THINKING CAP 2
If you liked Titas of Manila and its derivatives, read how the recent Twitter phenomenon exposes a dangerous “Us vs. Them” mindset
The Conyos of Manila parody Twitter account tweeted last Sept. 26: “Omg, dude. That’s so jej.” The tweet has received, as of this writing, nearly 800 retweets and over 1,000 favorites. This is how accepted the term “jejemon” has become: you can abbreviate it and people will know what you mean, whether you’re talking about a mutual acquaintance or the way someone posts on Facebook. (You know the type: Zeroes exchanged for O’s, textspeak used by default and without irony, and the dreaded two-period ellipsis.)
And it’s not always an insult, exactly. While often we call people jeje or jologs upon noticing traits that we find strange or downright annoying, it doesn’t always mean they’re being used with deliberate malice. We often use them as descriptors (albeit slightly derogatory ones) rather than deploying them with the explicit intent to condemn. “Jejemon” has become a term for an acknowledged and sometimes even self-recognizing subculture, or so we are told by hearsay and TV specials (and if it’s on TV, it must be legit).
This setup owes its existence to the way Filipinos view the concept of “others.” We are often thought to be some of the most racist people in the world, and yet we are welcoming to strangers. Jonathan Ong accounts for this seeming paradox in his 2007 paper “Children Watching Children: A Study on How Filipino Children Perceive Suffering in International News Media.” Here, he claims that Filipino family-orientedness (see, another stereotype) can often lead us to differentiate between two kinds of “others:” the near others who are to be helped and loved and trusted, such as family, friends, and other people in our circles, and the far others, strangers who are to be kept at a distance. By way of example: the Humans
of New York Facebook page, which surged in popularity earlier this year, consists of photographs of people, along with quotes and anecdotes that reveal their outlooks and experiences. It celebrates their personal stories. But the most uniquely Filipino responses, the various “of Manila” Twitter accounts, are not about individuals but about categories. Conyos of Manila,
Titas of Manila, even the first Humans of Manila— our humor satirizes collectives. People unlike ourselves become easy to stereotype because they are specifically the kind of “others” who are distant from us (or, as Ong writes, “ibang tao rather than kapwa”).
So we have our near others at whom we may poke fun but who ultimately are “with us,” and then we have our distant others towards whom we may be caring and welcoming but who are still
conyos, tambays, foreigners, jeje, jologs— othered. There is a “sharp distinction between close and far (others),” Ong writes, and he asserts, referencing sociologist Jaime Bulatao, that this is particular to the Philippines. Many would argue that this is just how we’re wired, and that as long as we remain conscious of it and steer clear of outright prejudice and malice, then there should be nothing wrong with that. Who cares what we call people if, at the end of the day, we treat them with kindness?
Consider, though: Whoever you are, wherever you live, whatever you do, there is probably a stereotype about you; you could be a starving trustfund artist of Makati perhaps, or a coffee-addicted grad student of Katipunan, or a dancersizing old-money donya of Alabang. And maybe you’ve got friends who tease you about it and rub your stereotype in your face, but it’s all good because they’re your near others. You’re more than your stereotypes, and your friends acknowledge this; more than knowing about you, they know you.
Imagine, then, being told that you are only your stereotypes. If you read a lot, then all you are is a bookworm; if you drink a lot, then you are marked alcoholic and nothing more. It doesn’t matter if you also love animals, dream of traveling the world, and would stay up for hours talking on the phone with your friends after their bad breakups because these things aren’t part of the stereotype. Hence, they go unacknowledged. Rather than being a headline to the much longer story of who you are, your label is said to represent the entirety of your identity.
Political philosopher Charles Taylor writes in his 1994 essay “The Politics of Recognition” that “[the] crucial feature of human life is its fundamentally dialogical character,” and that “we become full human agents, capable of understanding ourselves, and hence of defining our identity, through our acquisition of rich human languages of expression [learned] through exchanges with others.” It matters who we are and how we choose to see ourselves, and one of our rights is to have these identities recognized. Misrecognition, having your identity disregarded or disrespected, is violence; you are being imprisoned in a false and often demeaning image of who you really are.
This is where stereotyping, even (or especially) towards our distant others, becomes problematic. When someone is a near other, it can be argued that we know them enough to know that they are more than the jokes we tell about them. But when we label the strangely dressed party acquaintances and ill-grammared Facebook posters and rainbow-cap-wearing strangers of Manila, all we really know of them often is what has led to the stereotypes into which we have categorized them. And calling them jeje or jologs is confirmation of the violence we have already done them through failing to recognize them as people beyond these stereotypes.
“But they’re an actual subculture now!” some might argue. “Don’t some jejemons actually call themselves jejemons? And what about the TV specials? What about the TV specials?!” These are valid concerns too, which is why we can’t stop at calling all forms of labels and categories inherently negative. Subcultures exist, and often, stereotypes do point to some very real groups of people, which is why demographics and market research exist. Specialized groups of people often have specialized activities and needs, and acknowledging this is often how institutions can address needs. We can’t do away with categories just because some of them are offensive.
It’s not even just a matter of doing away with the offensive labels. What of the best friends who insult each other as a sign of camaraderie, even using the same terms that they use to gossip about the people they really do hate? Or what about the marginalized subcultures who speak of themselves with words that come from their bullies? The term “geek,” for example, began as an insult but is now a badge of pride, with many geeks being both protective of the term and defensive about anyone else using it. And let’s not forget that the Philippines wasn’t even a single country until our colonizers drew convenient boundaries around a bunch of islands they’d conquered, and named the land and the brown monkeys they found there after a king who wasn’t even ours.
A jejemon self-identifying as a jejemon— and calling his or her friends by the same term—all
Imagine, then, being told that you are only your stereotypes. If you read a lot, then all you are is a bookworm; if you drink a lot, then you are marked alcoholic and nothing more.
takes place within the framework of a close relationship between near others. It’s an act of ownership, the way we flaunt our favorite stereotypes like designer labels. But to inflict the term “jejemon” on a distant other (even one who self-identifies as a jejemon within his or her own circles) is no longer ownership but imposition. It’s forcing someone into a story that we think fits them, regardless of what they might prefer. Maybe it’s a story that they would’ve chosen anyway, but by stereotyping and speaking over them, we’ve denied them the choice before they’ve even made one. And when it comes to asserting identity, that choice matters.
This doesn’t mean we have to like jejemons or the jeje culture; it is human nature to dislike things, whether they’re jejemons or pastel colors or spicy food. But recognition is a right, and even in a world of near and distant others, we are obliged to give even our distant others due respect for who they are and how they choose to self-identify. That need not mean suddenly making them our best friends, but it should mean acknowledging them as whole people, bigger than easy labels and stereotypes. In practical terms, this means that while
jejemons and the jejemon culture exist, it becomes problematic to call someone a jejemon, especially if it’s someone you don’t know. This may seem like needless political correctness—why not just call a spade a spade, right?—but consider how different your labels sound coming from your own mouth, from the mouth of a friend, and from the keyboard of an anonymous Facebook troll. Identity is complex, composed of the intersecting confluences of gender, race, class, education, history, choice, and myriad other forces that make up a life. And it might be worth considering that all of those, much like people themselves, amount to far more than can be summed up in a pithy piece of slang.