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On The Move

Raising levels of civility

I was at the Marikina Riverbanks enjoying the early morning sun with my partner and our two dogs. I had just finished my bottle of water when a health safety patrol officer in Marikina uniform (blue, with reflectorized sash) on a bicycle called out to me in Filipino, “Sir, put your face mask back on.” As I complied, he pedaled on without breaking stride. As I walked on, I met another officer, also gently and politely reminding bikers, joggers, walkers who had their face masks on their chins.

I mused to myself, what a difference theories of behavior change make. The theory in Marikina is that people tend to forget, and they need to be reminded. The theory in some other jurisdictions is that people are hardheaded and need to be scolded. If they remonstrate, they need to be arrested, subjected to a formal harangue at the barangay hall, and afterwards booked for the offense.

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The enforcement theory in Marikina is also that, even if a person is recalcitrant, gentle reminders will work better than an accusatory tone. The enforcement theory in other places is, you need to bear down hard on any hint of resistance because other people are watching. Instill fear, as fear is a cheap, efficient resource.

Our theory of our own social nature is that we are a hospitable people. James Fallows, in his “damaged culture” hypothesis of the Philippines, tells us we are actually hospitable and kind only to our family and friends, and not to strangers. The general atmosphere of civility among Filipinos is actually low.

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In this time of pandemic, we gain more insights on our civility. The fate of Filipinos stranded in the big city — among them local construction workers and returning or predeparture overseas Filipino workers — also shows how difficult it is to be separated from one’s family and neighborhood. The case of Michelle Silvertino shows you can walk kilometers in the city and die of hunger and exhaustion without encountering any real help. Perhaps you yourself will not know how to ask for help in a city that tends to look the other way.

How are we building standards of civility encounter by encounter during the pandemic? The other day, I, my partner, and our two dogs were again enjoying the early morning breeze near the Marikina River in the shadow of SM City Marikina. I spied what looked like a tired kargador in his 20s with a half-empty sack seated on the sidewalk some 50 meters away, intently looking in our direction. On impulse, I walked toward him and asked in Filipino, “Have you had breakfast?” to start a conversation. He was dark with grime, wore dirty clothes, and was barefoot. It turned out his sack contained only his clothes. I handed him a hundred-peso bill, which he took, his face breaking into a wide smile.

I left him and went back to our spot. After a few minutes, the boy tentatively followed and sat close to where we were. Perhaps eager to make a connection with someone who had shown him some kindness recently, the boy began to pet our golden retriever. My partner gasped as she saw our gregarious white maltese terrier-japanese spitz quickly approach him and, wagging her tail, lick the boy’s leg. I pulled our dogs away as I reminded the boy about social distancing.

Only at that point did I notice that the boy did not have a face mask. I took an extra face mask from my belt bag and gave it to him, saying he should wear it all the time as the police could arrest him for not having one — a horrifying possibility he didn’t seem to be aware of. He nodded, but the eager smile was gone from his face. Did he feel some social exclusionary tinge in our reaction?

As he did not move away, we decided it was time to leave. I had another P60 in my wallet, and I handed it to him. I asked where he came from, but he answered in a sad and perfunctory manner, “Doon po,” pointing southward with his pursed lips, thinking perhaps that I was not really interested in where he came from, or what would happen to him.

Maybe he was right. We were willing to help and engage only in a superficial way, afraid of committing beyond a token level of caring. The government’s social amelioration attempts obviously passed him by, and here, at the level of fellow human beings, he falls between the cracks as well.

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