Why we can’t take criticism
THE GAME OF MY LIFE - Bill Velasco (The Philippine Star) - June 29, 2020 - 12:00am

Two major stories in sports recently showed how hard it is for organizations in the Philippines to deal with criticism. The first example is how Tab Baldwin’s comments lit a firestorm among some Filipino coaches and ruffled feathers in the Philippine Basketball Association, which we will break down in a moment. The second is the decision of the National Collegiate Athletic Association to ban foreign athletes, which was the subject of Saturday’s column. Each event revealed the various sensitivities Filipino groups have towards criticism. Of course, people don’t want to receive unbalanced criticism in public. But take the example of Major League Baseball a few years ago, when statistics revealed a discrepancy in how umpires called pitches involving certain players, that some were more favored than others. But in the Filipino – and the larger Asian – setting, there are certain expected behaviors.

Firstly, there is the expected Biblical, familial loyalty for members of an organization. This functions on two levels. On the most basic level, you are not expected to say anything wrong about the group because you are a part of it; you benefit from it. That form of loyalty is always presumed, often demanded. And in certain situations, that is proper behavior. That’s why we haven’t heard the dissenting opinions from within the NCAA regarding its decision to ban foreign athletes, for example. Secondly, it is assumed that you would not attack family publicly. This is why Baldwin’s solicited comments were considered shocking. At the very least, it was hoped that he would have diluted his observations into a more palatable, more diplomatic tone, or brought them up privately. Then again, though his heart may be in the right place, he is not a Filipino, which is also a good thing.

Next, we fall back into the generations of learned behavior from the occupying Spanish, and to a lesser degree, the Japanese. Filipinos were soaked in Spanish culture for hundreds of years, imbibing some of their sense of embarrassment loss of face and fighting for honor. Of course, in those times, challenges were made by slapping a rival with one’s glove, and resolved by duels with sabres or one-shot pistols. Regardless of the issue, all matters of loss of face were dealt with this severely. Then came the more extreme Japanese, who felt irredeemable humiliation was best dealt with through ritual suicide or beheading. Like it or not, those traditions have influenced Filipino behavior to varying degrees. Even Lapu-Lapu’s fight with Magellan was affected by his conflict with Rajah Humabon, who allied himself with the invading conquistador.

Also, Asians in general and Filipinos in particular have trouble compartmentalizing criticism. It’s almost as if criticism of one aspect of me is a condemnation of all of me. Particularly in a country where having a good job and being in a respected profession puts you in a very fortunate minority, any threat is perceived as a total threat. This is amplified when the threat is towards one’s source of livelihood. That’s why regional politics is defended so mightily. There is an ownership to position, even when, at best, that position is transitory.

Furthermore, there has been a significant change in how organizations have been run around the world in the last century. Prior to that, companies were run by the owners, who were self-taught and hands-on, until demand overwhelmed them and they had to spread their knowledge and experience. Thus was born manufacturing (automobiles, radios and so on). Naturally, as you expand, you can no longer be physically present everywhere. Professional managers were created; schools started training them. But in countries like the Philippines, professionally-trained managers are still just a small fraction of management. Corporations still largely pick from the ranks, based on two traits: loyalty and industriousness. And the former often outweighs the latter.

This new layer unburdened corporate ownership from the daily, hands-on grind. But on the other side, it also detached them from direct contact with their constituency, and provided a layer of insulation. Psychological studies have shown (particularly with the excessive violence of World War II) that those who have been given orders have a tendency to overreact more than their superiors would. In their minds, it both gets the job done and pleases their bosses. But at the other end of the scale, it also breeds oversensitivity. Instead of asking what the root of the criticism was, they tend to be defensive, which closes the door on further dialogue.

When Tab Baldwin made those comments, he was merely answering a question. He was not going out of his way to demean anybody. He was making solicited observations based on the personal observations of someone who has had extensive coaching experience overseas. One possible response could have been “he is entitled to his opinion.” But all of a sudden, he became the rude foreigner, the outsider, conveniently ignoring his substantial contributions to Philippine basketball. He has a track record of showing us different ways of achieving success. Some of the negative reactions came from coaches who have even not accomplished what he has. C’est la vie.

Lastly and most dangerously, social media has become a double-edged sword to defend anything and anyone. Even when what is being said  (or how it is being said) is wrong, there is always going to be someone taking your side, their side, any side. So we feel emboldened, even when we don’t know those people, even if they may not even be real people, even when their agenda is not the same as ours. Plus, sports officials have direct access to sports media, so they can fire back, even when they haven’t consulted everyone, even when they haven’t really calmed down and thought about it. Even when they haven’t stood in the other person’s shoes to see things from their point of view. Sometimes, we expect people to agree with us, even when we’ve made no effort to show them why they should.

That would be easier, more magnanimous, and way more effective than just trying to beat them down for giving a differing perspective.

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