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We are in this life together. We share a common humanity. But what is it about people and institutions that insist on keeping us apart?
I am Filipino-American. I cannot claim to have found myself in trouble because of my race in the same way as the oft-familiar dread and unease African-Americans feel today and probably every day. My racial self-hatred and shame are closer to Cathy Park Hong’s penetrating memories. In Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning, she writes, “Asians lack presence. Asians take up apologetic space. We don’t even have enough presence to be considered real minorities. We’re not racial enough to be token. We’re so post racial we’re silicon.”
I feel this way. Here in the Philippines, I am not Filipino enough but am too American. I can tell you that I have attracted all kinds of microaggressions because I never play the role of the yes sir-yes ma’am Filipino. They decide I am difficult when I decide to be honest.
I will not attempt to narrate with my Asian imagination the racial trauma of Black Lives. Our shared injury by white supremacy is not a shortcut to intimacy. Black Lives have their own stories, with their own voices. We should listen.
I do see an imperfect parallel.
I now live in Manila, watching my home of 24 years, Los Angeles, on fire again in the days after the death of George Floyd. The looting, burning buildings, and violence — of the opportunistic few outnumbered by peaceful Angelenos of conscience — are salts to the wounds of the 1992 riots. My family was a little more than a year fobby fresh from the Philippines. I had just turned 11 when the white police officers were acquitted of beating Rodney King. (READ: Thousands mourn George Floyd as accused officer appears in court)
And I watch New York, too. My attachment to the city has ebbed but will never go away. Much of my storied roots were firmly planted in the city — September 11th, Northeast Blackout, and the intrinsic despair of youth. I was there; I was in college.
I am a bystander to a city at the epicenter of sheltering at home. Three months of hardship, 3 months on life support, the coronavirus has besieged New York. But now, it is bursting and immersing itself with long-lasting, widespread demonstrations. The jolting liberation of public assembly is the antidote to the prolonged isolation. I watch New Yorkers defy curfew, stand with health workers and activist groups, and rove, amoeba-like, the once deserted streets. I watch, with a smile and a bit of jealousy, the city returning to itself.
And that synergy of pandemic and protest is also swelling here in the Philippines. An anti-terrorism bill has predictably cleared the codependent Congress. As I write this, it only needs the signature of the president. (READ: [ANALYSIS] The Anti-Terrorism Act: Duterte will have all dissenters’ necks)
The bill comes from the same tired manual that has automated policymaking in the country — which is to say, it is sufficiently sweeping and vague for the plain vanilla palate of public leaders but far removed from the lived realities of Filipinos. The bill makes demands on behalf of public service without actually serving the public. The bill is Karen.
And just as predictable is the urgent and valid opposition to the bill — or more accurately, the expression of that opposition. The official statement and the hashtag inflate the feeling of political engagement by flattening the physical behavior necessary to make change. Though opponents argue that the written words of the anti-terror bill are poor substitutes for what is intended, the same opponents seem mostly unable to understand their own argument. In the nebulous world of the internet — and Filipinos are addicted to the solidaristic emotions of the virtual invisible hand — simply to include #JunkTerrorBill in any opinion is to be doing meaningful work.
What is it about people that makes it so hard to aspire towards equal protection under the law? How do institutions engender childlike dependency? Why do powerful groups struggle with equal respect, relying instead on domination and exclusion?
Here is where I value, and take seriously, my work. I am a behavioral scientist in public health and social policy. I want to figure out how thoughts and feelings motivate or derail specific policy recommendations.
We base our policies on human rights and, here in the Philippines, increasingly on religious views. This is an essential design of policymaking but also, for me, too narrow. Policies are not designed by human rights but rather by humans. We would do well to begin with psychology to locate policy choices that keep us apart. (READ: [OPINION] Terrorizing us, but not the terrorists)
The political struggle for equality and justice requires us to focus more deeply on the emotional impediments to these substantial freedoms. The type of society we want — whether systemic anti-black is a desirable goal or whether fear of dissidence is normalized, for example — must first embark as a struggle within all of us.
We are born into this world helpless. As infants, we depend on others to supply our demands. We take great pains in making it known when our needs are not met. We are not devoid of love and compassion, of course. But because we can do little-to-nothing for ourselves as infants, other people are merely objects that bring what we want.
Another is our sense of disgust. Feces and urine are inherently human. It is not until toilet training that we learn to label them with powerful emotions like disgust. Our bodily waste is also the entry points for experiencing shame and perfection. Control is the key for both, we are often told. It is no surprise that these emotions define later beliefs about adult success.
For some, the feelings of weakness and disgust dominate into adulthood. We are all needy and do see some things as dirty, no matter what age we are. But for most of us, we are able to channel these feelings in a healthier direction, one that brings us together. For others, it is how they primarily operate in the world — by prioritizing their own needs and by stigmatizing certain groups as less-than.
We are spectators to men — and they are mostly men — desperately trying to prove their manhood. But in following the strongman’s narcissistic playbook, they emerge utterly anxious of losing control. There is a persistent and increasingly aggressive desire to label others as problematic, disgusting, and subordinate. This is what young children do. We are, in effect, witnessing leaders who have not quite passed the “cooties” stage.
For leaders who are incapable of channeling their helplessness and loathing towards a more inclusive and compassionate direction, they are now getting lessons with #BlackLivesMatter or #JunkTerrorBill. They’re getting new toilet training. – Rappler.com
Dr Ronald Del Castillo is a consultant on social and behavior change communication. He was professor of psychology, public health, and social policy at the University of the Philippines. The views here are his own.