‘Ubuntu’ and the Ateneo debaters’ historic win

In a world where Filipinos are better known as hardworking and caring servants and service staff, who, though well-educated and speak good English, accept low pay and work long hours far away from home because they cannot find better employment in their own mismanaged country—the news about Filipino students defeating the world’s best university debaters comes as a boost to our diminishing national self-esteem.

How easily we have forgotten that more than a century ago, young Filipinos were already traveling to distant parts—mostly to Europe—to study and to prove not only that we existed as a people, but also that we could excel in the things the modern world valued. Among these educated youths, who came to be known as “ilustrados,” it was Jose Rizal in particular who understood the importance of the kind of striving that could impress upon the colonial powers that we were as good as the best of them when given the opportunity to prove ourselves. He was critical of the racism that was inherent in Western colonialism.

In one gathering in Spain, Rizal extolled the awards won by Filipino painters Juan Luna and Felix Resurreccíon Hidalgo in major art competitions abroad. He said: “Luna and Hidalgo are Spanish as well as Philippine glories. They were born in the Philippines, but they could have been born in Spain, because genius knows no country, genius sprouts everywhere, genius is like light, air, the patrimony of everybody, cosmopolitan like space, like life, like God.”

The victory of Ateneo de Manila University’s debaters in the World Universities Debating Championship 2023 on Jan. 3 in Madrid, Spain, may be regarded as the present-day equivalent of the achievements that Rizal lavishly praised among his contemporaries. He would have been the first to recognize the significance of this feat.

Like anyone who marvels at the force of a good argument and tries to understand how it works, I, too, wanted to know how the team of Ateneo students David Africa and Tobi Leung formulated their argument. Here I quote from an online report: “The Ateneo team debated against the proposition that it is preferable to have a ‘world where all persons have a strong belief in the philosophy of Ubuntu.’”

“Ubuntu”—I had heard that word before. Bishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa first popularized it in his explanation of the objectives of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which he headed in post-apartheid South Africa. Ubuntu must inspire the commission, he said, as it pursues its difficult and complex work. A person with Ubuntu, he wrote in his book “No Future Without Forgiveness,” is “open and available to others, affirming of others.” Ubuntu makes him/her aware they are part of a greater whole.

Yet when I googled the word, the first entry that appeared referred to the open-source Linux operating system, which allows and promotes the free exchange of software. Ubuntu was indeed the name given to the free Linux operating system found in computers that refuse to bow to the commercialization of software exemplified by Microsoft and Apple. It was a subtle dig at the privileging of private profits over the larger needs of the community.

Clearly, the meanings associated with “Ubuntu” were all positive. Therefore, to argue against Ubuntu philosophy would be like arguing against the primacy of community or humanity, or God Himself. Coming from a school that prides itself in the formation of “men for others,” the Ateneo debaters could not have picked a side more opposed to the core Christian values in which they were bred.

But like the eloquent debaters they obviously are, Africa and Leung took up the challenge, and prevailed, by highlighting the dark and dangerous side of Ubuntu. This dark side is seen in the widespread tendency to justify tyranny in the name of some abstract community good.

Here is the news report of how the Ateneo team argued its position: “‘These obligations manifest badly … They always will,’ Africa said in his argument. He cited the difficulty of speaking up against the status quo, of people having less time to explore their own identity, and possible escalation of conflict.”

Leung chimed in with a more emphatic depiction of Ubuntu’s dark twin: “Community is a shackle that alienates you from your very sense of self, discourages you from discovering your own preference, and emboldens the worst forms of tyranny.” He was named the second-best speaker in the tournament.

Ubuntu is not exclusively an African value; it is also at the heart of the communitarian ideology behind the so-called “Asian values.” It is what Singapore’s leaders, for example, assert when, in the name of strategic national goals, they must counter their citizens’ growing clamor for greater individual liberties, for individualism can be equally pernicious.

Indeed, in the modern world, it has often become a warrant to allow the untrammeled rapaciousness of the market. Perhaps, the French philosopher Michel Foucault said it best. In his preface to the anti-fascist manifesto “Anti-Oedipus,” he wrote: “Do not demand of politics that it restore the ‘rights’ of the individual, as philosophy has defined them. The individual is the product of power. What is needed is to ‘de-individualize’ by means of multiplication and displacement, diverse combinations.”

Instead of the sheer quest for individual liberties, what is most needed in today’s world is the kind of freedom that encourages openness to the diverse affiliations that our common humanity offers.