Column: Turning Filipino misery into hope

Published on July 21, 2015.

THE LAST two columns—a consideration of the returning Filipino’s frustration that the Philippines is “being left behind,” followed by a discussion of the “deadly” Filipino habits that help explain why—lead us to the necessary question: What can we do about it? The several hundred comments on both Disqus and Facebook (I have tried to read every single one) have mostly been thoughtful if pained responses: elaborations of the argument, illustrations from personal experience.

There have been contrary views, of course. By directing attention to our “misery,” to the “ways of doing” that “like inclement weather, prevent progress from taking off,” I have also been accused of being insufficiently patriotic, or being an irresponsible journalist, or being an antinationalistic pluviophile. (Okay, I made the last one up—but the columns have also been criticized for “wallowing,” as though I cannot get enough of the country’s flight-disrupting rains.)

I have tried to define the limits of my opinion with care. In one column, I attested, “from my own happy experience,” to “the resurgence in patriotic pride since the late 1980s,” and asserted that today there is “a greater clarity about our place in the sun.” In the other column, I pointed to the “pattern of excellence” Filipinos make while working or studying or living abroad, and gave specific examples. One cannot wrench any criticism of Philippine society away from the context which made it possible; that would be to do as online trolls do, and respond only to headlines or their own cue lines.

So: Where are our sources of hope, where lie the possibilities of our improvement? I would like to think that the defining context already offers a way out, but the short answer is: We start with where we are, and with who we are. I can go back to the generation of Rizal (“we must prove superior to our misfortune”) because that is my area of study, but I have just again been rereading the “interdisciplinary reflections” of Jesuit scholars on “The ‘Miracle’ of the Philippine Revolution,” shared just weeks after Edsa 1986 had people-powered Ferdinand Marcos and his family out of Malacañang. I find that the views of the pastoral psychologist Ruben Tanseco, SJ and the sociologist John Carroll, SJ, in particular, speak directly to our issue, almost 30 years after they spoke at the podium: the role of culture, of habits and values, in changing a system.

Tanseco’s insight into Edsa is both discerning and monitory. “There are certain qualities or traits which I had considered rather negative in the past—points of weakness in the culture which were taken advantage of during the last 20 years by Mr. Marcos and his system. The very traits that were taken advantage of in the collective psyche of the Filipino are some of the very same qualities that facilitated the revolution. So that from negatives they turned into positives as it were—a case of God using the foolish to confound the wise.”

This, I suggest, is how we should take the discussion of Filipino habits to the next level: See how they can be turned. “But at Edsa, these were the very qualities that facilitated the unprecedented revolution. From nonassertiveness to active nonviolence—mahinahon, ayaw ng gulo, hindi basag-ulero, easy-easy lang, puedeng areglohin, pag-usapan, pagdasalan ng rosaryo, mapagtiis, mapag-pasensiya, maka-Diyos, authority-centered. These were very evident not only on the part of the people in the streets but also on the part of the military. In their hearts, many of those soldiers were really mahinahon. In their heart of hearts many were really ayaw ng gulo. The passive trait became a virtue. Like a two-edged sword or the two sides of the same coin. Our weakness can also be our strength.”

Sometimes we can be tempted to sweep our weaknesses away and start all over again. But Carroll argues: “I see a danger… in imagining that we must set about to remake the value-system of the Filipino, starting perhaps with early childhood. In fact, I see many dangers in such a proposal, including that of playing God. Instead, I would suggest that the problem is more one of social structure than of values themselves.”

He then offers a simple but potent illustration. “The values are there: note the solidarity during the revolution, of which we have been speaking; and recall if you wish how, when food was being handed out on Edsa, people did not push into line but rather hung back and tried to see that others were taken care of first. But I can imagine one of those same people driving home, caught in traffic at an intersection and bulling his way ahead even though he tied everything else up in the process; or waiting for a bus at Quiapo and trampling on women and children in the struggle to get aboard. What explains the difference in the behavior of the same individual under different circumstances? Precisely the circumstances, I would say, and the individual’s awareness of what those around him expect of him and what he can expect of them. On Edsa, people united in a common cause expected others to be considerate and knew that consideration was expected of them as well; and they derived satisfaction from conforming to those expectations.”

If we reflect on our victories, large and small, perhaps we will find that many of them involved building a social structure that allowed high expectations to determine our behavior: A high-functioning school turns the authority-centered attention of concerned parents and the mapagtiis conduct of bright young students into world-beating feats in maths; a high-achieving multinational franchise turns its employees’ hindi basag-ulero and pag-usapan values into efficient smoothness and best-of-breed achievement. And so on. We can start from there.

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