The hazards of misreading the news

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Street Talk

BY GREG B. MACABENTA

When I read the post in social media that Senator-boxer Manny Pacquiao had proposed crucifixion as a method of imposing the death penalty, my automatic response was to suggest, “Crucify him!”

I’m afraid I got carried away by someone else’s misinterpretation of Pacquiao’s proposal. As an aggressive proponent of the reimposition of the death penalty, Pacquiao appeared to have applied his superficial comprehension of scripture by referring to the crucifixion of Jesus Christ as a rationale for the death penalty.

The reference to Jesus’ death on the cross, although irrelevant to the rationale for reimposing the death penalty, was apparently used by Pacquiao while actually expressing a preference for death by firing squad.

Pacquiao could have used Jose Rizal as a point of reference but he seemed to think he understood the Bible better than Philippine history.

However, this piece is not about my position on the death penalty (about which I do have some thoughts) but, rather, about the hazards of misreading or misunderstanding the news and the importance of getting your brain in gear before you click away on your laptop.

Typically, I immediately did extensive research on stupid laws passed by legislatures around the world, as well as dumb bills passed by dumbbells in the Philippine Congress.

What came to mind was the bill purportedly filed by a congressman that would “outlaw typhoons.”

I was poised to rank Pacquiao’s reported Crucifixion Bill next to the Outlawing Typhoons Bill on the list of idiotic legislation filed by our lawmakers. Fortunately, I found a Business World column written by my friend Oscar Lagman pointing out that Catanduanes Congressman Francisco Perfecto did not actually propose “outlawing typhoons.” He, in fact, proposed government action to mitigate the destruction caused by typhoons (which regularly pummeled his province), such as funding for technical equipment and for disaster response training. That made sense.

Unfortunately, an illiterate or mischievous colleague in Congress branded Perfecto’s proposal as the “Bill to Outlaw Typhoons.”

Misinterpreting the news is almost as bad as purposely twisting and distorting it because the result still is the same as US President Donald Trump’s obsession and habitual practice, namely, dispensing “fake news.”

I’m reminded of an incident late 1988 when President Cory Aquino directed then Foreign Affairs Secretary Manglapus to file a protest with the British government because of an alleged slur against Filipina womanhood in a new edition of the Oxford Dictionary.

The whole country was up in arms against both the Oxford University Press and the United Kingdom. Then Makati Mayor Jojo Binay hurled choice invectives at the British and, was reportedly prepared to put on his Rambotito armor to march against Her Majesty’s armed forces.

What triggered the furor was a resolution passed by the Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industry (PCCI) and presented to President Aquino to the effect that the 1987 edition of the Oxford Dictionary had defined “Filipina” to mean “domestic help.” The PCCI resolution called on the Philippine government to “make the necessary action/representation to concerned authorities to delete this definition in the Oxford Dictionary.”

The PCCI’s poor grammar notwithstanding, President Aquino felt compelled to act in defense of her race and gender.

Not being as macho as Mayor Binay, my own attitude was “don’t get mad, get even.” I dashed off a column in which I proposed re-defining “Oxford” to mean a toilet or comfort room. Thus, instead of saying “I’m going to the CR,” one would say, “I’m going to the oxford.” And a little tyke could tell his mama, “I want to o-ox!”

I had other mischievous suggestions that would have made Her Royal Highness blush. But then, I realized that I had not read the allegedly malignant dictionary. As a journalist, I decided that it was necessary for me to check with the sources of the news.

Here’s my account, in a November 16, 1988 column in Business World in Manila, of what transpired:

“I rang up the PCCI secretariat and asked. A very helpful young man confirmed that the resolution was part of an important document which contained the products of the PCCI’s labors in the just-concluded three-day 14th Philippine Business Conference.

“It was based on a complaint aired by someone who had heard about it from someone from the Department of Labor.

“Had the PCCI secretariat seen the dictionary? No. What about the complainant? Neither. And President Aquino?

Well, she had read the PCCI resolution but…

“Off I went to the book stores in Makati on the trail of this mysterious Oxford. A lot of Websters got in the way, but I finally found two paperbacks, a 1980 edition of the Oxford American Dictionary and what seemed to be a 1987 edition (‘1987’ didn’t actually appear but there was a reference to an earlier 1986 edition) of the Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors.

“The first had an entry that read: Fil-i-pi-no (fil-i-pee-noh) n. (pl. –nos), a native of the Philippine Islands.

“The second had what I thought I was looking for.

“After filing cabinet[ was the entry: Filipino/a, Sp. For Philippine Islands; -o(s), native(s) of the islands.And immediately following that was the entry: fille de chambre (Fr. F), Chamber-maid, lady’s maid, filles____; ____ joie, a prostitute.

“Aha! The culprit.

“Set in italics and in lower case, fille de chambre did seem, at first glance, to be a continuation of the definition of “Filipina,” which was set in Roman, capitalized.”

Apparently, the DOLE representative had misread the Oxford Dictionary entries and had raised the red flag with the PCCI which, in turn, passed the resolution that was presented to President Aquino who, in turn, ordered Secretary Manglapus to file a protest with the British government. And no one had even seen the allegedly insulting Oxford Dictionary. It was a classic case of dumb and dumber.

I frantically called up Raul Locsin, executive editor of Business World, and asked him to pull out my original column and replace it with what I had uncovered.

Mercifully, it was not too late to do so. In the substitute column, I concluded:

“And, oh yes…we should be thankful that fille de joie wasn’t what immediately followed the definition of Filipina. We could have declared war! “

Well, in the case of Pacquiao’s bill, I had obviously forgotten the lesson from that Oxford Dictionary flap. The media environment is even worse now, with social media allowing everyone to reinterpret the news. But that’s no excuse for misreading it and for shooting from the hip.

I still think that Pacquiao overdid it when he used the crucifixion of Jesus Christ to support his advocacy of the death penalty. But I take back what I suggested doing to him. I don’t think he should be crucified.

However, if you ask me, I wouldn’t mind seeing corrupt politicians and drug lords being lined up before a firing squad.

(gregmacabenta@hotmail.com)

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