Cultural hegemony and the plight of IPs
Antonio Gramsci, a 20th-century sociopolitical theorist, provided a theoretical framework on “cultural hegemony”: political leadership founded on the consent of the led—“a consent which is secured by the diffusion and popularization of the world view of the ruling class (Prison Notebooks, 1926-1935).”
In such a process, cultural minorities are led to marginalization through corroborative state-sponsored mechanisms, fueled by the preferences of the majority, which would allow structural policies to deepen their subjugation. The theory, more than being a popular Marxian battle cry, recently acquired traction for its focus on the faces of the minorities—the “nobodies,” ignored and neglected in the pecking order of social hierarchy simply for not sharing the point of view of the ruling majority.
While critics may claim that the sidelining of the minorities in this clash of cultures is never intentional, we cannot deny that it is happening. Minorities are typically assimilated and absorbed in the mainstream culture, their own cultures forgotten, trapped in the recesses of the rich historical past we typically romanticize.
It is against this backdrop that governments and interested organizations counter the reality of cultural hegemony by promoting the rights of the minorities through the recognition of their distinct and unique identities. In fact, the United Nations has declared Aug. 9 as International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, recognizing their susceptibility to cultural hegemony and the threat of assimilation which can lead them to extinction.
Following this global move, the Philippine government, through Presidential Proclamation No. 1906 issued in 2009, declared the month of October as National Indigenous Peoples Month. It is aimed at addressing the needs of IPs according to the constitutional mandate to recognize, protect and uphold their rights through empowerment and other capacity-building measures, so that they themselves can protect their communities from the inroads of cultural hegemony.
Ironically, a seeming “ethnocide” is occurring in Mindanao despite the government’s avowed resolve to protect and uphold the rights of our indigenous peoples. For one, the killings targeted IP leaders organizing themselves and their people so that they can be educated and made aware of their rights as a distinct cultural group. The fallen IP leaders were promoting awareness that can capacitate their people to become an empowered part of the citizenry, capable of engaging in the public discourse, so that they themselves could protect their rights from the disabling mechanisms of the mainstream culture.
Furthermore, the nonimplementation of policies that are supposed to protect the identity of indigenous peoples is an unfortunate reality (case in point: the Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Act of 1997). Most of the things that make up the culture and identity of our IPs are tied to their lands. The moment we take their lands away from them, their culture starts to wither and fade away for they become uprooted from the very source of their identity.
The long history of land-grabbing has led our IPs to become foreigners in their own lands. This is one of the disabling mechanisms that allow mainstream hegemonic ideals to weaken the minorities and hasten their assimilation into the culture of the majority.
Are we doing enough to foster, promote and protect indigenous peoples’ rights and identities? How do we teach the concept of cultural diversity and the reality of human plurality to our children? I remember growing up in the late 1990s learning in school that indigenous peoples are the first inhabitants of the Philippines. While their cultural distinctness is taught, the subtle implication I learned from my teachers is that these cultural minorities are backward, and their ways of life passé.
In my experience teaching in a multicultural environment, I often encounter students belonging to different indigenous groups. They are far from proud of their heritage, to the extent that they are so willing to deny it. And can we blame them? I don’t think so. Hegemonic ideals have crept into their world views. They see their heritage as inferior. Thus, they are willing to forget who they are and to embrace the mainstream’s ways of seeing and doing things.
In most instances, we look at indigenous peoples as ornaments from the past—cultural minorities that reflect the richness of the past they represent through their dances, music and clothing. But beyond these superficial affirmation of “otherness,” we fail to see them as people. We fail to see their legitimate grievances brought about by generations of indifference and neglect.
Moving forward, there is a need for some sort of reframing as to how we should collectively approach and help the indigenous peoples of our country. While we continue to marvel at the richness, beauty and distinctness of their culture, may we learn to see and treat them as equals. By doing so, we give them room to disclose to us their plight as minority groups, marginalized and neglected for not sharing the westernized world view that our mainstream culture has taught us.
If we genuinely want to conserve our heritage and the richness of our diversity, it is high time we took decisive steps to institute policies, structures and mechanisms that will enable our indigenous peoples to truly safeguard their identities. If we truly want them to share this world with us despite their otherness, we need to acknowledge the importance of their ancestral domains to them. We need to keep in mind that their future is tied to their lands.
In the end, we need to bring about an environment that genuinely embraces human plurality, an environment that teaches our children that despite our diversity, we all share one thing: our humanity. As such, we need to move forward recognizing the dignity that is inherent in all of us—one human race, inhabiting the same earth and sharing the same world.
Jesse Angelo L. Altez teaches philosophy at Mindanao State University in General Santos City. He is a volunteer at the Save Our Schools Network, a coalition of students and professionals working for the empowerment of the lumad of Mindanao.
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