A failure of empathy

/ 03:04 AM September 21, 2016

It did not begin with the extrajudicial killings. It began long ago when we failed to look after each other, when we refused to consider one another as belonging to one and the same community.

When the Spaniards came they were but a few but we were nonetheless defeated, because at the time we fought not as one but as many. The Lapu-Lapu we now regard as a national hero fought for Mactan, and fought Magellan only because the latter took the side of a rival chieftain named Humabon.


The coming of a foreign power should have made us realize how little—and how small—our differences are compared to our differences with strangers who looked at us not only differently but also condescendingly. The menace of an oppressor should have made us realize that we had to unite—or be divided and conquered.

Eventually, some of us did unite—not as a nation, but according to socioeconomic class and vested interests. The land-owning ilustrados and principalias, seeking to be like the Spanish insulares and peninsulares, acquired not only the latter’s aesthetic but also their distaste for the “Indio.” In the process, they became the oppressors themselves, blind to the suffering of the people.


Inspired by Rizal who was, in the words of Benedict Anderson, the first to imagine the Philippines as a “community,” the Philippine Revolution sought to unite the people against Spanish rule and behind an independent Republic. But it was defeated from the start, not so much by foreign might as by internal fighting: Even today, Bonifacio’s blood cries out in Maragondon. The coming of another enemy, the Americans, could have been another chance at unity, but alas, many of our leaders chose the easy path of collaboration—even as many, including the brave Moros, fought on. The landowners, embracing US capitalism, shifted to cash crops like sugar and tobacco, further impoverishing the peasants who relied on the rice they used to cultivate for their own food.

When the Japanese invaded our country, our leaders acted no differently. Many of them were quick to collaborate, while our people were being raped and otherwise brutalized. The result was a “to each his own” mentality that ripped the moral fabric of society. Today, the stories of the comfort women have been forgotten, while the biggest collaborators were pardoned after just a few years.

Our independence in 1946 failed to make a difference. The government remained in the hands of the corrupt elite, which approved laws and treaties that benefited them at the expense of the rest of the nation. Disgruntled, many peasants commenced their armed uprisings, while those who had the opportunity went abroad, taking with them the expertise that their country needed.

By the time Ferdinand Marcos came to power in 1965, people were weary, and willing to believe that indeed our nation can be great again. When journalists, activists, and Marcos’ political enemies began to be arrested or “salvaged,” many people didn’t care. “I’m not one of them,” they must have said. Only when massive corruption and the plummeting economy became clear that the people finally revolted against him. But take note that even when his treachery to the country was beyond doubt, many continued to back him, saying: “But we benefited from his rule!” To which they could have added: “Never mind what the others experienced.”

Cory Aquino brought anew the promise of a democratic, prosperous society, but her administration, and those that came after her could not stamp out the systemic corruption, and the arrogance with which the government treated its own people. Calamity after calamity was met with indifference by those who were not affected—and only something of the magnitude of “Yolanda” managed to catch our collective attention.

Meanwhile, even as our leaders continued to boast of progress, injustice prevailed: the displacement of the lumad, the destruction of the environment, the betrayal of agrarian reform, and the everyday violence and inconvenience that people endure—from long commutes and difficult labor conditions to the constant threat of crime. Seven years after the Maguindanao massacre, the case drags on, exemplifying the glacial pace of justice in a country where the corrupt are set free and the wicked go unpunished.

And so today, as people cry “all lives matter,” there are those who say: “Why should we care now? Where were you when we were the ones who were suffering? When you were in power, you had little regard for those who were oppressed. When you were in the right side of justice, you had little concern for those who were experiencing injustice. While your stomachs were full, you had little empathy for those who are hungry.”


“Then wait till it’s your turn,” they are told, but alas, this response only points to the bitter truth that for much of our history, we have confined our hearts within small circles.

When will the cycle of indifference end? When will we learn to think and act for the greater good: not for the good of our family and friends or our region, but for the good of the country?

When will we muster the courage and empathy to tell our fellow Filipinos that we are taking ownership of their hardships and struggles?

It is just as our history teaches us: We can only achieve real progress when we learn to think as a nation. And we can only be a nation when we have learned to share each other’s pain.

Gideon Lasco is a physician and medical anthropologist. Follow him at Gideon Lasco on Facebook and @gideonlasco on Twitter and Instagram.

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TAGS: Cory Aquino, dissension, Empathy, Ferdinand Marcos, Indifference, martial law
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