Filipino homes are clean, but our streets are dirty; the reach of our concern, just like our walis tingting, does not extend too far beyond our gates and fences. “Tapat mo, linis mo,” the motto says: You clean what’s in front of you — and we have been happy to take it literally, disclaiming responsibility for places we do not regard as ours.
Thus, you would see people opening their car windows and casually throwing a plastic wrapper on the street. Not my concern, their actions imply.
Thus, you would see beaches and mountains littered with trash especially in the aftermath of holidays, like the recent Holy Week. Not my backyard, they seem to say. Of course, if those pieces of trash happen to ruin their photos, they would remove them — if not with their hands in vivo, then with Snapseed post facto. Photographic backgrounds, just like dwelling places, must be kept clean.
Perhaps a lack of awareness is part of the reason people are so irresponsible when it comes to the environment; a lack of awareness, for instance, that animals terrestrial and marine can choke on plastic — and that ultimately all the environmental damage we have wrought will come to haunt us. Before modernity, everything — e.g., banana leaves to wrap suman and puto bumbong—was mostly biodegradable and the damage that plastic can do has not yet seeped into our consciousness.
But I suspect that another reason has to do with our centripetal notions of social responsibility. We value cleanliness, but only within our vicinity. We value beauty, but will act on this sentiment only when we are involved.
Beyond environmental conundrums, this narrowness of thinking affects other aspects of our public engagement. Roads are seen not just as sites for littering but also as parking spaces, or playgrounds. Obstructing traffic? Never mind. What matters is our car has a place to park. Unwilling to give way to others, even for a few seconds, drivers block intersections and cut lanes, making heavy traffic as much about culture as it is about infrastructure.
Crucially for our time, issues with fatal consequences are subject to a similar attitude. For instance, the war on drugs. As with polluted streets, many do not see extrajudicial killings as their concern; it is as distant to them as the hunger many of our countrymen experience daily. Not my community. Not someone I know. Personally, I feel safe. All of us actually value human rights—of the people who matter to us. That is why even the President calls for due process for himself and his son, while seemingly denying the same to others.
It should come as no surprise, then, that various struggles—from those of the displaced lumad and the disaffected Marawi residents to those affected by the TRAIN law and Boracay’s imminent shutdown — receive little attention beyond those who actually experience their consequences. “It’s their fault for not being careful,” some say of vendors disoriented by the new P5 coins, blind to the economic significance of such numismatic confusion, and to the reality that we live in the same cities—but very different worlds.
What can explain our “collective selfishness”? Has our archipelagic geography mapped on to our fragmented thinking? Has our colonial past socialized us to be suspicious of others? Has the project of nationhood, built on unrequited hopes and broken promises, made us cynical of solidarity?
Looking at our troubled history will help us answer these questions. But we must also look ahead—and ask ourselves what we can do to build empathy for people we do not know but with whom we share a future. Cannot the common good be at the heart of our ethics and our politics? One thing is clear: We are held back by pagkakanya-kanya, our version of selfishness that includes our families, friends, hometowns, regions, and affiliations, but no one beyond; a selfishness that leads to indifference, the same indifference that allows us to look at others and, without articulating it, tell them: “Your struggles are of little concern to us.”
Or, and just as equally hurtful to our nation-in-the-making: “Our struggles are more important than yours.”
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