This is an article – somewhat updated – that I originally wrote sometime prior to the last national election in connection with an extended discussion on political platforms, and in light of the giggle-inducing launching (and quick withdrawal) of the ill-conceived “Pilipinas Kay Ganda” tourism marketing campaign this week seems to have become somewhat relevant again.
The anthropological definition of culture is “The sum total of the attainments and activities of any specific period, race, or people, including their implements, handicrafts, agriculture, economics, music, art, religious beliefs, traditions, language, and story.” What that all-encompassing definition suggests is that culture is the identification of a people, the picture that they and the rest of Mankind can look at and say, “This is what a Pinoy is.” Or an American, an Indian, or a Japanese and so on, as the case may be. A single picture, but one with two faces: one is the symbology, the comparatively simple components that serve as reminders of the deeper character – a flag, a national language, anthems, heroes, modes of dress, unique foods, spiritual beliefs and customs – and the other is the character itself, the ethos and mores, the shared attitudes towards self and community, and the common thought process that leads to shared ideals.
If these aspects of character are weak or absent, the symbols are meaningless – the flag is just a piece of cloth, the anthem is just a song, the marketing slogan a random collection of words. The Philippines has no lack of angst over the development of a ‘national culture’: bills are passed in the Legislature to enhance “cultural heritage”, and even the idea of a ‘national language’ – a laughable notion in this polyglot land – is fervently promoted as a means to “bring the people together.” All such efforts fail, and will continue to do so, because the underlying character that gives such symbols meaning is missing from the Pinoy. Benign0 in his thoughtful article “What Freedom Demands of Us” explains one of the root causes for this shortcoming:
“Whereas anyone can wear a shirt with a slogan, wave an “L” shaped hand, or tie a yellow ribbon, what separates Sapiens from Erectus is an ability to consider in a deliberate manner the consequences of one’s actions and remain personally accountable for said consequences.
That is what freedom truly entails: a freedom to think and a freedom to act on the basis of said thinking. …The common denominator here is the obvious reliance of Filipinos on or deference to pedigreed, elderly, or celebrity edict above their better individual judgment.
Marriage is a microcosm of that cultural syndrome that stands out as a stark reminder of just how backward Philippine society remains. Marriage or choosing a lifetime partner is therefore a good example to use. In the most primitive societies, one’s lifetime partner is largely determined by prior arrangements/contracts made between one’s parents (or worse, as a result of a debt owed by one clan to another). In modern societies, on the other hand, most adults make that choice based on free will using their independent evaluation faculties to the best of what is available.
In primitive societies, the partnership is entered into with a resigned state of mind or in deference to the established order of things. In advanced societies, it is a relatively deliberate and conscious decision based on the best information available at the time.”
The unfortunate fact revealed by the evidence of the Pinoys’ sheep-like acceptance of authority, their respect for credentials, and their utter reliance on instinct and emotional response in any other situation is that as a people, the Pinoy has yet to rise above the third Maslowian level; esteem and self-actualization remain elusive, because those things require, as Benign0 puts it, “a broad range of work and thinking that productive participation in a free society demands of us.”
From the point of view of those who ostensibly lead the nation, culture presents a dilemma: Without a healthy culture no plans or objectives can be fully successful, if at all, yet it is impossible to express an objective to “change the manner in which the people think to one which is more productive” in practical, measurable terms. Even the most open-minded or thick-skinned people will balk at being told they are primitive or mentally lazy, and so a set of actions intended to achieve the above objective must be subtly creative in how it approaches the task. Measures to encourage fundamental cultural change must be developed: ideas that require individual and national self-reliance, accountability, and long-term considerations of actions and consequences – in short, things that advanced societies can do as a matter of course and that primitive societies must learn.
By addressing the fundamental character aspects of culture in this practical way, the more easily-understood symbolic aspects can be addressed more directly. Thus, a tiny tarsier and smiling coconut tree would actually mean something positive, rather than simply being visual cues for the pwede na yan approach – a cultural trait that is probably not particularly helpful in tourism marketing. Culture, the definition of a nation or a people, is essential to society, but cannot be fabricated and only reveals itself in the long-term through results. The results the Philippines have achieved to this point speak for themselves, and speak volumes for the culture. As spectacularly as “Pilipinas Kay Ganda” failed to impress, it is really no better or worse than any other slogan that might replace it – not so long as the slogan is advertising vaporware on a national scale.