We often hear the phrase “culture of impunity” attributed to Filipinos. Indeed, nothing could be more true. We so incline ourselves to latching on to improper habits that present no immediately unpleasant outcomes without really understanding long-term ramifications associated with said habits.
Impunity fits snugly within a more holistic framework that describes in a coherent structure the disastrous nature of Philippine society’s imprisonment in itsdysfunctional culture — The Filipino Cultural Trinity:
A convenient example of the application of this framework are the circumstances surrounding disastrous flooding of Philippine cities and Filipinos’ typical collective response to such disasters.
In recent weeks, there’s been a lot of backpatting accompanying all the feel-good stories surrounding the heroism and “bayanihan” supposedly exhibited in the aftermath of the destruction wreaked by tropical cyclone Ondoy on Metro Manila. To be fair, there is reason to congratulate ourselves. The motivation to “help out” and “contribute” to the relief effort transcended social class and political affiliation. However when we frame the issues against the Filipino Cultural Trinity, some disturbing aspects surrounding the mix of volunteers’ euphoria and victims’ grief that characterises disasters are highlighted.
For one thing, the “bayanihan” we see today is just a souped-up version of our normal mode of operations. Indeed, it is really more a matter of turning the volume up when it is time to dance.
Bahala na: As always, altruism when disaster strikes saves the day as the preferred alternative to the more onerous task of building sustainable ways of living by investing in measures to mitigate disaster. Why invest in progressively and contnuously strengthening the foundations of our standard of living when we can always rely on the resource-rich to help out when times are tough — as that characteristically Filipino way of thinking goes.
Pwede na yan: For now, most of Ondoy‘s flood victims are surving on a steady supply of relief goods organised by the resource-rich. When the collective guilt has been absolved, the call to return to business-as-usual starts to overshadow the call to temporary duty, and the images of people “helping out” on Facebook become commoditised, what is an unsustainable pipeline of supplies to begin with reduces to a mere trickle. Eventually everyone moves on — the rich withdraw back into their gated communities and the poor move back into the floodplains. Next disaster, plez.
Impunity: This third component of the Filipino Cultural Trinity is what set us up for this disaster in the first place. In the short-term, there were no unpleasant consequences associated with dumping garbage and raw sewage into our stormdrain systems.
In short, both the rescue efforts during and directly after the disaster and the lifeline of relief effort to victims sustained in its aftermath are driven largely by private sector initiative. They in no way represent our taxes at work properly channeled through public facilities and services. Rather, they are products of informal coping mechanisms — the altruism of the resource-rich and what Randy David calls “private solutions to collective problems”.
There is nothing wrong with informal private coping mechanisms; that is, until these become the preferred option that results in gross neglect of formal public mechanisms.
The perversion of volunteerism.
Volunteerism is a noble informal coping mechanism and it is heartening to see volunteerism alive and well in Philippine society in the face of crushing defeat in the hands of Mother Nature. Yet on closer examination, there are a few observations that beg to be highlighted in the way it is practiced in the Philippine setting.
We see it all over Facebook — people grandstanding about what and how they are contributing “selflessly”. Social networking has encroached on what was once the exclusive role of journalists and the media. The Media once held exclusive claim over the role of capturing images and stories of events and their publication. Not any more. People are now able to — and have taken it upon themselves — to capture events (which they themselves play the “hero” in) on film and self-publish these on the Web for their friends and peers to gawk at. Quiet achievement — with recognition as just a bonus — has been superceded by action with instant-recognition as a pre-requisite.
There is something amusing in seeing well-heeled folk packing relief bags in makeshift warehouses and loading them onto trucks (again I thank Facebook for that). Many of these are people who come from households where domestic servants may outnumber their employers almost two-to-one. Wouldn’t it have been more efficient to simply deploy their servants to those centers to do the manual work while they themselves focus their energies (and core skills) on tasks that deliver bigger, more far-reaching, and longer-term bang (such as getting on the phone to chew out the politicians they routinely fund and hobnob with for neglecting public infrastructure for so long).
Perhaps all that tacky self-promotion enabled by modern technology hides a more ancient underlying psyche — guilt. Just as feast all year fast for one week is the Filipino motto behind the Easter Holidays (“Holy Week” as Filipinos call it), “helping out” when disaster strikes is what absolves the resource-rich of a way of life characterised primarily by NIMBY-ism (“not in my backyard”).
I’ve fasted/self-flagellated this week.
I’ve contributed/done “my part” today.
What’s the difference between the two? Simple answer: Nothing. They are the same. They both relieve personal guilt over an inability to ingrain doing things properly into our routine way of life. And neither addresses the harder question:
What happens next?
The voices that call out that very important question are routinely drowned out by the deafening noise of mainstream “debate”. Indeed, the perversion of the psychology that underlies “doing good” and “helping out” seems to take its cue from the Philippine Media itself. Commentor “Joe America” expressed it quite well and succinctly in a comment on FilipinoVoices.com:
The media seem to be a part of the general theme of “arrogance of self” over common good. ABS/CBN, for instance, lacks a proper ethical foundation when the company seeks to BE the news instead of report on it, and when they make sure the stars of their programs are front and center doling out aid. It is a rather sick, slick kind of help, corrupt, if you will, in that it perverts a good deed in the face of tragedy for commercial gain. It works at cross purposes to the REAL aid-givers who are blocked from proper coverage because of the self promotion
So even as we assure ourselves that the “prayerfulness” and “resilience” of our people will see us through, there is a palpable undercurrent of cynicism evident whenever the topic of the future is brought up. Perhaps this oblique nature that Philippine volunteerism has come to evolve into reflects so closely the utter phoniness or, worse, emptiness of our resolve to be a better people.
The “bayanihan” we imagine to have happened over the last week or two props up our “hope” that Filipinos will be “ok” in the future. Hope in what exactly? Yes, it’s that niggling question again that remains the elephant in the room.
How can there be hope when far bigger tragedies that occurred in the past due also to human neglect remain unaddressed today. What are we doing differently?
If the way our leaders and future leaders have responded to this disaster can be considered to be good indicators of what happens next, there is indeed little reason to be hopeful. That is where leadership and vision come into the picture, Mr. Filipino Politician. One would expect that our future leaders would have already anticipated much of the key challenges that grip our society even before they had joined any race to public office to begin with.
That’s just a bit too much to ask of Filipino politicians, I suppose; because rather than step up to the grade befitting true leaders, they merely choose to reflect the society they aspire to lead.