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Pope Francis and Filipino society’s biggest flaw

PEPE DON’T PREACH - Pepe Diokno (The Philippine Star) - February 1, 2015 - 12:00am

In the five days that Pope Francis spent in the Philippines this month, he gave four speeches, delivered three homilies and repeated one word: “Family.”

A fundamental role in the renewal of society is played by the family. Families have an indispensable mission in society,” the Pope said at his first official function in the country, a welcome ceremony on Jan. 17 at Malacañang Palace. Later that day, at a “Meeting of Families” at the Mall of Asia Arena, his speech contained 32 separate instances of the word. “Every threat to the family is a threat to society itself,” it read. “The future of humanity, as Saint John Paul II often said, passes through the family.”

The Pope really went to town in his homily at Quirino Grandstand. “[Saint Joseph] reminds us of the importance of protecting our families, and those larger families which are the Church, God’s family, and the world, our human family. Sadly, in our day, the family needs to be protected against insidious attacks,” he said before a gathering of an estimated six million people.

Even when he spoke of other topics, the Pope kept coming back to “family”. Corruption, he said, threatens the “beauty of our human family”. Natural disasters, he said, cause suffering to “countless families”. The Filipino diaspora “strains many households”, and materialism is “destructive of family life”. It’s easy to see what the Pontiff was getting at. His message to Filipinos is that there is nothing more important than our families; that we’re under attack by the evils that come from this country, and so we must protect our children, brothers, sisters, and parents at all costs.

It’s a message that many Filipinos will agree with, and even valorize, but I have trouble accepting it.

‘Save the family’

The first part of Pope Francis’ message is indisputable. Families are indeed so central in Filipino culture that their influence is felt in every nook and cranny of our lives. It’s common practice for us, for example, to live with our parents until we’re old enough to have children of our own. Our relatives, for Christ’s sake (sorry, Pope), have a say in everything from what career we choose to who we marry. In school, the sentence, “Family is the basic unit of society” is hammered into our heads from elementary to university. 

It’s the second part of the Pope’s message that I disagree with. In calling for the protection of families, he paints them as sources of pure good. (“It is in the family that children are trained in sound values, high ideals and genuine concern for others,” he said.) But if this is true, then why are families the source of so much suffering in this country — from the dictatorship that murdered, suppressed, and pillaged from Filipinos for two decades, to political dynasties that keep their constituents in poverty, to warring clans in the provinces that cover their regions in blood, hacienda owners that work farmers like cattle, and tycoons that pave parking lots at the expense of the environment?

The answer is that we Filipinos put our families above everything else. It’s heroic, sure, when we put family above our own wellbeing, which is why millions of Filipinos risk their lives working abroad. But we also tend to put our families above our country. Everyday, we make decisions that involve our families without so much as even thinking of the good of the nation, and this is a problem because many times, what’s good for our families is not good for the nation.

I’m not just talking about people in power. The Marcoses, the Napoleses, and the Ampatuans may have taken it to extremes, but we’re all guilty of this “my family is more important than everything else” mentality. It’s why low-level public servants can dare to ask for kickbacks, why we don’t hesitate to break traffic rules and pay bribes when we do, and why we throw trash on beaches, sidewalks, and parks. When something benefits our families, we can justify a little corruption and a few shortcuts to get it — and these things add up.

‘A damaged culture’

Foreign observers have been pointing this out to us for decades. In 1987, The Atlantic published an essay by American journalist James Fallows, entitled, “A Damaged Culture: A New Philippines.” Nothing, perhaps, sums up our tribal mentality more beautifully than this piece.

“Filipinos pride themselves on their lifelong loyalty to family, schoolmates, compadres, members of the same tribe, residents of the same barangay,” Fallows wrote. “But when observing Filipino friendships I thought often of the Mafia families portrayed in The Godfather: total devotion to those within the circle, total war on those outside. Because the boundaries of decedent treatment are limited to the family or tribe, they exclude at least 90 percent of the people in the country. And because of this fragmentation — this lack of nationalism — people treat each other worse in the Philippines than in any other Asian country I have seen.”

“Practically everything that is public in the Philippines seems neglected or abused. On many street corners in downtown Manila an unwary step can mean a broken leg. Holes two feet square and five feet deep lurk just beyond the curb; they are supposed to be covered by metal grates, but scavengers have taken the grates to sell for scrap… In the first-class dining room aboard the steamer to Cebu, a Filipino at the table next to mine picked through his plate of fish. Whenever he found a piece he didn’t like, he pushed it off the edge of his plate, onto the floor. One case of bad manners? Maybe, but I’ve never seen its like in any other country. Outsiders feel they have understood something small but significant about Japan’s success when they watch a bar man carefully wipe the condensation off a bottle of beer and twirl it on the table until the label faces the customer exactly. I felt I had a glimpse into the failures of the Philippines when I saw prosperous-looking matrons buying cakes and donuts in a bakery, eating them in a department store, and dropping the box and wrappers around them as they shopped,” Fallows continued. It’s painful to think that these words were written that much long ago because they ring so true today.

‘Reprivate of the Philippines’

Last year, local news portal Interaksyon published an article that talks about Manila’s urban development but raises the same points as Fallows’.

In the essay, “Why Metro Manila continues to deteriorate”, Spanish scholar Jorge Mojarro writes, “Dutch anthropologist Neil Mulders published a tiny but solid book in which he depicted the Filipino mindset. According to him, the main reason for the lack of social cohesion in the country is Filipinos make a very deep distinction between two spheres: the public and the private. The private sphere belongs to the kin and friends, and utang na loob obliges one to reciprocate help, support, favors, and even money. The public sphere, on the other hand, becomes the jungle where anything is valid in order to bring commodities to the private sphere.”

“Therefore, street vendors are allowed to occupy sidewalks and sell anything there... Some barangay outposts and small police stations occupy entire sidewalks, forcing pedestrians to walk on the road… Then we have the big companies distributing electricity: Their huge posts occupy free of charge big portions of the streets... Lastly, we have the businesses (banks, restaurants, convenience stores, etc.) using the sidewalks in front of their establishments as their own private parking lots,” he continues.

“We also have the eternal issue of traffic, something that is technically easy to solve, as Benjamin De La Peña has proved in a series of articles on urban planning, but is permanently delayed due to the pressure of the [private-sector] public transportation lobby (buses and jeepneys) and the lack of vision of public servants… Filipinos tend to distrust other Filipinos in public spaces, lack of courtesy is the rule, and the much-touted bayanihan is blatantly absent. The Republic of the Philippines should perhaps thus be referred to as the ‘Reprivate of the Philippines’ to reflect this apathy to the notion of sharing responsibility for public space,” Mojarro ends his article saying.

‘Shallow capitalism’

I’d like to cite one more piece. This one talks about how our family-centered mentality affects our economy. It’s a blog post by Richard Javad Heydarian, entitled, “Philippines’ Shallow Capitalism”, and it was published just a few weeks ago by The Huffington Post.

“The Philippines, shaped by its colonial legacy, has emulated Western lifestyles and urban architectures. But it has not truly modernized, at least in the Weberian sense. We are yet to see truly rational, impersonal state institutions, which stand beyond patronage and personalized politics. Even much of the business sector is dominated by few old families, so it is preposterous to talk about ‘free market’ competition,” Heydarian writes.

“Modernity is not about having big shopping malls, wearing global brands, and preaching liberal socio-political values per se. Those are only manifestations of modernization, not the core of it. Modernity, above all, is about placing efficiency, meritocracy and knowledge above connections, patronage, and discredited traditions. This is precisely why many of the Philippines’ neighboring countries, which have held onto much of their cultural heritage, stand as significantly more modern and prosperous: Social mobility, merit-based success, and knowledge-intensive productivity are incredibly more visible in places such as Taiwan or South Korea than the Philippines,” Heydarian continues.

“The Philippines’ rapid rates of economic growth in recent years haven’t brought about an egalitarian, modern form of capitalism… Perhaps it is time for the Filipino elite to rediscover the true meaning of modernity, democracy, and progress. And for the wider population to fight for genuine prosperity,” he ends.

Papal, don’t preach

This is why Pope Francis’ message frustrates me. At best, his message is a distraction; at worst, it’s destructive, dangerous, and a downright mistake. When the Pope talks about the “importance of protecting our families, and those larger families which are the Church,” he reinforces the twisted nature of Filipinos to protect only the people that we’re affiliated with; to care only about our own social circles and place our wellbeing above others’. Country above family — that’s the way it should be.

Fallows wrote that Filipinos need “to look beyond themselves rather than pursuing their own interests to the ruination of everyone else.” True goodness, after all, is about caring for people even when they are not related to you; even when they went to the rival school or pledged to the rival fraternity or live in the opposite barangay or subscribe to a different religion. Looking out for the greater good, after all, is a sacrifice. It means giving and not expecting anything in return — even when it hurts ourselves.

This should have been clearer in the Pope’s message. He should not have said that Filipino families are under attack, because it’s the future of our county that is. We must shoot down his notion that in order to “save the family”, we must take a hard look at society. In order to save society, we must take a long, hard look at the Filipino family.

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Tweet the author @PepeDiokno.

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