The quest for the new

In 1972, when Ferdinand Marcos declared Martial Law, the population of the Philippines was approximately 45 million.  Today, there are close to 90 million of us.  But, beyond this demographic doubling, our society has become complex in many other ways.

As individuals, we find ourselves less constrained by tradition.  We are freer to choose our life partners and our careers.  We are also freer to dissolve relationships when they are perceived not to work. More of us are now prepared to travel farther away from home in search of work.  Our loyalties have become more transient, our faiths more varied.  Our spirituality has a broader range than that of our ancestors. What we call the fulfilled life now has countless variations.

The world out there has itself become vastly different.  It offers far more opportunities than we have ever known in previous times.  But the dangers that await its explorers have also multiplied, and often we find that our culture has not prepared us to face these risks with confidence. And neither has our government made adequate provisions to protect us in extreme situations, even as it practically drives us away to earn a living abroad.  About ten percent of our people now live and work in about 192 countries, making us one of the most highly dispersed nations in the world.

Our expanded and multi-layered encounters with the outside world have made our society extremely porous and vulnerable.  We experience this not only in the wide array of consumer goods and services available to us, but also in the sheer novelty and range of information that shapes our impressions of the world and our notions of the possible life.  Our value systems are dramatically shifting, and we are often shocked by what we can now accept as permissible. This process is very unsettling, but we Filipinos adjust very quickly, often surprising ourselves by our uncommon resilience.  The accumulation of these little adjustments produces a sea change in the internal structures of our society, as well as in our expectations of how we should conduct ourselves as a nation.

We realize that we can no longer follow those thoughtless ways we associate with the negative side of our culture without exposing ourselves to the dangers of societal dissolution and chaos.  This lies at the core of our political crisis.  In the beginning, the quest for reform takes the form of a call for a return to basic values.  Thus we desperately scan the horizon for trustworthy individuals who embody them.  Then we realize that these values themselves have become so general and so far removed from concrete situations that, even as they retain their rhetorical function, they provide little useful guidance on how to solve the moral puzzles of everyday life.

This is where we are today.  We find ourselves grappling with the enormous complexity not only of the world but of ourselves as a society.  The old practical rationalities and moral maxims embedded in our culture no longer work for us.  Every attempt we make to patch up a little hole in one institution only seems to produce larger holes in another.  We are torn between the call for moral revolution and the call for social revolution, and yet, strangely, whether we opt for one or the other, we fall back on the search for trustworthy leaders.

The sociologist Niklas Luhmann’s warning should speak to us: “Systems are rational to the extent that they can encompass and reduce complexity, and this they can only do if they possess understanding of how to make use of trust and distrust without placing too heavy demands on the person who finally shows trust or distrust: the individual.”  On this, I am quite certain that we have spent more time looking for individuals who deserve our trust than in nurturing rational systems we can trust.

This quest for bigger-than-life exemplars imbued with ethical purity is not very different from the search for messiahs.  As a singular solution to the complex problems of a modernizing society, it will fail because it unrealistically puts the entire burden on the personal steadfastness and all-encompassing wisdom of leaders.

This is not to say that rational systems have no use for trustworthy individuals.  In periods of transition, when so much public cynicism needs to be dispelled, institutions can be enormously strengthened by the recruitment of credible persons into their fold.  But, the rationalization of institutions can only be meaningfully achieved at the operational level.  This is not done overnight.  It is accomplished in everyday practice, by the slow inculcation of a new ethos of equality, and through the power of persistent example.

Unfortunately, the impulses of the old order are still actively at work in every sphere of our national community.  They trade on the quick and the familiar, undermining long-term programs of reform.  This is what heightens public despair, and paves the way for dangerous attempts at final all-or-nothing solutions.

But I remain hopeful. I like to believe that the modern way of thinking is already upon us. We see it in the demand for transparency and accountability in public service, in the insistent call to preserve the autonomy of the legal system and the civil service. We see it too in the public yearning to de-politicize the police and the armed forces. But above all, we see it in the many urgent efforts of civic groups and movements to override the existing culture of patronage by restoring self-respect and self-reliance among the poorest of our people.


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