WE’RE TALKING politics: left politics.

A Facebook post eliciting 447 comments is the longest thread I’ve seen so far on a local political topic. It’s about the mobbing of Budget Secretary Florencio “Butch” Abad at the University of the Philippines by a leftist group, known as “national democrats” (natdems), after he spoke in a forum about the national budget.

 With curiosity winning over somnolence, I followed the exchange of comments, and strayed into other similar posts as well, for good measure. The truth is there’s more than curiosity in my opting to follow the thread: the debate allows rare access to knowing what has become of the natdem mindset and method, even just for its own sake.
The comments try to make sense of the natdems’ manner of protest action: hurling placards, crumpled paper, and coins at Abad. Everybody is arguing on an implicitly agreed assumption that Abad is bad and bad is his brainchild, the Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP). Everybody agrees that the action is a violent one.

The focal issue: Is it proper or appropriate? Is it justified?

The UP community has spoken, at least officially. ”Hooliganism” was what 23 UP economics professors chose to call the acts of violence: they “not only violated decency and courtesy, they were an assault on the university itself.” But the UP president opted for a milder tone and called the incident “disturbing” and renounced “the use of violence in any manner against any person.”

If yours is a political formation that cares about its image in the community, you would take precious hint from this, take stock of your position, and take steps in recovering any lost ground. I have never known the natdem formation to behave along that line, and I have yet to see some indications after the Abad incident that it’s behaving differently.

Its reaction is predictable: hit back. So did one zealous UP professor who told his president in Filipino to “go ye to the monastery,” being the only place free from violence. Openly defying the call of the UP professors for them to apologize, the protesters’ organization posted instead their statement on its Facebook page saying “we will never apologize… We’ll leave that to state apologists.”

Still another standard reaction is pure denial, as articulated by one natdem supporter: “The UP School of Economics is not the totality of UP, as its student council does not represent the rest of the other college student councils. President Alfredo Pascual may be the UP president, but anyone who knows UP culture would not even dare refer to him as the bearer of a singular and undivided UP voice.”

Mass perception per se is not really ignored, only the unfavorable ones. The default mode is that the people perceive you affirmatively. And the problem stems from here.

Mass perception is reality. It forms a critical input to your choice of the form of action. If you believe you own the perpetual right to speak for the people in the belief that you hold the all-season franchise for their support, then every conceivable protest action is appropriate for any event.

What justifies the use of violence, as the natdem arguments would show, comes from theory, not from their thought on obtaining reality. One is the notion of “systemic violence” that the masses are made to suffer from by way of poverty, low wages, corruption, DAP, the Priority Development Assistance Fund, etc. Counter-violence is justified as an act of self-defense.

What entitles the natdems to use violence anytime, anywhere, against anybody who they think deserve it, is another notion: “proxy violence.” The natdems are licensed to do it on behalf of the people, and they’ll never ever be wrong.

This point gives so much confidence to the believer that it has prompted one natdem UP professor to ask rhetorically: ”What is f**king morally wrong about the behavior of UP students hurling placards, coins, etc. against Secretary Butch Abad? Let’s further grant: grabbing his collar and psychologically intimidating the rational secretary!”

It also leads one to fail in appreciating the specificity of one form of protest action, and give it a universal applicability. A veteran natdem posted a note to mock Abad. He recalled the events in the first quarter of 1970, when student activists threw effigies and invectives at Marcos, rammed the gates of Malacanang and threw Molotov cocktails, and other such violent protest actions. As if these are one-size-fit-all actions, he tells Abad:

“I heard that when you paid UP a visit recently, the [60] student activists failed to throw effigies or Molotov cocktails at your coterie. I guess activists are much more civil and courteous nowadays. But please don’t fret. They’re still learning the ropes. In time, they will know how to do it properly.”

The veteran is practicing selective perception. He fails to add that these demonstrations were spontaneous actions enjoying wide support from the students. Between 60 and 60,000 activists is a big difference.

And back then, the UP community, led by its president, threw its support behind the student actions.

Few and isolated make for bad politics.

Mario M. Galang is a senior fellow of Action for Economic Reforms and a development and governance specialist.

This article was first posted in BusinessWorld last September 28, 2014.