Sociology

[OPINION] Too many moralities? On conflicting norms in Filipino society

Jamina Vesta Jugo
[OPINION] Too many moralities? On conflicting norms in Filipino society
'It’s not so much that Filipinos lack a moral code, but that there are too many, and we haven’t figured out how to reconcile them'

Anomie, in sociology-speak, refers to a collapse of core social values.  People feel a sense of hopelessness and meaninglessness, becoming apathetic or even self-destructive in their individual lives.  Once anomie spreads, wider social problems are expected to follow, as people lose respect for common norms and mutual responsibility.  Synnomie, on the other hand, refers to having an integrated set of values that supports a meaningful life and harmonious society.  Anomie is the better-known of the two terms — not necessarily because breakdown is more common than integration.  One suspects that it is due to sociology’s tendency to scout for and try to solve problems.

What, then, should we call the situation in the Philippines?  The lack of respect for basic human rights principles, and even for facts, suggests a context of anomie.  However, I argue that what we see isn’t a collapse in values, but rather the clash of values.  It’s not so much that Filipinos lack a moral code, but that there are too many, and we haven’t figured out how to reconcile them.  This is exacerbated by a lack of critical self-reflection, in favor of a shallow, sentimental form of nationalism that romanticizes so-called Filipino values.  We do not give ourselves enough space to examine the implications of our norms, and figure out what to do when they conflict with each other.

Take the following hypothetical situation.  A business tycoon hires a young man because he sees his potential, despite the latter’s limited work experience.  The young man flourishes in his job, eventually forming his own company, and setting up his own children for good futures.  His daughter becomes a customs official.  One day, the tycoon, whose business is still steadily expanding, shows up at her office, asking her to look the other way when he fails to pay import taxes on machinery.  He makes a few subtle references to the old days, when he first hired her father, and laid the foundation for her family’s current prosperity.  Understanding the situation, she feels she has little choice but to do as he wants.  He sends her a Tiffany bangle for her next birthday — a diamond-studded shackle symbolizing her family’s continued debt to him.

The customs official clearly broke the law.  Legally-speaking, she ought to have refused the offer, and then reported her father’s former employer to the authorities.  But from another perspective, she respected the unwritten rules of utang na loob, compounded with the injunction to respect her elders.  Considering the weakness of our bureaucratic institutions in enforcing laws, we can count more on the prospect of being punished for our social, rather than our legal, transgressions.  There would be all sorts of informal but highly-effective ways of penalizing her, in case she did decide to turn the tycoon over to the law.  She would likely be considered dangerous and problematic, especially if her colleagues regularly participate in bribery and shady deals.  Ironically, she might even be accused of besmirching her family’s honor by reneging on the debt of gratitude she inherited from her father.  And the tycoon would likely still walk away, free to smuggle another day.

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Specialists in concepts of honor and shame would call this story a clash between the primary honor code (social norms) and the secondary honor code (the law), arising from massive disconnect between the two.  Beyond the technical dialogue, we can say that Filipino society overall suffers from a clash of values, even when there isn’t an official, written rulebook involved.  For example, our parents, GMRC teachers, and religious leaders teach us not to lie.  However, our families and peer circles can pressure us to bend the truth in order to respect seniority and avoid confrontation.  We officially celebrate our national unity and world-spanning sense of bayanihan, but in everyday life, we are expected to give (ahem) special consideration to people from our region, religious congregation, fraternity/sorority, [insert in-group here].  In extreme cases, this results in outright abuse and oppression of people who are seen as outsiders.

These problems result not from Filipino values themselves, but from the way we misuse and abuse them.  Sometimes, this takes the form of consciously warping values for the purpose of personal gain, such as when someone does favors in order to be able to invoke utang na loob later on.  But in many cases, the twisting of values is rooted in lack of critical thinking.  Imitating others’ bad example is all too easy.  Here’s another hypothetical example: a group of employees might bond over their devout Catholicism — while forgetting to find ways to befriend their Muslim colleague.  The other workers spot him sitting alone at lunchtime day after day, but since nobody takes the initiative to invite him to eat with them, the situation never changes.  He quits after months of feeling ignored and left out.  Nobody actually set out to exclude him, but it happened anyway, due to lack of critical thinking about what it means to be maka-Diyos.

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Clearly, what we need is a deep re-examination of our values.  What do they really mean?  How can we guard against their abuse and misuse?  What happens when values clash?

These are very challenging questions.  Too often, a lot of the proposed answers out there seem to imply that we should try to emulate other countries’ values as much as possible, since Filipino values don’t seem to be working out so well.  We have already tried out some “modern” Western norms, to mixed results.  Does this mean we will do better if we adopt the value system wholesale?  At least we will have resolved the question of which norms to follow.

However, I argue that many solutions can be found by actually delving deeper into what Filipino values are, and how we can make them work for us.  It is a much more productive debate than trying to draw a hard line between “native” vs. “foreign” values, or “primitive/traditional” vs. “modern” values.

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Even utang na loob, at the heart of so much patronage-related corruption and cronyism, can be rehabilitated when put within proper limits.  Utang na loob may reign in private, but must give way to public duty outside that sphere.  Alternatively, public officials must learn that they owe their utang na loob first and foremost to the public, before any patrons or even family members, as far as their official powers and public assets are concerned.  When this view becomes more widely adopted, whistleblowers should be able to count on their colleagues, bosses, and personal circle for support when calling out abuses of utang na loob.

What about abuses of regionalism, religiosity, and the like?  People who take pride in their identity or beliefs might have trouble opening their hearts to people with a different background.  They may have internalized the notion that being judgmental and exclusionary is a form of loyalty to their identity.  Tolerance and political correctness are being propagated as solutions, especially among the young generation.  However, another way to promote respect for the Other — for minorities, for outsiders, for those who have different religious or political beliefs — is to blend it with the less controversial Filipino value of hospitality.  In a manner of speaking, we are all guests on this earth, and nobody has the right to alienate someone just for being different.  We can welcome the Other as we would a long-awaited guest. At their most constructive, Filipino values can help us go beyond basic tolerance to being genuinely welcoming and celebratory of diversity.

Filipino values, such as they are, can be problematic, but can also light the way forward.  We just have to be willing to uncover the lantern and look deeper at our situation, even if we won’t always like what we’ll find.  Otherwise, the Philippines will remain stuck in the excruciatingly ironic position of a society that keeps hurting itself, because there are too many conflicting ways to do the right thing. – Rappler.com

Jamina Vesta Jugo is a PhD candidate in Political Science at the University of Goettingen, Lower Saxony.  Brill is set to release her book later this year.  She would like to thank Professor Richard Landes for the insightful conversation that inspired this piece.