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.

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