Philippine politics

[OPINION] Solid states: Fake news, Filipino politics, and the excesses of ‘pakikisama’

Jamina Vesta Jugo
[OPINION] Solid states: Fake news, Filipino politics, and the excesses of ‘pakikisama’

Graphic by Raffy de Guzman

'[T]here are surely times when we have seen pakikisama distorted into bullying and abuse'

Pakikisama is one of those words I struggle to translate for non-Filipinos. A quick Google search reveals rather inadequate terms like “fellowship” and “companionship.” I usually go with a longer translation that I find both more literal and more faithful: being a good companion. I think this phrase captures pakikisama at its best: adjusting your behavior so that you can be a good companion for people around you. You listen to your friend’s troubles, even though you’d rather have talked about your favorite TV show. You don’t protest when the majority of your office crew decides to go to your usual after-work drinking spot, though you would have liked to try someplace new. These are everyday examples of how to be accommodating to those around you, and support a sense of group cohesiveness. Pakikisama is, ideally, based on a spirit of good will and openness: no member of the group should be isolated or left behind.

On the other hand, there are surely times when we have seen pakikisama distorted into bullying and abuse. An officeful of employees can tacitly agree to accept the tirades of their overbearing boss. Children in abusive homes might convince themselves that they must be “understanding” when their parents take workplace frustrations (perhaps from the aforementioned overbearing bosses) out on them. Abuses continue under the guise of preserving social harmony. Anyone who speaks out is condemned as disruptive, or as a traitor to the group.

The current election cycle shows how these distortions carry over to the level of national politics. Pakikisama can be abused to quash any dissent to the opinion of the majority, or to the group’s authority figure(s). People raising grievances, objections, or even questions are seen as threats to group harmony.  They must be silenced or expelled. The actual or self-appointed majority rallies around a certain narrative. They will keep the faith, even in the face of compelling evidence against their claims. Legitimate news and archival sources will be dismissed as fake, biased, or Westernized. It explains why so much money has been invested in pro-Duterte/pro-Marcos online trolling. Collective vitriol on this scale is meant to normalize fanatical support for the allied dynasties. Conversely, it is meant to break the spirit of the opposition by convincing its members that they are alone — walang kasama.

As tech journalist Zeynep Tufecki put it, fake news and alternative facts in the age of social media show that “belonging is stronger than facts.” He was writing generally about fake news all over the world, but his words have special significance in the Filipino context, where belonging, kinship, and identity are so important. Factual arguments are treated as existential threats when a person’s sense of identity as an individual or member of a group are on the line.

Being a “solid” Marcos loyalist is not just about defending your political opinions — it can also be about defending your identity as a certain type of person. What type? Well, the term itself gives a clue: loyal. Marcos loyalists’ loyalty accrues not only to the Marcos dynasty, but also to other Marcos loyalists.  

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Oppositionists should recognize that they are not only asking supporters of Marcos/Duterte candidates to question their own views, but to question who they are as people, and potentially give up some important social ties.  Pandemic-induced instability and sporadic isolation make this an especially scary prospect.

The response to this is not to abandon pakikisama, but to model its most positive aspects. This means showing that belonging does not exclude critique or even outright disagreement. Ask people to explain their views, and genuinely listen, instead of using the time to prepare your own political spiel. Ask open-ended questions. Where reasonable, allow them to set the terms (both the terminology and the actual language) of the discussion. A shared language is one of the strongest manifestations of shared belonging. Tone, framing, and rapport matter.  

Right now, there is much discussion around how to rebuild a sense of shared values and baseline truths. In the Philippines’ fragmented society, it is quite possible that this shared space never existed in the first place. Not the most cheering thought. But we can use this opportunity to pioneer a more genuine sense of community by re-examining our core values, instead of uncritically doubling down on them. Our most toxic traits are often precisely our best ones — just taken too far. –

Jamina Vesta Jugo is a PhD Candidate in Political Science at the University of Goettingen in Lower Saxony, Germany. Her first book, based on her dissertation, is set to be published by Brill next year.

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