Structural injustice in PH
In a speech titled “A Paradigm for the Happy Life,” Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago writes that “every day, many people pursue their self-interest at the expense of others,” and argues further that “self-interest becomes a moral evil when selfish politicians make our people suffer in hunger and poverty.” In supporting this assertion, she mentions that “another major source of evil lies in a failure in moral imagination,” and cites as an example the fact that “there are many psychopaths in Congress, but they are unable to imagine the sufferings that they cause on millions of Filipinos who are poor.”
The truism in Senator Santiago’s statement cannot be doubted. However, her analysis fails to capture the claim that injustice is structural and not just a matter of choice by some cabals in Congress. The philosopher Iris Marion Young argues that “we cannot eliminate oppression by getting rid of rulers or by creating new laws because systematic oppressions are simply being reproduced in major social, economic and political institutions.”
The National Statistical Coordination Board reports that in 2013, 24.9 percent of Filipinos lived below the poverty line. The reason is not top-secret. The reason is that the ruling class that controls politics in this country and, hence, the economy extracts from the people all the advantages of economic expansion, and whatever is left for the poor is also divided among powerful political clans, led by their cunning progenies who perpetuate the exploitation of the masses.
Hegemonic structures in the country, once introduced by imperialist powers in our colonial history, have metamorphosed into some form of cultural prejudice. The apparently depressing, demeaning elitist positional differences in socioeconomic hierarchies continue to disadvantage women, cultural minorities, and the disabled. Existentially, life is indeed a matter of choice. The problem, however, is that more often than not, people do not actually have real choices, to begin with.
Paul Hotchcroft and Joel Rocamora theorize that the situation of the Philippines is a result of its colonial past, transmitted through time, resulting in a systemic structural disease wholly caused by the machinations of the ruling class and the culture of elitism that it has established. They write that “the logic of Philippine politics became driven to a very considerable extent by the politics of patronage: dividing the spoils among the elite and expanding the quantity of spoils available to the elite as a whole.”
The worst part, of course, is the fact that given this marginalization, certain groups are stripped of the very opportunity to flourish in society, not because they are unable to on the basis of their lack of mainstream “quality” education or exposure to modern ways of life, but because they are deliberately pushed into obscurity by patronage politics and instrumentalist forms of learning that reduce knowledge to the technical.
In the context of our societal culture and the mass media, the children of these minorities have become victims of bias and segregation; they are labeled as “batang yagit,” which, in a broader sense, more than the physical discrimination these terms connote, show the great extent of social, economic and political deprivation that these people experience. Cultural bias in this regard is something that is deliberate on the part of intelligent yet egotistic people who do not lack moral imagination.
Structural prejudice against the poor and marginalized is contained in our books, in the manner we speak, and in our belief that human civilization is a product of the Enlightenment. Those people who have remained in the margins of society then are people who remain in the dark, unable to fully realize themselves. The rationality of mainstream society defines what it means to be human.
The problem of poverty is therefore something that we must situate in a broader social context. People are deprived of their rights and entitlements not only because there are evil politicians but also because the sociopolitical apparatus, driven by the agenda of elitist power players, denies the poor the opportunities to a life well-lived and renders them perpetually helpless.
The problem of oppression in Philippine society persists because elite and tyrannical leaders continue to take advantage of their privileged position. So, even if the state gives ample recognition to certain rights of the minorities through the party-list representation, there is no real guarantee that their economic deprivation will be addressed. Rights, according to Young, are not goods that we possess. Rights involve the relational aspect of how power is distributed. If people are not empowered, rights do not have any meaning.
What has happened is that our oppressors have simply changed color. “Deprived in life, deprived in death,” as Adrian Cristobal aptly described it, the tragedy of the 1896 Philippine Revolution now extends to the tragedy of present-day Filipino masses.
Christopher Ryan Maboloc teaches philosophy at Ateneo de Davao University. He has a master’s degree in applied ethics from Linkoping University in Sweden.
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