When the Philippines Plays, the Nation Burns

nero fiddlingNero fiddled as Rome burned.

Filipinos are dancing and singing – and arguing – as the nation muddles forward . . . divided and wasting $billions.

It struck me as a lightning bolt the other day how superficiality leads to the argument and divisiveness that we see everywhere in the Philippines, from the barangay election shootings to the senatorial pit of snarls and spite. The nation is beating itself into paralysis and incompetence with bitter complaints, posturing for power, and sensationalism that promotes anger rather than positive well-being. In this sensationalist era, thinking is thin and simple and too often wrong. Even religion is not deep, for superstition and personal ambition are allowed to overlay belief and suck the discipline out of decent values.

Shallow is destructive

The episode that gave me the sharp realization that shallow is destructive started when I wrote the blog “Why I respect President Aquino”. In that blog, I did a checklist of examples of President Aquino’s good handling of this crisis or that. It was a top of mind rendition, rather shallow in fact, even error prone, and it did not present the whole picture. Just positive highlights. I was making a case that we can find positive if we want to.

Well, mainly I deal in fairly simple ideas trying to figure out the Philippines, so I tend to move in a shallow world putting 2 and 2 together so it adds up fairly close to 4. No calculus at all.

A response to my list was presented by reader hypo crite. He did a superb job of balancing the slate, putting each item on the list in a negative light and pointing out where I was wrong in attributing the jailing of Ampatuan to Aquino. Then he called me a liar, among other personal slurs.

Well, I’m not really a liar. But I often write for effect rather than speak with impeccable truth. Rather like a fictional novel has its meanings. So I suppose in that vein even Charles Dickens was a liar.

But look carefully at what happened.

My list was shallow conclusions, hypo crite’s list was shallow conclusions, and the casting of one against the other led to personal insult. The personal insult is a simple tool that says an argument can be won  if you destroy the credibility of the opponent. It is a tool that attorneys use to discredit witnesses who testify against their client. They use it because it works.

But unfortunately, it does not lead to the discovery of truth, just the destruction of character. And, given enough character destruction and you get a pit of contentious strife.

That is where too much discourse heads, shallow statements and insults lobbed back and forth, building in intensity. But seldom depth.

Listening fundamentally stops. Learning stops. Angry argument ensues.

If we took any of the items on my shallow list, say the Sultan’s foray into Malaysia, we’d find it had a lot of facets that would have to be included in any meaningful discussion: historical claims by the Sultan’s family, Philippine relationships with Malaysia, dialogue between the government and the Sultan, how the invaders traveled to Malaysia and were funded, the choices the President had as to what to do. It was a tremendously complex situation. And anywhere along the way we could draw a conclusion, either positive or negative, toward President Aquino.

That’s where we need to think about WHY we are making a choice, for or against President Aquino.

Are we doing it to win the argument? That is, because of our own self-interest?

Or are  we doing careful due diligence to discovery the complex elements that likely went into the President’s decision?

Well, I’m thinking that the truth is that the President is no villain. And the Sultan is no villain, either. Perhaps mistakes were made and people paid a big price for them. But our shallow, sensationalist need to find villains rather than solutions – as if we were engaged in a TV teledrama – is destructive.

Yes, yes, we are all shallow to some extent – we only know what we know – and we would be remiss if we did not at least START discovery. So the problem is not engaging in discussion, but in failure to open our minds to what other information might be available to us. Even from our “opponent”.

Here’s what I suggest.

  • First, that we begin any discussion with the knowledge that our position – no matter how informed – is NECESSARILY a starting point to discussion.

Not an ending point.

  • Second, following from our recognition there may be more information to be had, let’s listen to what the critics are saying, without quickly (and superficially) judging them.
  • Third, let’s take satisfaction that we are not being driven by our own neediness, but by an overriding desire to make the Philippines strong and unified, a place of good, deep thinking.

If we did that, there would only be two groups contributing to divisiveness in the Philippines: those with INTENT to be divisive, and those too insecure to go positive.

And we can squash them.

15 Responses to “When the Philippines Plays, the Nation Burns”
  1. cha says:

    Superficiality. Maybe so.

    Or from a developmental standpoint, we can peg it to intellectual and/or emotional maturity. (Or lack thereof.)

    In an educational system that gives very little encouragement for creative and critical thinking; where the task of the student is to simply commit to memory the right answers instead of investigating and then assessing which among several alternatives best addresses the issue on hand, one comes out seeing the world simply in black and white. That there is only right and wrong (dualism) and differing opinions are not acceptable. “I believe I am right, therefore you must be wrong.”

    JoeAm’s suggestion to begin any discussion with the attitude “that our position – no matter how informed – is NECESSARILY a starting point to discussion” is an invitation to progress to another stage of intellectual development, where there is a recognition of the multiplicity of opinions and solutions to the problems confronting us. Differing opinions are allowed until the truth is discovered. It is not quite a stage of full intellectual maturity but it’s certainly a step forward.

    There is a big wonderful world of information and knowledge out there that can really help us become better participants in this task of shaping the future of this minuscule part of the universe we are in. We need only open ourselves to the possibility that we just might learn something new, something different, perhaps better than what we thought we already new.

    • Joe America says:

      I like your term “dualism”, as it has two meanings (1) two black and white positions (2) dueled over. Duelism.

      There seems to be an absence of curiosity, like the kind that puts men on the moon and spies in our computers. Or makes an economy flourish with a drive for new ways to make money.

      That concept you mentioned, that our engagement is a STARTING POINT, is the single most important point of the article. Too many discussions are, like, “here is my opinion, and I’m not really interested in anything more”. Hmmm, okay . . .

      • cha says:

        “There seems to be an absence of curiosity, like the kind that puts men on the moon and spies in our computers. Or makes an economy flourish with a drive for new ways to make money.”

        That’s what I thought before, but over the last two weeks I was there, I saw otherwise. I’ve seen so many innovative approaches people are taking to improve their business, financial positioning. Sadly, mainstream media does not seem to be much interested in them. And they themselves, are too busy pursuing opportunities all over them to take part in all the social media hullabaloo. There is a different Philippines out there, and different Filipinos from what we read about in mainstream and social media. There is much reason to be optimistic about the future still.

        • Joe America says:

          That’s good to hear. I view the large corporations as aggressive and successful and its good to know you observed innovation. The next stages for small businesses would be discipline of implementing programs and capital to fund them. I frankly think there is a lot of money to be made in the Philippines over the next 25 years. The place will positively roar if the smuggling and stealing leaks get plugged up. Thanks for the optimism.

          • cha says:

            Those small businesses do look like they are making money. Take the food business, for one. When I find the time, I might write about what I’ve seen people ‘cooking up’, literally and figuratively. I think it’s quite interesting and exciting how Filipino cuisine now has such a prominent place in the Philippine restaurant scene. From the lowly turo-turo, Filipino dishes have found their way to more upscale settings. And there seems to be no shortage of patrons willing to pay the price. I believe that’s a testament to the entrepreneurial and innovative spirit of a new breed of Filipino restaurateurs. Yum, yum.

            • Joe America says:

              I have grown to LOVE Filipino foods. The variety and depth of flavors is amazing. Much of the stuff grows wild in the back yard. Fish, fresh-caught, a delight we didn’t have on the farm where I grew up. Now the Philippine cows, I don’t think much of (beef). But the pigs are divine. haha Please write your article.

  2. Greg Hill says:

    Your third paragraph:
    … The nation is beating itself into paralysis and incompetence with bitter complaints, posturing for power, and sensationalism … thinking is thin and simple and too often wrong. Even religion is not deep, for superstition and personal ambition are allowed to overlay belief and suck the discipline out of decent values.

    That’s a powerful paragraph, stuffed full of merit and meaning. I’ve read it over and over and enjoy it each time.

    Apart from the usual literary merit of your post (take a bow) I can’t help but agree with the thrust of your post. So much of our society is increasingly adversarial: government versus opposition, prosecution versus defense, environmentalists versus industry, unions versus employers, shock-jocks on radio and of course discussion on blogs.

    Groups and individuals take positions to win a debate, not to learn or progress understanding. Your post on Aquino certainly illustrated just how quickly meaningful discussion can degrade into hateful exchanges. Positions become polarised, driving divisions into our society rather than bringing us together.

    We live in a complex world with highly complex issues. They are not black and white, and there can be many views on the issues. In fact issues are becoming so complex that often I don’t understand them, and increasingly I find myself relying on “subject matter experts” such as academics to interpret and summarise for me.

    For two people to hold alternate views does not necessarily mean one is wrong. But we don’t hear this message in our society from our leaders.

    How often do we hear anyone say, “I thought I understood this issue, but I didn’t. I’ve now changed my view.”

    Or, “I thought this issue was simple, but now I understand it’s not. I don’t know what to think now.”

    There needs to be some circuit-breaker to stop the increasingly adversarial trend that degrades us all. But what?

    • Joe America says:

      Thanks for the kind words, Greg. Maybe when people get exhausted from bickering and kicking one another, things will change. Or we need mass meditation or drugs. The US seems to be leading the pack in bitter divisiveness and it is painful to watch. People say to me “Well, the US is opinionated and destructive, too, so don’t pick on the Philippines” I’m inclined to respond, “Uh, so why not try to be BETTER than the US?”.

  3. Joseph-Ivo says:

    Some related thoughts.

    1. Important is to know how you enter the room. As a westerner, a missionary with the mentality of “what can I teach” (because I know better) or as a Japanese asking yourself “what can I learn?” (because the other one is thriving too, so he must do something right, let’s find out what it is)

    2. Some just storm in and start shouting (because insecure), others just enjoy the loud noise of an echo chamber, some are just utterly narcissistic. All of them quite uninteresting.

    3 We all should start our contribution with “apparently and according my model of reality…”, even if we describe a universal law of physics, the more so if we talk about politics.

    4. Personally I like to test my “models”, can somebody confirm or object my model with additional “apparent” evidence.

    5. Can somebody change my “mind” (the way I see it)? Not easily. Can somebody change my “heart” (the way I do it) not likely at all. Believes only come from personal experience and from talks with a few trusted friends.

    6. One can try to argue on in rational way or in an anecdotic way, stressing the factual side or the emotional side.

    7. In my mother tongue and culture and in person to person discussions it is much easier to situate somebody, you can situate a vocabulary, an appearance and adjust accordingly. In a foreign country, in a foreign language and on internet you easily assume that all are the same.

    8. Marcos, he killed a culture of “illustrado’s” replacing it by a culture of cronies. Critical Filipino thinkers had to immigrate. Diploma mills and sub-par education became the rule. You feel quite a difference in discussing with the pre-1970 and post-1970 graduates. Diploma mills entered the equation, the leading role of the Philippines in South East Asia melted away.

    (numbering learned from Edgar)

    • Joe America says:

      1. How does a Filipino enter the room? (ahahahaha, “late” is not the right answer!)

      3. Yes, asterisks and caveats galore.

      5. I’ve gotten mentally more pliable since blogging. Now your observation of the heart is an interesting one. By that, I take it you mean what you hold dear as a value, or commitment.

      6. Yes. Very good. I spent 30 years working to gather facts and now I like anecdotes or even poetry.

      7. Very wise observation.

      8. Marcos is what some would anecdotally refer to as a game-changer, and others a jerk.

      (Edgar is a fine teacher and you are intellectually pliable.)

      • Joseph-Ivo says:

        1. How a Filipino enter your blog depends. Often they imitate their (previous) western bosses, “we know it all”, if insecure they come in shouting. When more relaxed and confident, their Asian soul shows and they want to find out, they want to see if they can pick up something useful, contributing in form of a question more than expressing a final opinion.

        5. The heart is what makes you tick, that gives the impulse to do something, that colors all with emotions. (it resides not in frontal cortex but in deeper more automatic parts of the brain)

  4. ella says:

    No originality, no curiosity and yes, shallow actually very shallow. It is in our educational system and also in the Catholic Religion … the system of education and the catholic religion is just for us to memorize everything and take the words of our teachers and religious leaders as it is without even teaching us to ask the questions why and how.

    But with Filipinos going all over the world in search of a better work to better their families here in the Philippines, they are learning lots of stuff. Unfortunately, the reality is that there are more Filipinos that are not given the opportunity to go out of their own world and see the world outside.

    However, there is still hope because of the wonders of technology like the internet, which if put to good use, will open our minds both thinking and reasoning to the different possibilities outside the Philippines.

    I also hope that media like the local television stations will help us to think critically of all the things that are happening in the country.

    And yes, hopefully we as a people will learn to accept the opinions of others, even if they do not agree with us. Respect is one thing that we Filipinos should really learn. Respect in all levels of our dealings towards each other ….

    • Joe America says:

      What I find interesting is that the lessons of the Bible, particularly the New Testament, teach good values and consideration of other people. Such sinners we become, eh, when we try to insult and dominate others?

  5. Jon Effemey says:


    Thanks for you blog.

    I am still learning about this country being fairly new to being here as you know.
    I have already blogged here what I see as “positives” and there are many about the Philippines.
    As for Aquino I thought there was a very well balanced account in the New York Times about him
    This was in responses to his comments about Hitler and World War II. They were pretty positive. How I read things here at present is not so much Aquino as to who will come next. Has he made enough changes here to prevent the return of a president in 2016 who will take the Philippines backwards? The old guard as I see them are still lurking in the undergrowth.
    I can’t say anything about the US, but England, the UK is now in a mess. Insular and reactionary.
    Changing a country is like changing your self, not easy. I feel this country is aware of its problems and is trying to do something about them.
    I really find this refreshing where the UK still thinks it has an Empire and its politicians think it is 1814 and not 2014. Here in the Philippines they know it is 2014.

    • Joe America says:

      Thanks for the note, Jon. The US is getting more polarized and hostile. Strange. I enjoy the Philippines. It is somehow real and full of promise. . . And sometimes a little crazy making. 🙂 Stop by any time.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: