Ni­cole CuUn­jieng on the art of tol­er­ance and dis­till­ing noise in an age of mis­in­for­ma­tion

Red Magazine - - Admired -

There are a se­lect few who at­tempt to dis­en­tan­gle the con­found­ing his­tory and pol­i­tics of the Philip­pines. Even fewer are those who do so on a pub­lic plat­form such as a news­pa­per col­umn, where they are at higher risk of re­ceiv­ing vit­riol from the oc­ca­sional troll. For three and a half years, Ni­cole CuUn­jieng, a grad­u­ate of New Haven’s Yale Univer­sity, had been the re­cip­i­ent of trolling, with her now de­funct weekly col­umn in Manila Times. “Af­ter a while, ‘ weekly’ be­came much less fre­quent,” she re­calls. There, CuUn­jieng wres­tled with is­sues that ranged from the prob­lem of in­ter­na­tional schools and the no­tion that the Filipino spirit is “wa­ter­proof ” to, more re­cently, a self­de­clared fail­ure of cri­tiquing the elite. “That’s what writ­ing re­ally is,” she says. “It shows me what I think. There’s some­thing about the process.”

To CuUn­jieng, the great con­tem­pla­tion of weekly top­ics had led to a reg­u­lar ex­er­cise of self-dis­cov­ery, though its fruits, she ad­mits, weren’t the most pop­u­lar among read­ers, if the on­line dis­course they gen­er­ate were any in­di­ca­tion. “My boyfriend would read [the com­ments sec­tion] and I would get re­ally up­set. The peo­ple who leave com­ments on­line are ei­ther very strongly pro or anti, so there’s not much room for pro­duc­tive de­bate,” she muses. “I do think the in­ter­net can be a good av­enue for dis­course in its ideal state be­cause it de­moc­ra­tizes ac­cess and the ar­tic­u­la­tion of one’s thought. It de­moc­ra­tizes pub­lish­ing.”

It’s with this thought that CuUn­jieng co-founded Pam­pub­liko with Sam Ramos-Jones. Pam­pub­liko was con­ceived in the mid­dle of Manila traf­fic, when Ramos-Jones men­tioned how he wanted to one day start a think tank and a pub­lic pol­icy mag­a­zine, to which an ex­cited CuUn­jieng an­swered, “Wait, that’s my se­cret dream.”

Amid the echo cham­bers that are our so­cial me­dia feeds, Pam­pub­liko stands out as an av­enue for en­light­ened dis­course. Ar­gu­ments here are made

with ev­i­dence, con­text, and his­tor­i­cal ref­er­ences that have gone through “back­ground brief­ings.” In­stead of blindly back­ing per­son­al­i­ties to drive traf­fic, the pub­li­ca­tion fo­ments poli­cies and ideas that are borne of an un­der­stand­ing of an is­sue’s nu­ances and the peo­ple who are part of it. CuUn­jieng and the Pam­pub­liko team are cur­rently work­ing on their in­au­gu­ral sin­gle is­sue: a deep, multi-di­men­sional dive into the topic of sex work in an at­tempt to craft bet­ter poli­cies re­gard­ing the pro­tec­tion of sex work­ers. For this, in­ter­views and dis­cus­sions are held not with the in­ten­tion of claim­ing one side as vic­to­ri­ous but with the de­sire to reach a col­lec­tive un­der­stand­ing of what’s on the ta­ble, re­gard­less of who’s right. With im­pas­sioned de­bates of­ten end­ing with peo­ple “bash­ing” those who dis­agree with their ideals and opinions, Pam­pub­liko takes away the mind­set that has in­di­vid­u­als im­me­di­ately writ­ing off those with be­liefs con­trary to theirs; in this sphere, CuUn­jieng makes deep em­pa­thy, un­der­stand­ing, and re­spect im­per­a­tive in­stead of bar­gained. “I think hav­ing one of my best friends, one of the smartest peo­ple I know, have com­pletely op­po­site views from mine has been a very en­rich­ing ex­er­cise,” she says. “I couldn’t rest on any as­sumed un­der­stand­ing or shared be­liefs. I had to ar­gue and sub­stan­ti­ate all of my dif­fer­ent po­si­tions.” In­stead of view­ing a dif­fer­ing opin­ion as a stance to be brought down or cor­rected, she sees it in­stead as a pos­si­bil­ity, “a dif­fer­ent as­pect to a topic that I may not have thought of. It gives an added di­men­sion.” The din­ner ta­ble at home is a fre­quent set­ting for “ar­gu­ments” with her dad re­gard­ing cer­tain is­sues. “I have the role of be­ing the [ar­gu­men­ta­tive one] so it’s just the two of us ar­gu­ing mostly; my two broth­ers are much nicer than I am.”

With her work at the of­fice of the chief econ­o­mist at the Depart­ment of Fi­nance, her bud­ding pub­lic pol­icy pub­li­ca­tion, and the press­ing need for dis­course, CuUn­jieng is per­fectly at ease swim­ming in an ocean of in­for­ma­tion, do­ing what­ever she can to care­fully dis­till con­cepts and facts and make them eas­ier to un­der­stand, in or­der to cre­ate a stage for bet­ter di­a­logue and the cre­ation of much bet­ter poli­cies.

Left: Dress, Poe, Rus­tan’s Makati; pants, Sa­cai, Univers, One Rock­well; shoes, Robert Clerg­erie, Univers, One Rock­well. Above: White top, Ri­cardo Preto, Rus­tan’s Makati; black turtle­neck, Eileen Fisher, Rus­tan’s Makati; boots, Chanel.

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