Apparently Inquirer columnist Patricia Evangelista made a few waves among supporters of presidential candidate Richard Gordon in her recent article People call me Dick by making something about the man’s assertive and straight-to-the-point manner of conducting himself. Evangelista’s final indictment illustrates the very nature of some basic concepts about being a leader, that Filipinos so pathetically struggle with:
I never met Gordon before the election season. Whether this is who he really is, or whether the ranting and raving is a reaction to stress and pressure and the survey numbers he swears he cares nothing for, this is not what I want from my president. Presidents are not exempt from humility, and those who think they are end up tyrants and dictators. It is a waste of what would have made a good leader; perhaps a long time ago Gordon knew how to inspire.
In short, Evangelista echoes a common impulse characteristic of the Filipino Mind which in its omnitemporal smallness is quick to find offense in the face of confrontation with superior arguments and efficiently-worded recommendations. This impulse often manifests itself in a single Tagalog word uttered usually in insolent indignation:
Roughly translated in English: “You arrogant fool!”.
The trouble with minds imprisoned by the severe limiting effect of the Tagalog dialect (the basis of that “national language” Filipinos imagine themselves to posses) is that what are essentially the distinct virtues of assertiveness, self-confidence, and results-orientation are simply rolled up in a spectacular exercise of small-minded simplification into the over-arching concept of yabang. In Filipino culture, this convenient encapsulation into a single word reflects a woeful one-dimensional regard for what is really a multi-faceted suite of fundamental attitudes that are absolutely essential in the practice of a Western form of governance such as democracy.
Quite a while back, Michael Tan wrote about this predisposition to cut people down to a more “palatable” level (an exercise that is a close cousin of the world-renowned crab mentality of Pinoys) in his piece The Myth of Asian Modesty. But Tan’s true genius lies more in how, with a couple of intuitive examples in the above article, he clearly articulates how VERY DIFFERENT assertiveness and arrogance really are — something that Filipinos are locked in a monumental internal struggle to culturally come to terms with given their monomanic one-word encapsulation of those two concepts along with the broad spectrum of flavours that lie in between them.
Here is Michael Tan…
On Filipinos’ habitual misinterpretation of assertiveness:
Let’s start by looking at instances when we label Westerners as being “yabang”. I’m going to give a concrete example here, using a common story that comes from Filipinos new to the United States. They go into a store and ask the sales clerk for a certain item. The clerk checks the computer and goes, “Sorry, man, but I don’t have that in stock right now, but hey, I can order one for you if you want.”
Many Filipinos have told me variations of that story and cited them as “proof” that the Westerner is “yabang”. “Imagine,” they point out, “he’s only a clerk and he talks like he owns the store. And calling me ‘hey man’ and offering to get me the item. Yabang.”
What we see here is a misinterpretation of the clerk’s self-confidence, and typical American go-getter business attitude. When they offer to order the item for you, it’s because they know it makes good business sense, rather than have you buy from someone else.
Yet despite this aversion to assertiveness, Pinoys have a penchant for peacock-like displays of status and wealth…
On Filipinos’ more natural tendency to one-dimensional arrogance:
The swagger, the insolent voice, the conspicuous consumption of wealth are all part of an assertion of privilege, a long-playing ritual to intimidate others into “modest” silence. In countries where such a culture dominates, like the Philippines, progress is slow. There is little room for innovation or creativity since individual merit is rarely recognized. The only way up, besides being born into privilege, is to join the circle of sycophants that sing daily praise to those in power.
Our language says it all. We do not have words for “modest” and “modesty” in Tagalog, except in the sense of how a woman is supposed to behave. We do have a word for “humble” – mapagpakumbaba, which emphasizes the way we are supposed to lower, even prostrate ourselves, in relation to the powerful. Alas, we are a nation humbled and hobbled.
Indeed, it seems that Evangelista falls into the same trap that lesser minds succumb to of failing to appreciate the wondrous continuum of colours within the broad spectrum that lies in between assertiveness and arrogance. This is a spectrum that is essential to real democracy — where the system facilitates the natural emergence of the best way forward from a morass of an often adversarial-by-nature market of competing ideas.
Sad to say, Evangelista’s assessment of Gordon’s conduct comes across as no more than the latest illustration of how ours is a society that so naturally gravitates to the comfy but primitivist inclination to discuss people rather than ideas.
As Dame Eleanor Roosevelt was said to have said:
Small minds discuss people;
Mediocre minds discuss events; while,
Great minds discuss ideas.
And so stands tall the fundamental challenge we as a people face. It’s no wonder that a man who it seems was bypassed by the evolution of the vertebrae now stands tall as the most winnable candidate in this year’s race for that lucrative seat in Malacanang.
Look who’s laughing
all the way to the bank…