Are Filipinos Shallow?
This question often serves as the backdrop of political, literary, and cultural analyses inside and outside the academe. While ivory tower intellectuals are quick to dismiss “Filipino thinking” as a mishmash of pop culture, TV dramas, and neighborhood gossiping, it’s important to frame this question properly to arrive at an answer that takes into account our neocolonial conditions in the era of transnational capitalism, or what Lenin hinted when he formulated the coordinates of late-capitalist society.
The upheavals of the last century created the boundaries of what is now known as the ‘three worlds:’ first world countries (signifying industrialized and wealthy countries, particularly the United States and those in control of the United Nations, World Bank, and International Monetary Fund), second world countries (a confusing mix of ‘communist’ countries that often have twisted representations due to the US anti-communist ideology) and third world/developing countries. This global reconfiguration of ‘worlds within worlds’ is not accidental, but conscious and strategic. The reconfiguration gave birth to neoliberalism and globalization. The Global South was born due to the consolidation of transnational capital, mobile capital, and the feminization of labor in the poorest countries.
The Philippines is not independent of transnational economic policies that gave birth to the Global South.
We are part of the Global South. We are a ‘feminized nation’ in geopolitical parlance, and we are at the mercy of globalization at the turn of the 21st century. All these things leave us at a constantly crumbling junction. The pressures of globalization and the effects of capital across the architecture of urbanity and modernity destroy the lives of the poor and disadvantaged.
The survival strategies of the poor are criminalized. The state takes street vending, sex work, crossing borders for a better life through whichever means are available as alarming signs of criminality, and the poor are captured, punished, and eventually killed by the system. Even subsistence farming, as in the case of indigenous peoples like the Aetas in Pampanga and Tarlac, is stricken off as backward and “anti-progress” due to ‘mounting demand’ for (not so cheap) housing for the muted middle class. And let us not forget that so-called modernity in the name of progress is always accompanied by rising military and police abuses in the countryside and the urban centers where the ‘untouchables’ are parceled as undesirable elements people have to live in spaces that cost next to nothing. How anyone can miss these details in the overall re-planning of cities is scandalous. We have forgotten the value of human life in the face of ‘potential wealth.’ We accept these things as signs of prosperity as we wither with the lack of social safety nets, especially now in the pandemic.
The common Filipino works hard to not die from everyday scarcity.
Those who have regular jobs have to contend with a mass transportation crisis spanning decades. The ravaged economy can barely support the base of the population that only earns from 160–380 pesos daily. The struggle to survive on such meager salaries is now compounded by the global pandemic that has put everyone at mortal risk. And yet we remain, waiting out the pandemic, and attempting to hold the state responsible for its mistakes and neglect.
“Shallowness” is deeply politicized if cast upon the fuller backdrop of Filipino realities. It presupposes that a superior gaze exists — and that gaze also recreates the common Filipino as bullheaded, ill-mannered, miseducated, and, most of all, poor. The last one is the crux of the signifier, one we tend to avoid because it is a most sensitive issue. Reframing the concepts provides a much more productive lens: the majority of Filipinos are economically vulnerable, and the so-called ‘shallowness’ that we possess is a byproduct of how the state educates us. The state controls the pedagogical system, the materials allowed in classrooms, and the methods deemed sufficient to render an entire population ‘useful’ to the global labor market.
We are mounted on wooden planks to become model workers — meek, passive, and only interested in the technical workings of the jobs given to us. This explains why the “Bagong Bayani” signification is recycled all these years. The state that governs has taken away our capacity to question and restructure society for our prosperity. We now know how to make the local elite and the elite of other countries prosperous through our labor.
To define shallowness as merely lacking the ability to meditate on the nation or politics misses the point entirely. Filipinos developed a type of consciousness that matches their neocolonial binds. The solution is radically reconfiguring the educational system that serves only neocolonial masters. Filipinos are capable of surviving extreme duress and scarcity beyond imagination. By these capacities alone, Filipinos do not align with the shallowness that we all imagine. There are still spaces for further education, rectification, and mass organization against important issues. Just think: if a member of the moneyed class were to switch places with someone who has outlasted poverty for 50 years, his thoughtfulness and academic resources will melt without his economic advantage. We must examine the Filipino mindset with the proper lenses and always with the historical coordinates and material conditions in tow. The ideological ‘gaze’ that dismisses neocolonial realities must be abandoned completely in favor of a more critical lens that considers the far-reaching consequences of systems built on scarcity, exploitation, and neglect.
Marius Carlos, Jr. is a storyteller, essayist, and journalist. He is the current editor-in-chief of Revolt Magazine and Creative Director at Vox Populi PH. He is also the English editor of Rebo Press Book Publishing. He is an independent researcher focused on transnational capitalism, neocolonialism, empire, and pop culture. Contact him for writing projects.