"Diminishing returns" is a well-worn business phrase. But as tycoons have plundered from philosophers like Sun Tzu, the better to improve profit margins, so has civil society – as big a lover of jargon – borrowed from those who otherwise sit at the opposite end of the negotiating table.
Activists and champions of various causes know about diminishing returns. They all genuflect at the feet of big business (or rich foreign political groups) for a share of those tax shelters masquerading as gifts of charity. It's just a matter of matching vested interests to causes and, in some instances, choosing the lesser evil. Which is why the NGO community is so well-versed at shifting priorities to reflect donors' "flavour of the month" or the year or the decade. There's gender, and reproductive health; there's peace-building and human rights; the current favourite is democracy-building.
If the benevolent rich display intermittent periods of donor fatigue, the warm bodies and angry souls that are essential to a successful social movement also make beelines for the exit from time to time.
Call it disillusionment, or the loss of innocence, or even being eaten up by the system. When the goal is change, the road to it may just be as important as actually achieving that social end. After all, some causes may not be won till after our lifetimes; in the meantime, we are answerable to our consciences.
Thus, we hear talk of obsolete approaches; of the need to distinguish between objective and subjective conditions; of tailoring the message to the audience; of – gasp! – listening to the crowd first before stuffing our prescriptions down its collective throat.
All of the above may be reasons for the disappointing results of the opposition's periodic calls to oust President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.
Maybe people have grown tired of People Power – perhaps not the grand fiesta but the aftermath. Maybe the opposition can't quite see that antipathy towards Mrs. Arroyo, and her husband and assorted hangers on, is matched only by hostility towards those who see a convicted plunderer as still a legitimate leader of this nation.
Maybe they're not listening enough, if they're listening at all. As God once quipped to a perpetual moaner: "It's not like I'm ignoring you; it's just that you talk too much I can't get a word in!"
For activists and civil society (what in God's name does THAT mean?) head honchos moaning about apathy, here's a word of advice. Listen to what isn't being said.
RockEd, that innovative group of dreamers, seems to have gotten the message right. The youth are silent because there are so many things they want to say to so many folk; they don't even know where to start. In admitting to that confusion, RockEd shows a level of honesty and degree of humility beyond the ken of opposition stalwarts.
Our young reporter, Alexis, urges us: Listen. There is music in the sunset. There is rage in silence. And there is a message from those struck mute by the clangor of our times.
As RockEd's Gang Badoy puts it: "Wala akong masyadong pakialam sa government at this point. I'm really here more to protest the non-participation of people who are lucky enough to get an education. Kasi more than Malacanang's corruption or more than the Congress's crazy way of doing things, the bigger complaint for me is that we've allowed them to do it. "
Perhaps Badoy should just take that argument one more step. We allow them to do it because we'd do the same if given half the chance.
The youth are getting it right. Change starts with us, every single Filipino soul. There are no short-cuts. If enough of us say no to tong and the quid pro quo, the crooked and the corrupt will get the message of diminishing returns. G