The trouble with Filipino fanaticism

Shakira Sison

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When a large group acts in unison with only a few of its members being truly informed, such movements are easy to manipulate and abuse

Whether it’s religious fanaticism, Manny Pacquiao idolatryor the latest teleserye or kalyeserye craze, when the nation gets fixated on a particular interest, dogma, sports team, celebrity or celebrity love team, it shows an interesting side of the Filipino psyche.

Never known for our indifference to fads, we have always been passionate and led by our hearts. We are swayed by the latest gimmick or packaged idea of romance, prosperity, and beauty.

We are excellent subjects in the study of consumer behavior. Ever wonder why, in a country with a poverty rate of almost 20%, people around us still sport the latest iPhone or gadget? How come in a place where a bottle of shampoo costs as much as half the daily minimum wage, EDSA is plastered with billboards of cosmetic surgery ads, whitening creams, celebrity product testimonials, and designer clothing advertisements? Consumers buy these products whether or not they are within financial reach (we have a total credit card debt of P157.394 billion for this reason).

Our love for a good idea is never as evident as it is during election time when an unqualified candidate wins because he has the best narrative, he has made the people feel good, and he has managed to make majority of the population believe that he has their backs. 

It’s because we love the story. We love the rags-to-riches and rich-boy-poor-girl plots that define our local TV and movie story lines. We identify with the carefully created characters and celebrity personas. We want their clothes, skin products, and laundry detergent. We want the brand of tuna they eat, the floor wax they use. We believe that using these products will transform us into our idols and give us their onscreen lives.  

We want to imitate their actions and gestures so we’ll be in the know, and in with the crowd. 

When someone declares a day of unity, we believe we’re part of some social movement that makes sense in our herded minds.

Herd mentality

Herd (or mob) mentality describes how people are influenced by their peers to follow trends, purchase items, or perform certain behaviors. Studies show that as the number of people in a crowd increases, the number of informed individuals decreases.

Psychologists call the process by which a person loses his or her self-awareness in groups as deindividuation. It is seen in sports gatherings, for example, when people yell and scream for their team or are rude to the other team’s fans – actions that they wouldn’t dare do if they were on their own. 

In the Philippine context, fandom and irrational loyal allegiance to a fictional story or persona often rules. When challenged, fanatics are inclined to insist their ideas are the correct ones, ignoring any facts or arguments that may conflict with their thoughts or beliefs. We see this often when a celebrity is criticized. His or her fans launch a venomous defense on his or her behalf. 

Lea Salonga was attacked for making a vague comment on the shallow pre-occupations of people, a statement which was taken as criticism by a popular teleserye‘s fans. Add to that the fact that anonymity fuels dangerous behaviors within a mob mentality and we can see how Aldub fans went on a free-for-all insulting Ms Salonga for something she didn’t even say. 

When I see mob behavior for a celebrity or a show, it makes sense because such idols rarely disappoint. A fantasy life is created – one where followers can identify with stars and their shows’ story lines. I instead look at its participants’ need for a sense of belonging, a common interest that gives them joy and pleasure in its pursuit, as opposed to the other frustrations they may have in their own lives.

The recent Aldub Twitter craziness fed into the desire for visibility. By making a mark in the Twitterverse, the show’s fans felt they were part of a movement. They felt their concerns were superior to any other topic of conversation at that time. It felt good to be part of something huge and influential, even if it was just about a television show. 

The trouble with fanaticism

When a large group acts in unison with only a few of its members being truly informed, such movements are easy to manipulate and abuse. Entertainment networks are aware of this and are only very eager to fuel the fire of fanaticism more because it increases ratings and sells more ad space, generating much more for them than the joy of fans in seeing their favorite stars. 

Corporations are quick to identify influential people and capitalize on their impact the way McDonald’s recognized the Aldub phenomenon immediately and turned it into a commercial that sold the emotional ideas of romance and commitment, instead of just their food products. 

Politicians regularly take advantage of Filipino fanaticism when they employ celebrity endorsers to support their campaigns. Political consultant Art Garcia said that the value of a celebrity endorser depends on his or her closeness to the masses. This value can only be increased by the level of publicity surrounding that celebrity. In a sense, stoking the flames of fanaticism is actually a good thing – for those whose pockets will benefit from the fire.  

Katuwaan lang (Just for fun)

Of course, in the end we can all say that fads come and go, and are merely “katuwaan lang (just for fun).” Others even claim that celebrity obsessions and teleserye fandom provide our young citizens inspiration in their lives and keep them out of trouble. Fair enough. But we would be remiss if we didn’t mention the attention fanaticism takes away from more critical concerns that are frequently forgotten because of their lack of glitter and connection to fame and popularity.

If we could use this passion, obsession, and personal stake in something at least worthwhile (like providing a few students a decent education, for example), then it would have such an amazing and sustainable effect on our nation. If each tweet sent during the Aldub craziness were equivalent to one peso, we could have built a small school in one barangay.

But we overlook that the addictive effect of these waves of fanaticism is to make us forget that it is our own families that need salvation (and our own children who need an education). It’s easier and more rewarding to chase the development of a story, especially if it warms our hearts. It removes the focus from our financial challenges, the impossibility of city living, and the lack of change in our own lives’ story lines.

It would be one thing if the same idols and celebrities we worship actually endorse ideas leading to social development, but it’s difficult to reconcile the innocence of their fame when what they sell are commercial products or political campaigns in exchange for their fans’ undying love. 

Yet the same audience buys all of it, year after year and fad after fad, with only the stars’ faces changing every time. The one thing that doesn’t change in all of this is who ends up with the last laugh. –

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