Politics and cultural change

Politics is divisive, and it is absurd to object to it for being so. If it were not, it would not be able to perform its function of providing choice, building legitimacy, and checking abuse of power. Clearly, the other face of politics is integration.

But, for integration to happen after a divisive exercise, political competition has to be managed, its mode of expression regulated.  The rules of competition must be respected, protected, and conscientiously enforced.

Political enmity must be prevented from becoming virulent. This means that rivalries have to be kept within their restricted domain and not be allowed to infect other relationships that are essential to building social cooperation. This is obviously not an easy thing to do in a society where political differences seem naturally to spill over to other domains of social life. As I will try to show, a lot depends on the way culture configures our emotions.

The 2016 national elections will be remembered as one of the most emotionally charged political exercises ever to be conducted in our country.  The ease with which most everyone with access to social media could express strong opinions and sentiments partly accounts for this.  But, it was the aggressive, foulmouthed, and mocking style adopted by the Duterte campaign that set a new tone in political rhetoric.  What I call “Dutertismo” instantly engulfed social media, offering the public a perverse model of discursive authenticity and a channel for the release of violent resentments and repressed injuries.

Many longstanding friendships were strained, if not broken, because political choices were taken as indicators of wisdom or integrity, or lack of these.  It may take a while before these relationships are repaired, if at all. The virulence persists until now, taking the form of intolerance for even the slightest hint of criticism of the incoming administration.

The principal victor in these elections can do much to start the integrative process.  In one postelection interview, Rodrigo Duterte said the strong foul language he had used was all part of a strategy.  Meaning, he had not originally intended to be offensive in his utterances. But, according to him, it was this tone that seemed to click with his mass audiences, as though they were waiting for someone to bring these emotions out into the open, in the raw language that he alone, among the presidential candidates, seemed capable of using.

True or not, he may want to begin the healing by reverting to a more prudent and respectful way of communicating, rather than merely talking about it. For me as an observer, what is equally important is to understand where this sudden eruption of foul language in our politics is coming from, and whether this is the new normal in Philippine politics.

In previous columns, I wrote about how charismatic leaders like Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini were able to tap into such explosive emotions to catalyze the formation of fascist movements that later plunged their respective peoples into the abyss. It’s difficult to tell at this point if the rise of Mayor Duterte to the presidency signifies the birth of fascism in our country, or if this is just an ordinary type of strongman rule riding on the crest of a populist clamor for change.

Whatever it may be, I believe we need to fathom the roots of these emotions, to understand their generative mechanisms, and to see what we can do to prevent them from blindly fueling the kind of fratricidal conflicts that have destroyed other societies in the past.

An insight I have found to be very productive comes from a 1997 essay by the Chilean cognitive biologist Humberto Maturana, titled “Metadesign.” He writes: “Technological transformations do not impress me…. No doubt much of what we do will change if we adopt the different technological options at hand, but our actions will not change unless our emotioning changes.” I’m struck by the word “emotioning,” because it seems to assign to emotions a higher valuation than modern rationalist cultures would usually give to them.

Indeed, Maturana believes that cultures are configurations of emotions. Unless there is cultural change, he says, we will find ourselves at the mercy of the same emotions that perpetuate domination, submission, manipulation, mistrust, greed, dishonesty, and abuse of others and of nature. Only the means by which we do these will change. We ourselves will remain unchanged.

How does Maturana understand cultural change? His language is far from lucid, perhaps because of the stilted translation from Spanish to English. But a slow careful reading might help:  “The reality that we live arises instant after instant through the configuration of emotions that we live, and which we conserve with our living instant after instant. But if we know this, if we know that the reality that we live arises through our emotioning, and we know that we know, we shall be able to act according to our awareness of our liking or not liking the reality that we are bringing forth with our living. That is, we shall become responsible for what we do.”

My take: The world we live in is created and continually recreated by a way of life reinforced by our emotions. In turn, this world summons the same emotions. The only way to break this cycle is by subjecting this world and the emotions it induces to critique and reflection. What we learn from the practice of self-awareness we must try to reflect through changes in our emotions. We must then endeavor to conserve these changes and pass them on to the next generation as an act of responsibility.

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