The battle to change mindsets

Whether Vice President Leni Robredo wins or loses in the May 2022 elections, the campaign to make her president has produced something unprecedented in Philippine politics. It has unleashed a tide of citizen activism rarely seen in elections. It has spawned a social movement that seeks nothing less than to reshape the society of which it is a part.

Those who’ve keenly watched the current presidential campaign have made the same observation. They wonder where this vast accumulation of collective energy will take its bearers. Or how long it can last. Will it persist and assume new forms, and take on new tasks in a post-electoral landscape? The potential of such a movement to transform an entire society is immense.

In the short term, much depends on the conduct and outcome of the elections. But the true test of its strength and its long-term viability will come, I believe, within a year after the elections. I am less interested in the organizational forms it can take than in the change in consciousness it can foster.

I mean, in the first instance, the change in mindset it can catalyze. From one that is purely adversarial, to one that tries to understand the other. From one that is content to attack and defend positions, to one that explores possibilities for advancing a larger common cause. From one that merely seeks conversion by appealing to facts, to one that tries to get to the bottom of unexamined biases. From one that piously declares adherence to the rule of law to one that substantively upholds it in practice. From one that is exclusive, to one that is inclusive.

These are only a few ways of describing this change; there are more.

By now, we may have already realized what a divided society we are. I don’t mean merely the divisions signified by the divergent colors that have formed around this year’s leading presidential candidates. Nor do I mean just the tribalistic predispositions that continue to fragment our nation.

The more enduring unerasable divisions in our society, to be sure, have been along the lines of—for want of a better term—“class.” I use this in its composite sense—to indicate the vast disparities in income, property, power, education, and life opportunities that separate the mass of the poor from the well-off. In addition to the destructive resentments they breed, they prevent us from developing the inherent gifts and talents of a large segment of our people by the simple act of excluding them.

But, as importantly, I’m also referring to the dominant form of consciousness that has taken hold of our people across income and ethnolinguistic divides. It is what prevents us from having a true national conversation about the tough problems we face as a nation.

This is the mindset of the led, of those who distrust their own capabilities and always wait for someone strong-willed to tell them what to do. Their lives are driven by fear, so they are in constant search of protection by the powerful. The poor seek protection from the rich as well as from the recalcitrant poor. The rich seek protection from the poor as well as from the abusive rich.

Their disdain for privilege is hypocritical since they are the first to claim it from those with the power to dispense it—in exchange for their loyalty. Their judgment proceeds from an attitude rather than from knowledge or reason.

Of information they have little use themselves. They are used to relying on their leaders to do the right thing and everything. In their view, their duty ends after they have cast their votes. They see no need to concern themselves with matters that are formally the responsibility of public officials. Their default response is to comply when directed by authority, not to ask questions, offer suggestions, volunteer help, or, least of all, demand accountability.

It was this mindset that was on full display at the height of the COVID pandemic when the lockdown became the model of all containment measures. Copied from China, the lockdown approach institutionalized a system of regulation based on checkpoints and detention and isolation centers. It entrenched the culture of fear within communities rather than nurture the spirit of mutual support among neighbors. So extreme was the paranoia it bred that the first community pantries set up by ordinary citizens to share food with those in dire need were surveilled and initially suspected to be the handiwork of subversives.

While it is more visible during crises, this authoritarian mindset pervades the conduct of our normal everyday lives. The sociologist Pierre Bourdieu calls it “pre-perceptive anticipation.” Largely unconscious, it allows us to have a “feel for the game” being played by the powers that be without anyone having to spell out its rules.

It’s what got Sen. Leila de Lima in jail after President Duterte, whom she displeased by daring to investigate him for human rights violations, publicly vowed to “destroy” her. As soon as the President marked her for destruction, everyone in his team found ways to carry out her annihilation. First, they painted her as a woman of loose morals. Then, they found people who could be coerced into implicating her in the drug trade using fabricated charges. Finally, they found judges who were willing to issue warrants of arrest on the basis of affidavits of convicted felons, and, later, to deny her the right to file bail.

All this became possible because citizens, who have internalized the immanent structures of power in their society, were content to be spectators.