Volcanic stonesis what many a Filipino thought or sentiment seems to be. A certain stubbornness in sticking to one’s opinions is even seen as a virtue. In certain circles even arguing against all common sense. Whether one is PAO Persida Acosta insisting that as a lawyer, she knows that Dengvaxia kills, or whether one is Solicitor General Calida maintaining that not being able to find Trillanes’ amnesty application means it never existed. Inspite of footage, testimonies and other indications that it did. Probably a Filipino trickster will have respect for Calida’s grin while defending the obvious untruth.

Truth versus Power

Because that could be seen as higher intelligence than Acosta’s believing the nonsense she states. But that would mean that truth matters little, only power and winning – not learning anything. Because learning means having doubts, making mistakes, verifying assumptions and a lot more. That seems to be seen as a weakness in the Philippines. Or why are unverified drug lists published? That is dangerous in a country were even criticizing the government is now seen as destabilizing. But the chickens have come home to roost. The culture always saw words as instruments of power.

In a passive-aggressive culture (link), criticism can be two-faced as innuendo is used for “attack”. Like the part of an iceberg above the water is smaller than what is below, the facts being discussed are sometimes not what is really meant. Criticism of policies CAN indeed mean “destabilization”. Why? Because whether Filipinos cooperate with someone or not can depend a lot on petty moods. Whether the person is liked or not. Dislike for whatever reason can lead to howling condemnation like the one experienced by President Benigno Aquino III for far less mistakes than Duterte made.

Confrontation with certain types of Filipinos are of course to be avoided, as there are not only the passive-aggressive but also the vindictive types. President Duterte towards De Lima, Sereno and Trillanes. Hinting he would destroy “a female official” just after he started (link) – but for what? Simply for pointing out the obvious about him, for investigating extrajudicial killings? That is a culture were face is far more important than the truth, very obviously. Were being wrong is not the issue, even if everybody knows it somehow – being told one is wrong is what destroys ones esteem.

Truth to Power

Black Box Thinking (link) is a book about learning from mistakes. There are a few examples in the book which show when incapability to speak truth to power leads to fatal mistakes. Co-pilots who are too diplomatic in telling the pilot something critical. Nurses not assertive enough to doctors. Due to inborn “respect” for rank – misplaced in situations were seconds can mean life or death. There can of course be power that refuses to accept any version of reality except their own. That can be dangerous to them, as they can execute or fire those “against” them but not escape from reality.

This is especially true in modern situations where reality is complex and hard to intuitively “see”. That is why seat of the pants leaders like Philippine mayors have difficulty in national settings.  Someone who lives in a city can get a “feel” for it without even being mayor: I can “feel” Munich. Mayors will talk to different people and compare what they see with what they are told and then they can balance their picture, decide and immediately see the results. No need for anyone to tell. Better if, but if the culture is one of face and power (link) better not be “shaimed” (sic) too much.

Well, I did think that Duterte was a good leader originally, because of his “listening tours” (link) at a time when President Aquino was criticized heavily for being insensitive to the common people. But was he? Possibly he also had a hard time, as Filipino culture sees criticism as form of attack. Probably even his statement that the people are his boss was the worst thing he could have done. Filipino bosses can be demanding to the point of unfairness, many Filipinos prefer foreign bosses. Some people probably thought they could nitpick on practically anything, thus abusing democracy.

Powerful Truth

A recent article by Dr. Gideon Lasco on The Scholar as a Rebel (link) does stress the importance of challenging received wisdom as an essential aspect of learning: the best thinkers of their day were called “revolutionary” precisely because they helped build their societies upon ideas — ideas that were nurtured in universities, and viewed as rebellious at the time of their inception. Of course not every trollish social media commenter who says “ugok ka” and “mali iyan” is a useful “rebel”. Dissent must be based on proper reasoning – even if it may come from a new and fresh angle.

Criticism of the policies of a leader does not have to mean disrespecting the authority of a leader.  Protests are a necessary corrective to smugness that can weaken a ruling group after some time. Unfortunately the Philippines is still built on face and power, not on ideas, so sophistry rules. Dengvaxia might be OK, but that can’t be, it is yellow as eggyolk, just like the new MRT wagons! The mentality still “be like”: “look at Panot! Poe lectured that WEAKLING about Mamasapano! Our Digong deals with critics quickly!” Actually, mistakes that happened in every administration could have been used as opportunities to learn how to improve the system as a whole – not in finding a culprit. Even the question “why EJKs” could have been an opportunity to learn, as the reason might have been “police investigations too inefficient, courts too slow, customs too porous”. Yet the culture loves finding a culprit or culprits and punishing them in whatever way possible. Those perceived as weak often become the culprits and those perceived as strong assign blame. Truth would make everyone more powerful. But the perspective of many is so short-sighted.

Irineo B. R. Salazar
München, 12 October 2018