Widening Philippine Horizons

Analysis and Opinion

By Irineo B. R. Salazar

The Philippines is an enigma to many. There is the “Heritage of Smallness” (Nick Joaquin) which doesn’t scale well, as I have written in “The National Village”. There is a certain insularity which I think is the result of having gone From the Edge to the Middle of Things so quickly and recently.

The Reluctant Activist (a corporate trainer in Metro Manila) mentions aspects of these two as well as a third one – willful ignorance – in a recent FB Posting which I quote in part:

“. . . We need to recognize

    • our cognitive biases,
    • our moral narcissism of not accepting our wrong judgment,
    • our mental laziness,
    • our ignorance, our fact resistance,
    • our regional & tribal affinities,
    • our indifference,
    • our fatalism,
    • our addiction to persona,
    • our attraction to macho leadership,
    • our total dependence on our leaders to do all the dirty work for us and remove our sense of culpability,
    • our blind fanaticism, our unconditional loves, our blanket hates,
    • our rabid religiosity,
    • our bigotry,
    • the fallacies and cliches that cloud our thinking,
    • our inability to see real progress and achievements,
    • our lack of critical thinking,
    • our fascist tendencies,
    • our father issues,
    • the gaps in our souls we fill with idol worship,
    • our vested interests.

Each of us is guilty of at least one of these. And I think I’ve encountered some people who might be guilty of all of these . . .”

The late Edgar Lores wrote about fascism and Idolatry, JoeAm has written about critical thinking, confidence of the dumb and that Duterte is the symptom, not the cause of many things. The “dogmatic ignorance” one can observe isn’t just due to village habits and long isolation, I think.

 

WHAT WE KNOW

Human beings have increased their capacity for knowledge over millennia of development, even as new tools to understand often made our reach exceed our intuitive grasp:

  1. We all started off trusting our senses. They are capable of many things. Older taxi drivers in Munich know their streets. Austronesian navigators knew their seas, the stars and currents. ”Kristos”, a kind of bookie in Philippine cockpits, take bets using a kind of sign language. And people knew what they needed to do in their environment. Andamanese survived the 2004 tsunami by moving to higher ground. Instincts, intuition, word of mouth, experience of elders and stories told over generations were the body of knowledge and wisdom in simpler days. Myths, fairy tales and legends tell of great and tragic happenings and everyday warnings. The real stories behind them faded but the accuracy didn’t matter, the message of the story did.
  2. Next thing was writing. We already developed concepts, classifications of things we dealt with on a daily basis, when we humans started speaking. Thus Filipinos have palay, bigas and kanin as words for rice in different stages of processing. Inuits name different kinds of snow. The first writings like Egyptian hieroglyphs and old Chinese writing were simply pictures, chunked down into syllables in some places (Phoenician alphabet, Katakana in Japan) and  into letters (vowels and consonants) by the Greeks first, making them easier to learn. Cultures wrote down what was important to them. Thus I have seen a bamboo roll with a love letter by a Hanunoo tribesman of Mindoro, written in an old Philippine syllabic script in the 20th century. The 900 A.D. Laguna copperplate certified that a man named Namwaran had been released from debt bondage. Sumerian clay tablets were often barley inventory. Egyptian hieroglyphs showed the way of Pharaohs into the afterlife. The Old Testament was about the beliefs and experiences of the Israelites. Homer wrote about the heroic deeds of people long dead, probably writing down old stories like the Grimm brothers did. Arete, meaning excellence or virtue, could no longer be defined like in the time of warriors like Achilles in emerging democracy, so philosophers tried to redefine it, an ancient kind of civics. Their writings were meant to guide the public as a whole, as well as future generations.
  3. Gutenberg made spreading writings much easier. Martin Luther was one who profited from this. There was also a lot of what would be called fake news around then. Most people did not read much, knowledge and learning was very much monopolized by the clergy, while the rich pictures and statues in Catholic churches show how people were visually guided. Lutherans pioneered in Bible reading at home, fostering mass literacy. Jesuits fostered a modern intellectual tradition within the Catholic Church. Secular academe grew as well.
  4. Modern media made it possible to communicate or be communicated to over distances – instantly. Telegraph, telephone, radio, television, mobile phone, text messages – all gave us the illusion of being close by. But our minds reach already exceed its grasp there because we lack the context that we have when we are face to face with people. Videoconferencing in the age of Covid shows how communication that lacks personal context can exhaust the mind. And there was the danger of “Amusing Ourselves to Death” even then.
  5. Internet and social media make things easier and harder even more than modern media do. We can get information from all over the world, but often too much of it and out of context. Totally different worlds in terms of values collide, meeting halfway is nearly impossible. Fake memes and photos make use of our primate minds natural programming to believe what we see. We often don’t even click deeper, so impressions form based on unverified stuff.

Each technological step can also make us lose old skills. Young taxi drivers in Munich often need GPS which the older ones don’t. I was raised with books, but I often have to force myself to stay off the Internet to take the time to finish one nowadays.

 

FEELING “STUPID”

Star Trek has the rule of not interfering with developing societies in other planets. Spain didn’t.

I. Spanish priests had strong control of village affairs as they raised the kids of the local elites. Scribes and sacristans also were among those who first learned Spanish in the Philippines. Others did not learn Spanish, while the Spanish friars learned the local languages. Some even tweaked Baybayin, the Filipino script, to make it easier to use. Rizal’s novels, especially the Noli, show how many Spanish friars in the Philippines were big fish in a small pond, corrupted by the leverage they had over there. “Education” became a mark of status in the Philippines.

II. Placido Penitente, the character of a Santo Tomas student in Rizal’s El Filibusterismo, tends to bully other students, call them stupid. A friar professor calls his bluff by asking him to explain the difference between glass and metal mirrors based on an ambiguous real example. Penitente starts to recite what he memorized, while the friar teases him with riddle. As he doesn’t really understand his lesson, Placido fails and gets mad, leaving the class. He turns into a sidekick of Simoun, the evil genius, after dropping plans to go abroad.

III. UP was founded in 1908, named just like any American state university. It opened opportunities for academics and professionals, competing with the old clerical schools. Being the high school valedictorian or salutatorian was the passport to an automatic scholarship at UP for a long time, and public schools still were good in the 1950s. Being one of the top two mean a world of difference for one’s future in those days if one was middle class or poor. Grade schools still had seven years and high schools had five years from what I gather.

IV. By the 1970s public schools were practically ghettoized, and children went to the next grade even if they should have repeated, becoming drop-outs after a while. Fewer and fewer public schools students made it to Philippine Science or even UP. Manolo Quezon once wrote that the first, highly motivated generation of Filipino public school teachers retired in the 1970s. Nowadays public schools have around 50 children per class, making rote teaching and an authoritarian approach the only way, someone wrote. Many teachers go abroad as OFWs.

The familiar world of many Filipinos has also changed so much in the last decades. Visayan migrants to UP Balara in the early 1970s still raised pigs and chickens, meaning they were able to live the life they had lived for centuries. OFWs and migrants who come don’t come from the top schools are thrust into a world they don’t have the tools to properly comprehend, outside daily life.As for urban Filipinos, I find the mobile phone lingo used today an indication of a somewhat confused, jumbled view of reality and concepts.

 

CLASHING ATTITUDES

The modern world and its cognitive tools clash with widespread attitudes among Filipinos today.

  1. Our labandera or washing woman came from a remote Cagayan village. She was the first to come to Manila. Her nieces who came to Manila to work as maids trusted her authority and obeyed her as she had experienced the city. One of our labandera’s nieces was an underpaid public school teacher who eventually became a maid in Hong Kong after being one in Manila. She assumed the same role for her nieces who came to Hong Kong. Traditional Filipino elders ARE authoritarian. For those in survival mode, it is like in battle – don’t discuss, no time.
  2. For those not in survival mode, there is probably a bit of a holdover from the mainly dogmatic and backward Spanish Catholic tradition in the Philippines that Rizal vividly described. The tradition of proclaiming the truth ex cathedra could come from there. For a Filipino 100-percenter, to be proven wrong is to be where PlacidoPenitente has been. The scientific idea that truth is searched for and approximated ever better is alien to such a mindset. Gradually improving one’s knowledge and skills is probably alien to it as well.
  3. Trapos of knowledge exist who hog it like tradpolswealth and power. They are the heirs to the friar professor who humiliated Placido Penitente. A too competitive educational system that does not give respectable niches to those who aren’t the best produces some people who hate intellectuality. Sophists like Fr. Ranhilio Aquino basically play the same game as the sarcastic friar, using false dichotomies to tantalize and confuse those without the tools of analysis to discern. Name-dropping and one-upmanship are part of many a nasty discourse.

This is how it looks like to me today. What can be done about it?

 

SUGGESTIONS

Some ideas as food for thought:

A. K-12 is in principle a good idea. Classroom equipment and class size needs to be improved, teachers paid better.  Digitalization should be pushed in a way that creates local jobs. IF Filipino is to be improved, more subjects should be taught in it to practice pupils early. Fewercourses in English but then make sure that the English is properly taught. Rote at the start, more independent problem-solving assignments and small projects later on. Actual civic work once a week in a year to give the pupils and students a feel for issues of the nation.

B. Context. High-context communication is for in-groups and local contexts. Communication should “fetch” a person from where he is. Industrial firms depend on researchers, engineers and technicians communicating and giving each other feedback.  Those who are good at something should learn not to talk down to those who are less proficient, and those less proficient should be more forthright.  Intellectuals and journalists should avoid innuendo and deal straight but in a civil way. Logical people should learn from the intuitive and vice versa.

C. Discussions similar to the discussion on “Pilipino” vs. “Filipino” should be avoided as they are very low priority. Schools should use an official dictionary made by a group that is flexible enough to accept contemporary changes in language while avoiding or at least marking slang which hasn’t passed into polite usage. Opinion leaders should all stop using simplistic labels such as “oligarch” and “elitist” – or “stupid masses”. How this can be achieved I don’t know but it is where it should arrive. Simplistic divisions have worsened huge rifts.

 

HORIZONS

Also, it makes sense to reconnect to the reality of one’s own land and water. Gideon Lasco mentioned that Rizal climbed Mount Makiling. His descriptions of the Pasig River and Laguna de Bay showed familiarity with the landscape. Historians and journalists who are already very strong in interviewing present-day witnesses for recent events should continue so people see that news and history are not just constructs. True philosophy might start with questions like thisand continue with answers like this, echoing the old Greek discussion on arete as new values for the Republic (politeia).

What a society sees as good changes with times. Even the meanings of words change: Homeric warrior arete vs. Platonic civic arete. The Catholic idea of virtue is different from the Roman idea of virtus which has the root word vir: man. Some DDS might think a virtuous man is not virile. Likewise, bayani often is taken to mean just warrior virtue. The related words berani in Malay and bagani in Maguindanao just mean warrior, but modern bayani can be more in the sense of bayanihan or helping within the community. Like VP Leni’s BayaniHanapBuhay program for jobs today.

The Spanish heroe El Cid (Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar) differs from the Volksheld (folk hero) Wilhelm Tell who shot the bailiff Gessler. Rizal I think translated Wilhelm Tell by Schiller into Tagalog for a reason. Rodrigo Duterte “joked” about jet skiing to the Spratleys. Don Quixote fought windmills, is that his idea of a hero? Some deride Rizal and Ninoy for not fighting, but a complex society also needs thought and opinion leaders. Builders like Quezon are often ignored these days. Finally, Covid shows that one can’t slap a virus, or fight it with police in fatigues. The Philippines has alot to sort out.

Irineo B. R. Salazar, Munich, 18 September 2020​

Thanks to Karl Garcia, Giancarlo Angulo, Manolo Quezon and many others for various ideas.

 

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