Disturbing culture change
Malacañang’s spokesperson justified the President’s liplocking with a married OFW as an accepted “part of our culture” — consensual, a gesture of endearment to all Filipino workers, and just a playful act. The chief presidential legal counsel has also likened it to kissing a grandchild. One senator has even compared it to professional actors doing kissing scenes onscreen. The woman herself said she had no problem with it; after all, she did behave like a giddy schoolgirl onstage.
In a Facebook post a few days ago, I made the oversight of simply focusing on the woman, without saying anything about the President himself. The sad fact is that I’m no longer surprised by whatever misogynistic, irrational act or statement the President does or says, and so sometimes I don’t bother to say anything anymore.
I suppose this is precisely the problem for many of us nowadays. We give up commenting, or worse, caring, because we take the President’s behavior as a given. We take it as a part of him we can no longer change. We take it as predictable unpredictability. We take it as an accepted part of our culture. So, yes, the spokesperson is right, but he is also wrong.
That liplocking incident was not playful, nor just an act. This particular instance is becoming part of our reality, a resignation to what is, a conscious decision to surrender to the perceived inevitable. Sixteen million people can’t be wrong, right? Survey results can’t be lying, right? The President can’t
possibly be wrong, right?
Merriam-Webster defines culture as “the customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a racial, religious, or social group,” and “the characteristic features of everyday existence (such as diversions or a way of life) shared by people in a place or time.” Fine, we can work with that.
Culture, however, is actually not a constant. It is not a natural creation, but something developed, shaped and institutionalized over time. The same can be said for political culture, musical culture, religious culture, and so on and so forth. Across generations, we learn to love new kinds of food and create new forms of literature, accept new forms of social relationships, and develop new usages for words, if not invent new terminologies altogether.
Culture starts somewhere, and this is the process Filipinos have to be more conscious of, more concerned about.
The current shift is extremely alarming. The culture we embrace — that increasingly accepts EJK, machismo and misogyny, the willingness to bully the weak and cave in to the strong, the justification for carnality and crassness as simple humor, and the tweaking of truth beyond recognition—says something terrifying about us.
Because what we unquestioningly accept as a playful act, a supposed form of endearment to millions of our people working abroad, becomes easily incorporated into the national psyche. The belief that it-looks-consensual-therefore-it-is-ok is passed on to our children and our children’s children — that this is the proper way to treat women and to react to vulgarity. With cheers and video no less, as if to say, Yes, I’m so proud of what he just did, again.
Well, I’m not proud of what he did. And neither should you be.
As this new and disturbing culture increasingly becomes part of us, integrated into our daily life and social interactions, we tend to forget that correspondingly something else is displaced, something else becomes less of us. That is the respect we once had for women, the respect we once had for the office of the President, the respect for national sovereignty, the respect for truth, for the values we used to be proud of, but which we now fail to defend with our silence. Or, worse, we now mock and belittle.
I fear for the society my children will grow into. I fear for the road we are taking, a road too easily traveled by a society that relishes populist rhetoric without taking a step back to see exactly in what direction it is going. Because every time we fail to question, to challenge, to critique, change for the worse will come, if it isn’t already here.
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Jose K. Tirol, PhD, is an assistant professor of the Department of History of Ateneo de Manila University.
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