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MAPping the Future

Bullying and the forgotten virtue of justice

/ 05:02 AM January 21, 2019

(Conclusion)

At a national level, it’s hard to parse out what is due to defects in our judicial system and what stems from our cultural indifference to pursuing justice. But doesn’t it seem we seldom punish the gravest of crimes in a timely, final or permanent manner, whether it be enormous corruption, heinous massacres, famous murders or participation/complicity in violent acts of rebellion? It appears we are mostly content when the offending party is simply taken out of office so no further harm can be done.

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And no matter what your political alliance, bias or perspective, doesn’t it seem that all around, there are prominent private persons, government officials or whole groups of people who have most demonstrably committed serious crimes but are not being pursued, prosecuted and punished? We seem almost always in a rush to forget about things and move along.

Lack of justice produces some curious outcomes it seems. One is that even perfectly intelligent, benevolent and docile people will say something like, “We should elect (insert his/her favorite strongman) to (an elected office), so that he can wipe out (insert his/her pet perpetrator of some malfeasance, from corruption to drug-dealing).”

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By wipe out, they mean kill of course-something these people wouldn’t contemplate doing themselves in their wildest dreams. It is an overreaction brought on by a severe shortage of justice they feel, just like a starving man can eat himself to death with his first meal (because the sudden intake of too much food can shock his digestive system).

More banally, you see it in the reactions to the recent videos of bullying in Ateneo that made its rounds on social media. I understand that the perpetrator’s brother (no saint himself apparently) was beaten outside a bar as retribution, and that someone challenged the father of the offender to a fight, proposing that this was all the dad’s fault for not raising his child correctly. Never mind that the student in question is a teenager with his own free will. Never mind that there were many other Ateneans on the scene who were not courageous enough to intervene; their fathers and Ateneo didn’t do such a hot job with them either.

Although it is a matter of opinion, there are also many who took exception to Ateneo’s dismissal of the bully rather than expulsion. (The latter would make it nearly impossible for the bully to enter another school.) I disagree. I think dismissal is proper because from what I understand, the bully expressed remorse, and he is still a minor after all.

That was a proper balance of justice and mercy, a form of forbearance from the educational community.

What I took exception to was the tone of the letter from Ateneo’s president promising assistance to both bully and victim, and carrying on in the last fourth of his letter about not fighting at all, especially in the spirit of Christmas.

First, as a priest, I would fully expect him personally to try to help both parties, but speaking as the head of an institution, Ateneo should confine itself to helping its student who was victimized on its premises. Second, the admonition to “summon the courage to stop fighting one another” is completely out of place. Precisely what was lacking here was the courage to intervene—and physically fight if need be—in all the bystanders whom I hope Ateneo will eventually transform into men.

Finally, in invoking Christmas, perhaps Father Villarin should contemplate how much fighting the greatest healer and teacher, indeed the perfect man, has to do to end up nailed on a cross after only three years of work.

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A crazier Ateneo story (I won’t mention names here for I don’t want to name and shame people who are long retired or dead): When I was in the sixth grade, my science teacher came to me and told me that the grade level coordinator (or “GLC,” the person who manages teachers at that grade level) had unilaterally changed my grade for no reason, but that he couldn’t do anything about it.

I went to my homeroom teacher to ask her for help but she said she couldn’t do anything about it either. I went to my mom, who then went to the assistant principal, who likewise did nothing about it. My mom then went to the then president of Ateneo, who told the grade school principal to address the issue. The principal in front of my mom then summoned the GLC to ask him what happened. His response was that he thought he had the authority to change my grade, but couldn’t even give a reason why he would want to do so. My grades were promptly changed back to what they were supposed to be. I still have the white-out-corrected report card.

But the GLC was never fired; he continued on. He should have lost not only his job but his teaching credentials for altering academic records. In fact, he repeated the offense by not carrying over my merit scores to the seventh grade, a fact later discovered and corrected by the seventh-grade GLC after I inquired about it.

He asked me whether I wanted to file a complaint but I declined; I didn’t want the trouble. (So when I read these days about the absence of serious investigation and punishment for sexual misconduct by clergy, I understand but of course do not condone: my Church, like my country, is simply heavily biased toward mercy.)

Many years later, when it was my nephews’ turn to attend Ateneo Grade School, I discovered that the offending GLC was still there. I was tempted to bring my 5’11,” bench-pressed, and lat-pulled frame to his office and say something like, “I demand an apology and an explanation for what you did to me when I was in Grade 6, or you’ll be going to the hospital today, old man.” But I decided not to because, well, I’m a Catholic and a Filipino, so am prone to say “forgive as you are forgiven” and tend not understand the importance of justice. And justice is a hard virtue, in more ways than one.

I should have done something in retrospect, as the man never apologized, never got punishment, and indeed repeated the offense, as people are wont to do when they’re not subjected to justice.

As individuals and as a nation, I suspect we’ll always be confused and we won’t achieve the unity and progress we hope for, unless we understand and apply the proper dollop of justice to balance our proclivity for mercy.

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