EVER heard of the apocryphal story of how a frog reacts when dumped into a pot of boiling water vs dumped in a pot of simmering water that is slowly brought to a boil?
This story is often told to demonstrate how change that slowly creeps around us (the simmering water brought to a boil) could catch us unawares and end up turning us into cooked frogs.
While I remember catching an episode of MythBusters once that debunked this popular example, let’s use it to focus on a situation that to me is similar to the simmering-water-being-slowly-brought-to-a-boil-that-is-bound-to-result-in-our-goose-getting-cooked.
That’s the dying habit, practice, or even art of READING – whether the read material be a novel, a news magazine or, even more unlikely nowadays, a newspaper.
The latter, I am told, is a dying medium because most people prefer to read online. That in part is true; I for one open my phone or iPad and use them to read the news as brought to me by the Washington Post or the NYT and Malaya and Inquirer in their online versions, and less often as brought to me by their print editions. (Well, except for the NYT and Malaya, the former which is delivered to my doorstep every morning and the latter which I read for its excellent and incisive columnists. Haha). But I still like opening a copy of community papers like Edge Davao or SunStar Davao or Freeman Cebu, or a Manila paper and scanning the headlines of every story whenever I get a chance. Reading a printed newspaper gives me more time to focus and absorb which, in turn, leaves me with a better understanding of the issue in the news item or the opinion piece.
Of course I still love reading books, and order them from Amazon far more quickly than I can dispatch them. I even have this weird preference for the hard bound versions, well because they last longer and look better on the shelves.
But is this habit generational?
A year or two back, I was invited to attend an event organized by the Philippine Press Institute in a university in Central Luzon. The subject matter was fake news, and the students in attendance were students of journalism. I asked them: who of you have read today’s issue Malaya? Of the Inquirer? Of the Philippine Star? Of the Manila Bulletin?
I kid you not: not one hand was raised. And when I asked them about the online versions, not even ten hands in an audience of 100 was raised.
I felt a moment of panic. Then it became fear.
Two days ago the SunStar Davao’s headlines proclaimed the filing of the certificate of candidacy for mayor of Davao City by the incumbent Sara Duterte. The same headline also said her brother Sebastian “guns” for the position of vice mayor. Believe it or not, that headline sparked substantial comment online, a lot of it negative, questioning SunStar for inappropriately and even maliciously using the word “guns” in relation to the presidential son.
I can hear the justification now: “Bisaya sila.” “They’re not native English speakers.” “You got to take their comments in context.”
Well, if English is neither your native language nor your principal language of communication, then the onus is on you to understand the context of what you are reading. Otherwise by reacting out of context you only demonstrate what we already suspect, if not fear – that this nation of ours is in big trouble.
And I say this not because there seems to be a growing number of Filipinos who do not “understand” English even if they are able to “speak it”; I say we are a nation in big trouble because this lack of understanding is just a consequence of the fact that we no longer read.
It is why we don’t understand figures of speech. Why, when for example a Filipino is asked if he minds if someone sitting at another table will take an empty chair, a Filipino will says “Yes,” meaning it’s OK, rather than saying “No” which is the proper answer.
But more seriously…
The dying habit/art of reading is the simmering water slowly being brought to a boil. The dying habit is why some surveys say we are one of the most opinionated yet least informed (or misinformed?) publics in the world. It is why fake news finds fertile soil among a huge chunk of our population. Why prejudice is easily stoked. Why anger is quickly fanned. It is why many of us seem to be intolerant of contradictory opinion, no matter how educated that contrarian opinion may be.
We are no longer a reading people, not of the traditional printed matter or even of the online versions. And so, as the population grows, imagine how much more serious this problem becomes?
Imagine how easier it becomes to manipulate people using their ignorance, prejudices and fears?
Imagine what future lies ahead for us?