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Manila’s dark secrets: Which should air, and which should not

/ 05:40 AM October 11, 2018

Last week, I gave a talk before food writers in a workshop by Writer’s Block Philippines, which runs workshops on freelance writing and travel writing, among other things.

When they pitched the idea to me a couple of months ago, I was skeptical: How many people really wanted to learn about food writing? But they said they could find the audience. I would get a captive lot of poor souls to listen to me, and would get paid for it, so I said yes.

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A surprising number of people turned out. I was running a fever that day so I abandoned my prepared lecture notes, which had a lot of stuff about Kant’s “Critique of Judgment” and the hermeneutics of taste, and instead rambled on about restaurants I like and how I have tried to stay honest in a field where it sometimes feels that everyone’s out for a freebie.

A friend recently cornered me and complained that I haven’t been doing nasty food reviews. I was going to protest  that I actually hadn’t been eating nasty food of late, but he went on: “You’ve become close to the chefs. This is what happens when you start making friends in the restaurant world.”

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And that definitely has been true.

Nonconfrontational

As a people, we are notoriously nonconfrontational. This is true of many Asian cultures  (though not Indians, who love a good argument), but surely we must hold some world record for hypocrisy and backbiting.

There were times I would give a mixed or lukewarm review and would get private messages on Facebook: “Okay, now tell me what you really think.” And I would say no, really, I feel lukewarm about the place and I said so.

I’m worried  a day will come when I write a review and people will ask me what I really feel, and I’ll break down and admit: “It was horrible! I just couldn’t say it because the chef is a friend and he gives me meals for free!”

I promise just to quit the business before I reach this point.

While this is a trivial matter in the larger scheme of things, everyone has been feasting on the two videos that surfaced about Manila House recently.

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Then there’s another FB post about someone who was refused entry at Manila House for wearing inappropriate footwear.

All this makes for great nudge-nudge, knowing wink conversation at dinners, but because we can’t talk about it openly and because the videos circulated on what is known as “dark social”—private group chats on Viber, WhatsApp, Telegram, and Facebook Messenger—we will probably never actually know what happened at Manila House that night.

Open secrets

Dark social simply takes into the internet era what we Filipinos have been doing for years, whether it’s over single malts or during a round of golf, or lunch at Cirkulo or breakfast at Via Mare: We talk about open secrets.

In most cases, if it’s juicy gossip about who’s sleeping with whom, or which old man was found dead in  bed with his mistress, or a certain splashy lady who’s actually burdened with debt—that sort of thing has gone on since the time of the Romans.

Among these salubrious topics whose details were discussed over ensaymada at Mary Grace were tales of sexual misconduct: Which priest really liked tutoring young boys; how to avoid taking late night meetings with a certain supervisor; and which teacher would give a good grade if a pretty girl smiled at him enough or showed a bit of skin.

In America, as here, all of these things emerged as jokes, as private conversations, as late-night drunken confessions. Then in a remarkably short span, the tide turned. The #metoo movement, which happened one year ago this week, brought down writers, actors, directors, photographers, fashion designers, and many other people who had been doing these things for years, having accepted that it was how things worked.

Will our society have its own #metoo movement? We are Americanized, and we like to think we follow their liberal ideals and their cultural lead, but in the same way that I can’t aim and fire a dead shot the way a New York restaurant critic can, the inherent nonconfrontational nature of Philippine society might prevent a movement of this sort from gaining steam.

Also, #metoo emerged from, literally, “it happened to me, too,” in response to a few individuals who broke the norms of society and brought sexual harassment out into the open.

We don’t have these testimonies—yet. And outside a  group of people in the urban areas, this kind of male behavior is seen as completely normal (see the example set by those holding the highest executive and legislative positions), and it feels like a hopeless situation.

The disappointing lack of results in the recent United States political debacle involving the testimony of a victim of sexual assault is dispiriting, as is the lack of clear testimony in the Ateneo sexual harassment allegations—as well as the increasing suspicion that the school had an idea what had happened but chose to keep silent.

There is a world of difference between wondering what on earth all that screaming was about on the secretly circulated videos, and the tales of university professors abusing their position, and the trust and power that come with it.

One is idle speculation and can safely remain in the shadows; the other is grave abuse of power and can scar a young person for life.

There are secrets that deserve to remain secrets because they are trivial, but some deserve to be aired, so that this behavior can be punished and so that others do not suffer the same fate.

Some whispers are fine fading away into the darkness; others have to emerge in the light.

As a society, we have to know the difference. –CONTRIBUTED

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TAGS: freelance writing and travel writing, Workshops, Writer’s Block Philippines
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