A cultural malaise

In the wake of the Ozone disco tragedy, the press has called for more militant regulation of establishments that cater to the public.  The main problem of our society, however, is not the absence of good laws, nor the inability to implement these.  Our main problem is the general absence of civility as a value in our lives.

Civility is the art of living with others, of assuming personal responsibility for the community in which we live,  of taking pride in employing our individual talents in order to advance the lives of others.

Laws cannot take the place of good sense and civility.  And strict law enforcement cannot make up for defective citizenship.  Laws do not form people.  It is families, churches, schools and the media that do.  The eyes of even the most watchful judges and police cannot take the place of personal discernment.

Civility and discernment are what the owners of Ozone disco obviously do not possess.  It is a lack that they have in common with the body snatchers from the funeral parlors, with the owners of those floating coffins that have caused the death of thousands of Filipino passengers, and with  the countless operators of public utilities and businesses who serve shoddy goods and services to a powerless public.

This trait goes by other names.  It is the barbarism of mindless profit-seeking, of getting something for almost nothing, of doing brisk business on the despair of others.  It is the culture of shabbiness, of mediocrity, of neglect, and of perpetual improvisation.   It is the absolute contempt for the public.

Beyond disco houses without fire exits, we only need to look around us to discover emblems of this vicious trait – half-finished public buildings, uncollected garbage, roads without pavements,  dirty public parks without amenities, uncovered manholes, public schools without classrooms, water pipes without water, vendors without public markets, streets without namesigns, buildings without proper fire escape systems, public hospitals without beds, squatter shanties for the poor instead of regular public housing, etc. The list is endless.  It is what the Jesuit communications professor Fr. Nim Gonzalez,  calls a cultural malaise, a condition which afflicts not just the public sector but the private sector as well.

How should we understand this condition?  First of all, we should never think of this as an unalterable feature of our race, or an incurable defect in our national character.  These are imperfections of our generation that evolved as aspects of cultural adaptation.  They are not permanent.

We passed through a time when we needed to improvise as a measure of survival.  We did survive, but the improvisations we devised engulfed our daily existence and acquired the stability of institutions.  We  also began to believe that perhaps such is the fate of all developing countries.  But of course it is not.  Civility is not a function of economic development.  A people does not give up its yearning for perfection just because it is poor.

But I think something happened in the course of more than 3 centuries of colonial enslavement.  Our people’s self-esteem was crushed.  Entire generations were demoralized.  We began to recover our nation’s self-worth only about a hundred years ago, when our young people, both here and abroad, attempted to master the civilization of the colonial powers.  In the process they convinced themselves, and they showed the world, that they were as good if not better than the colonial masters.  The logical conclusion of this realization was the yearning for freedom.

The revolution against Spain, the war against the US, and the resistance against Japan became the battlefields not only for the recovery of our land but, as importantly, for the resuscitation of our will to author our own lives. As it happened, however, we were denied the glory of securing our own emancipation from Spain.  We lost the war with America.  And while we kept the resistance against Japan, it was MacArthur’s return that our people awaited.  Throughout all these years, our nation’s history had been one of perpetual adjustment to the condition of subjugation.

The result was a culture of improvisation and mediocrity.  Instead of a passion for perfection, we adopted the rule of the minimum.  Instead of an ethic of public service, we embraced the ethic of profit-seeking.  Instead of honor and accountability, we valued evasion of duty.  Instead of the pursuit of excellence, we found comfort in resilience.  It was a way of life appropriate to the colonial condition or any other situation of enslavement.  It was a weapon of the weak.

But it is a way of life that is anachronistic to a people that imagines itself to be free.  A free nation must take up the challenge of self-creation.  It must instill in its people the passion for perfection, the role of hard work in the production of genius, and the value of self-discipline and public service in the creation of a mature society.

The foreign master is gone; yet the government continues to be treated like an alien power.  We still regard the public sphere as if it were not our collective responsibility.   We treat our country as if it were not our own.  We remain minimalists in everything we do, especially when it concerns our duty to the community.  We tolerate shoddiness and incompetence in government or in the market, wrongly believing this is all that we can purchase with our citizenship or money.  We regard as fools those who work at perfecting their craft in order to give pleasure to others, instead of making this available only to those who can pay.

National discipline cannot come from fear of the law and the police.  It must be built on the base of uncoerced self-respect.  Only a profound self-worth can motivate us to be better than what we are.  Only this will make us want to rise above the mediocrity of make-shifts, make-do, make-work and make believe.