhelming injustice. History will hold us to account on the basis of the facts we disavow and the truths we deny.

Folks, we are on a sinking ship. We might as well point out that it is. Acknowledging our situation is the first step toward a steering a better course.

I was asked to write this column with the implicit expectation of being read and seriously understood, and thereby inspiring the next generation of TLS writers. I expect to achieve neither. Constantly I am reminded of my youth and how youth is such a poorly valued commodity – for commodity it has become – in our society, whatever its pretensions to be otherwise. I am reminded of how little I know, and how much I have yet to learn.


But if there is any advice I can presume to give aspiring writers, journalists, (and yes lowly researchers), it is that you should never be afraid of speaking up and being misunderstood.   To be misunderstood means you have rattled people’s sense of right and wrong — enough to offend, or sew confusion. Sometimes confusion is good. It’s another word for thinking. Another way of decolonising our senses in a world where wrong so often means right.

CJ was a former features editor for The LaSallian and a policy researcher at Ibon International. He is now a research assistant at UP Diliman and a committee member for the International Conference of Critical Geography (ICCG). Interests range broadly, from the spatialities of violence, conflict and dispossession to poetry and the contested politics of deep-frying falafels. He is currently looking into the plight of refugees in Mindanao in the context of the Bangsamoro peace process. Long-distance runs keep his insanity at bay. Blogs at EarthReWrite.