This is the magic word that is carrying Barack Obama to the farthest horizon of current American politics. Merely hearing him say it drives his supporters into a state of frenzy. The word seems to sum up for them a whole agenda of what America needs to do to erase the incalculable injury that George W. Bush has done to their country and to the world in the last eight years. That Obama has hardly articulated a coherent theory of what is wrong with America today appears to be of no moment. He will be the first African-American to become president of the United States, and, for many, that is change enough.
But this piece is not about Barack Obama or US politics. It is about change in general and the power of words.
The world around us is changing all the time. But how we respond to change is not determined by the world itself, but by the way we are constituted. Change in our environment may trigger a response, but the nature of this response is always determined by our own internal structure. Insofar as it allows us to live, this structure is usually adequate for managing the normal events of our environment. But changes can and do sometimes occur so unexpectedly and in such rapid succession that we find ourselves incapable of grasping their significance and coping with them. Our response or lack of response to such changes can often be fatal.
Let me offer some mundane examples to illustrate this point. In the 1970s, when large-scale tourism was just starting in Bali, Indonesia, tour operators brought in light mini-coaches to ferry tourists from the airport to their hotels and to various cultural spots. These fast and light vehicles were called “Bimos”. They zipped through the narrow streets of the Balinese countryside at murderous speed. In the first year of their operation, the Bimos’ path became littered with the carcasses of dogs and other animals they ran over on a regular basis. The poor creatures could not adjust quickly to the altered rhythm of their everyday surroundings.
The same thing happened in China in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, when fast European cars converted into tourist taxis began to ply the major streets of Beijing and Shanghai. The number of accidents involving languid commuters on bicycles and speed maniacs on Citroens and Benzes multiplied overnight. I am seeing it too in the new Subic-Clark-Tarlac Expressway (SCTEX), no matter how much care is being taken to seal it. I have noticed goats, dogs, and chickens cross this high-speed freeway with total indifference to danger.
As soon as the traffic on this highway picks up, there will surely be more dead animals on the road. What especially breaks my heart is the number of birds – Purple Needletails and Fork-tailed Swifts – that are crashing blindly against the speeding vehicles. I recently caught one myself on the windshield of my motorcycle. The poor birds have not noticed that the low airstreams they follow crisscross the new highway at various points. Change is clearly what they need to reflect in their navigational systems.
Because of language, humans are, in general, quicker to adapt to changes in their environment than other living creatures. We can describe our experience, talk about the future, and deliberately alter the way we live in expectation of future situations. We can assess the risks we take as we bind the future by the selections we make today. With new words, we can make sense of the vague uneasiness we feel when confronted by novel circumstances.
Of course, this is easier said than done. Our cultural system – of which our language is a big element – is a great tool for finding our way in the world. But it can also be a trap in the sense that it blinds us to changes that are occurring in our environment and renders us incapable of seizing new opportunities, or protecting ourselves from disastrous consequences. Sometimes, we find ourselves willy-nilly adjusting to new situations even before we have understood what is happening. We ourselves change, but our old descriptions may conceal this from us.
For example, one cannot begin to imagine how the overseas Filipino worker (OFW) phenomenon has dramatically changed our society in just the last 30 years. Look at the present values and organization of our families, the career preferences of our children, the content of our mass media, the role of the Church, the structure of our government, and, indeed, the whole substance of our economic life.
As a sociologist, I cannot think of any other social phenomenon that has been as comprehensive and as profound in its impact on Philippine society as the deployment of millions of Filipino workers abroad. And yet, I think we continue to think of the OFW program as merely provisional rather than as something that has become more or less an integral part of the national life. We remain in denial, in short, and this mindset has put many lives on hold.
A book I’m reading, “Autopoiesis and Cognition” by the Chilean biologists Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela, has triggered these thoughts. One passage from this book is particularly relevant to what I am trying to say here. “We could not escape being immersed in a tradition, but with an adequate language we could orient ourselves differently and, perhaps, from the new perspective generate a new tradition.” I think this is what Barack Obama is doing for America today.
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