Unashamed: A morbid symptom

Delicadeza — the sense of shame or kahihiyan that restrains people in positions of power, trust or authority from doing what is improper — is all but dead in our society. But, far from mourning its passing, the powerful cannot wait to bury it. They seem to draw additional satisfaction from flaunting its absence, as though shamelessness, its opposite, has suddenly become the new virtue.

Nowhere is this sea change in our culture more palpable than in our political life. It is difficult to point to a moment in our early years as a republic when people in government deliberately groomed their spouses and their children to succeed them in the elective offices they occupied, as they routinely do today. A few of our well-remembered politicians who were repeatedly reelected to public office never presumed to transfer the public trust they enjoyed to other members of their families.

Back then, public service was seen as a noble profession, the practice of which often entailed the neglect of one’s own economic possessions. Running for public office was certainly not the family enterprise it has become today.

All this may be attributed to the fact that the early generation of Filipino leaders had felt imbued with the responsibility to prove that, as a people, we were capable of self-rule. The postcolonial aspiration to demonstrate capacity for independent nationhood acted as a brake to the pursuit of pure personal interest.

This is not to romanticize our early politicians. Some of them were as selfish and corrupt as those we have today. But, if anything, they were more sensitive to public opinion, and more attuned to what the nation and the rest of the world expected of them. They had an abundant sense of delicadeza. In their eyes, it wasn’t just their personal honor or the reputation of their families or ethnic community that was at stake in their performance as public officials, but that of the entire Filipino nation.

It is perhaps one of the saving graces of the old society that appearances mattered a lot. It prevented the privileged classes from excessively exploiting the uncontested power they enjoyed. Where the mechanisms of law enforcement were weak, the ethic of restraint that tacitly bound the governing class promoted social harmony in a highly unequal society.

But, while it mitigated the harshness of a stratified society, delicadeza could not fully mask the predatory character of feudalism. Indeed, the value placed on correct form was attended by a lot of hypocrisy and pretense.

With modernity, the struggle for individual emancipation often found expression as a quest for authenticity and the denigration of form. The transition to the modern has been far from smooth; indeed, it is often marked by crisis. The Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci offers this cogent description of the malaise that usually attends the passing of the old society: “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”

I am convinced that the celebration of brazenness in behavior that we are witnessing today—the rhetorical excess, the narcissism, and the unapologetic deployment of naked power that has become normal to those who have come to power in our time—are prime examples of the “morbid symptoms” that Gramsci had in mind. Just as “fake news” has relativized our notion of truth and credible information, so also has shamelessness displaced sense of propriety. The revolt against pretense unleashed by modernity has spawned the kind of unbridled exhibitionism that has found a home on social media.

What else can the flaunting of dynastic rule in this current election season be but a symptom of a resentful reaction against everything that was once valued in the old society—decency, propriety, awareness of personal limit, modesty, kindness, moral restraint? Was there ever a time in our political life when husband and wife ran for governor and vice governor, or mayor and vice mayor of the same city or province in the same election?

If this is ethically permissible, is it inconceivable that, someday, siblings, spouses, parents and their children or grandchildren would team up and run for president and vice president of the country? This early, we may as well declare ourselves a monarchy rather than keep the pretense of being a republic.

At the rate we are going, this possibility is no longer as absurd as it may have sounded not too long ago. As morbid as it may seem, the revenge of dynastic rule is creating its own rationalizations. It’s what the people supposedly want. It is supposed to simplify choices, and assure continuity and stability.

The failure of our political parties to become effective mechanisms of recruitment for a new generation of modern leaders—a disaster compounded by the circus that the party-list system has become—has bolstered the dynastic belief that the family could be the organizing principle and fulcrum of our collective life as a nation.

But this is all nonsense. The old is dying, and nothing can take its place in the complex contemporary world we live in except a social order that recognizes the differentiation and autonomy of functional spheres. To extend the specific code that governs family life to domains like politics and the economy is to retard the growth of these systems, and kill the family itself.