Youth Activism & the Urban Filipino Psyche

Activism comes from the word ‘active,’ and still from the root word ‘act,’ which means the process of doing and getting that something done. Activism is the taking of direct action to achieve a well- determined goal. To be more specific, it is the doctrine or practice of a vigorous feat to achieve political or social goals. However most laymen of today, the Juan next door, sees activism as being rebellious- being noisy and petty. Many see it and pass judgment on it based on its physical manifestations: long hair, rugged I-don’t-care-what-you-think outfits, public outcry, politics, scandals, strikes and what-have-you. It used to be, in fact, that once upon a time, activism was esteemed. Consider the first demonstration of the American regime. It was led by a proud UPian, Carlos P. Romulo, his group constituted of no less than fellow UP students[1]. Indeed, as older people would put it, ‘those were the days . . .’

Thirty years ago, activism was highly respected and admired. Activists were found daring and exciting. Activists of the yesteryears are now influential, political leaders. Cristina Montiel of the Philippine Journal conducted a study on the ideological and generation differences in value orientation among the Filipino student activists. As a result, she has classified them into two:

�· Those before the Martial Law stage
�· And those during Martial Law stage towards the present

The situation before, highly influenced the perspective on activists and of activists. The former group, supported by the Filipino masses and their objectives, were prided with academic excellence and courage, intimidating teachers by their mere presence in class and even more so the foreign authorities. It is still believed that their youthful participation in such [activism] radical movements have influenced and probably even dominated some aspects of their adult behavior in reaction to the political, social, and economic issues. Implying that elements in form of experiences as the Martial Law and the EDSA Revolution are significant in establishing values in its young participants. And if in these are molded the future leaders then to look at our student activists now would be looking at the influential political leaders of tomorrow.

Unfortunately, the latter, babies borne of the 1970’s, grew of suppression and colonial dominance, drawing up a somewhat passive behavior[2]. Furthermore, college education became commercialized; thus, the dissent of youth movement. But then came the Ninoy Aquino assassination. Though student activists’ grades then were not as impressive as their predecessors, and strategies not as good, the event marked a quantum leap in the student movement[3]. Once more, youth activism became an awesome power in the Philippines.

Studentry was and is still a powerful faction in society. The students’ desire to take active participation in pressing social, national, political, as well as economic issues have made its mark in countries such as France, the Czech Republic, Latin America since the early 1920’s, as well as those in Africa, and Asia, particularly the Philippines. The youth, refusing to be stilled, have decided to have a ‘say’ on their future. Catalysts to this urge would be, first, youthful freedom and interest – brightly aflame and not dulled by apprehensiveness over job stability and family problems.

Second is idealism. Unlike the tired and frustrated old man who has undergone life’s harsh realities, the not-so-experienced youth will pursue his dream even against all odds.

Third, the still growing youth, unable to contain vibrant energy, shows forth his impulsiveness and impatience. Making him an eager beaver, willing to go where ‘no man has gone before,’ so to speak.

And finally, modern knowledge and sophistication is rampant among the studentry. With these, they have become concerned with more than just petty problems. They have developed a keen awareness of society, environment, government, and human rights[4].

These factors fuel teenagers from being mere TV-watching juveniles to courageous, outstanding radicals. These students have now the faculties to fight for what they believe in; the voice to make themselves heard; giving the youth the chance – the responsibility even to make for themselves and for their fellow Filipinos a better tomorrow. This applies and should apply to all capable students. This is even more so to UPians, as national concerns and social controversies are more pressing in UP (University of the Philippines) than in other schools and universities. Its students cannot evade issues regarding the Philippine society, government, and dirty politics because local government, officials, regulations and finance become a burden too to the university populace. Not only that, as UP is an institution for the masses – the people. More than the pettiness of everyday life, UP students have an additional responsibility – to their fellow Filipinos and to the nation itself. For as University Student Council (USC) chairperson of 1991; Rex Varona said, “When we (the UP students) signed our Form 5 (Registration form), we executed a blood compact with our people.”[5] The UP students, being ‘iskolars ng bayan’ (‘the country’s scholars’) have an obligation to the nation.

In the August 14, 1988 issue of the Sunday Inquirer Magazine, the problem of reviving the influence the UP student movement once wielded among most of their fellow UPians, was a point already brought up. The question of how the momentum of student activism can be regained was even then, already an issue. Also, reported in National Midweek, September 4, 1991, were disheartened student leaders of UP Diliman who found what they called a ‘putrid calm’ among the majority of the UP studentry. Presently, UPCC (University of the Philippines Cebu Campus) is also facing a similar dilemma, with student leaders as well as active ones complain of collegiates’ behavior. Stated in the current issue of UP’s Official publication – ‘Tug-ani.’ It says, “UP students have become tolerable – uncaring, apathetic – in short, walang paki-alam (uncaring).” To reiterate my description earlier of Martial Law babies: they grew of suppression and colonial dominance. It is undeniable that colonial mentality is a rampant trait among the Filipinos. Influencing greatly our way of thinking, our way of life – even Filipino norms and standards. Yes, intercultural value differences are matters of mixed proportions, and stress of various conceptions. That is why most Filipino values, even those about to be mentioned, constitute elements also in the value systems of other nations, including the United States. But there are certain distinctions: the American rates integrity higher than interpersonal tranquility, whereas the Filipino sees no reason why conflict should be courted when silence or evasive speech will preserve the peace.[6] A simple explanation as to why, “Activism in UP is dead,” was the assertion used by the commentator. He, at first, wanted to catch readers’ attention. And so, he used this personified statement. It was the least bit blunt considering the point he was driving at, but at the same time he was blatant. The commentator decided to remain anonymous as well, as I observed his unsigned piece. He obviously did not want the negative reactions of his audience, which were most probable taking into account the content of his essay.

The art of getting along is one of the faculties a Filipino, one that he would wish to keep harmonious. The average Filipino would master this just to achieve acceptance, even approval, among his peers. More formally known as Smooth Interpersonal Relation or SIR, it would be understood easier upon the enumeration of its positive and negative illustrations, respectively:

�· Manifestations in a positive way would be:
�· a smile
�· a pat on the back
�· a friendly lift of the eyebrow
�· a word of praise
�· advice or friendly concern
�· Negative expressions would be:
�· Open disagreement
�· Harsh words or responses
�· Sour looks
�· Even to the extent of physical violence

Having smooth relation then with others is to avoid conflict, most especially its outward expressions. If that means keeping silent when in opposition, so be it. In short, it is being agreeable, maybe even to the point of apathy, particularly in critical circumstances. It could also be defined as being sensitive when you are sincere but superficial and selfish if sole intent is to gain a favorable breeze. Acquisition and preservation of Smooth Interpersonal Relations are made possible by cultural mechanisms now instrumental values to the Filipino people:

�· Pakikisama
�· The use of euphemisms
�· The use of go-betweens

First on the list is pakikisama. This is the Tagalog word derived from its root ‘sama’ defined in turn as to ‘go along’ or ‘accompany.’ But the word itself [pakikisama] would mean to ‘give in,’ in a word – concession. For it to be made clear, here are some indications:

Ã?· Willingness to be synonymous with a group’s opinions and decisions
Ã?· To conform to a group’s identity
�· To concede or yield to the will of a group or majority or its leader
�· To extend sympathy and help when necessary

Pakikisama implies camaraderie. It is also to a Filipino, an art – the art of togetherness. It does inspire one to give up or sacrifice individual gain for the benefit of the group. ‘Pakikisama’ in Filipino circles though, travel through the debt cycle otherwise known to Filipinos as ‘utang na loob.'[7] That is when one owes another a personal favor. So a deed done is an attempt to pay a debt. But sadly, in ‘utang na loob’ this debt seems immeasurable – by this I mean, it is to be returned with such high interest, you spend your whole life trying to make up for it. The Philippine context has made ‘utang na loob’ more complicated and intricate. To further expound, let’s take a loan from the bank. Upon payment, this loan is to be paid with interest, now so are debts of deed. The feeling then of not being able to reciprocate a favor given would create a complex interdependence – an obligation for one towards another – that is ‘utang na loob.’ It is a showing of one’s appreciation, though now indirectly, yet still in unbounded terms. Nonetheless, in the opposing arena, Filipinos also have their own indirect way of expressing their beastly characters . . .

Filipinos have the ability to express in sugar coated form a bitter remark. He can state an ugly unpleasant truth, opinion, or request as graciously as possible. Filipinos have managed to evolve for themselves an oblique language, in order to maintain proper interpersonal relation. These are the euphemistic expressions. Though not of Philippine origin, the concocted Filipino version is quite admirable. Highly regarded today, and highly prized even before. Euphemisms may be illustrated by the mentioning of some everyday Filipino traits:

�· Indirectness of answers
Ã?· Inability to say ‘no’
�· Practice of the Code of Silence, especially when disagreeing
�· Tendency towards overt approvals

Even in 1754, Juan Delgado wrote that a Filipino would rather suffer 100 lashes than a single harsh word. An opinion echoed by the great national hero, Jose Rizal, in his footnote to Morga, “The Filipino today prefers a beating to scolding or insults.” Also according to Dr. Encarnacion Alzona,

Ang marahang pangungusap
Sa puso’y makalulunas.
Ang salitang matatamis
Sa puso’y nakaaakit
Nagpapalubog ng galit.”[8]

A Filipino is sensitive and interprets harsh words or even harsh tone of voice as expression of ill feeling. With this in mind, it can be evident then that, except between good friends or enemies, in conversations, the higher value is on the pleasant words than on the substance of it all.

Euphemism is a device so used by Filipinos, it has become incorporated in our dialects. Many-a-time, Filipinos take refuge in words such as:

Ã?· Siguro nga ( “I guess so” or “Could be” ) is used when one could not quite agree with another person he is conversing with
Ã?· Kung sinabi mo ba e ( “if you say so” ) implies concession
Ã?· Titingnan natin ( “we’ll see” ) being unsure of something
Ã?· Medyo (“not so” or “just about”) expresses neutrality and possible ambiguity in asking of one’s opinion
Ã?· Ewan (“I don’t know”) and bahala na (“see how it goes” or more commonly as “whatever”) imply passivity, not wanting to deal with something.

In these, it is quite evident that the Filipino behavior is in a distinct form, worlds unlike that of its colonizers. As far as interpersonal relations are concerned then it can be drawn upon that there are Western cultures that seek to resolve a conflict by confrontation whereas the Filipino does so by avoiding encounter.

Finally, the third prevalent means of maintaining good terms with others, is the use of the go-between – a third party. This may be used preventively or/and as remedy.

�· A mediator is preventively used in the following situations:
�· when asking for a favor
�· when negotiating between parties
�· to avoid open confrontation or risk of refusal or rejection
�· To communicate an embarrassing request, complaint, or decision
�· Middle men can be a remedy when:
�· In an existing state of conflict or tension [a person who is uninvolved can serve as mediator; mostly that person is duty-bound to do so when family or relatives are involved.]

Filipinos make use of go-betweens for the simple purpose that they do not wish to hurt others, just as they do not want to be hurt by others. This is based on the humanly & homely Golden Rule – “Do not do unto others that you don’t want them to do unto you.” People want to feel safe – to be sure that they will not be harmed.

In the Philippine setting, security isn’t by independence but in interdependence, which explains the importance of having smooth interpersonal relation, and social acceptance. It also serves as an explanation to the existence of close family ties. That is why there is more at stake when two Filipinos have a fight and confrontation as more than the actual participants in conflict are involved. Consequently, in the event of an encounter between the two parties, devastation would be upon the local area, not only for that time, but for the future generations as well. This is one of the reasons why Filipinos hold smooth interpersonal relation in high regard. A second rationale would be that Filipinos have what I would call a “balloon ego.”

The Filipino values very much his “balloon ego,” his self esteem. Reinforced by the Spaniards by its name, “amor propio” which literally means “love of self.” But self-esteem is more diverse when with Philippine accompaniment. It can be characterized as follows:

Ã?· Keen sense of a person’s dignity
�· High sensitivity to personal affront
�· Retaining of acceptance already gained
Ã?· An emotional high tension wire that girds the individual’s dearest self
�· Protection from disparagement

This self-confidence or sense of self is so important to a Filipino. Social acceptance and approval enhance it. Amor Propio is sensitive among Filipinos – just like a balloon, so easily deflated and/ or inflated. It is prone to puncture when exposed to humiliation, insult, and discouragement. Though not aroused by every offensive gesture, it is only set off when an individual’s most prided attributes are stricken; yet so easily healed by flattery, praise and encouragement. This is so closely related to another social sanction, which act as guard against the loss of acceptance and harmony in relationships. This is a foremost value to Filipinos. It is “hiya.” Plainly speaking, ‘hiya’ is shame.

Anthropologist, Frank Lynch sees it as ‘an uncomfortable feeling that accompanies awareness of being, in a socially unacceptable position, or performing a socially unacceptable action.’ ‘Hiya’ may be found universal in the light of its definition as ‘shame,’ but it is a cultural phenomenon, upon the discernment of which is socially unacceptable and worthy of shame or not.

Hiya in Philippine society is a controlling element:

Ã?· Person’s behavior is restricted by hiya.
�· Public behavior is either censured and/or approved by hiya.
�· To be ridiculed or to fail or to be embarrassed is to suffer hiya.
Ã?· To have an undesirable behavior – contrary to that of what society has agreed upon / to act improperly or in a way be disliked by the majority is to be without hiya.

These values are the few that survive – that hold the traditional Filipino culture at the seams. However, these so-called values can elicit such negative attributes from Filipinos. Indeed, our official history is so tinted by colonial scholarship. Why are the above mentioned (i.e. pakikisama, hiya, amor propio) defined as values? These are not values. But they have come to be known so, as we have been conditioned to think so. Just as we have been mentally conditioned that women are a weaker sex. I believe that they [pakikisama, amor propio] shouldn’t be either. My professor in Social Science, in fact, suggested an alternative to pakikisama, which is pakikipagkapwa. Instead of just concession, in pakikipagkapwa, there is a mutual respect in a group for its individual members. Also that amor propio ought to be paninidigan. Not only standing to uphold self esteem but to stand for more – for principles, for rights. Only after about six years did I realize the error of what I thought were just mere lessons. These mere lessons were implanted in my mind, and most probably in many others since primary education (elementary). Giving young people this miseducation, telling them they should sacrifice what they believe is right just to please the group or to do whatever means in order to keep one’s ‘face,’ so to speak – this is wrong. In this way, much emphasis has been placed on social acceptance – too much.

A goal so desired and sought after by so many, social acceptance is when one is taken by those he considers his significant others, for what he is, or believes he is, and is treated in accordance with his status. But actually to a Filipino, it would be best defined negatively. It is when one is:

�· Not rejected
�· Not ridiculed
�· Not maltreated
�· Not improperly criticized

More or less, it is quite obvious that it is not distinct from social approval. Often it is confused, as it is so closely related. A distinguishing element though would be that social approval includes a positive expression in manifestation – a liking that is not necessary in social acceptance to a Filipino.[9] But of course, acceptance is sweeter once accompanied by outward approval. Filipinos treasure so much even the most subtle expressions of acceptance, thus the Tagalog proverb, ‘Hindi baleng huwag mo akong mahalin; huwag mo lang akong hiyain,’ which translated in English is “It doesn’t matter if you don’t love me; just don’t put me to shame.” This goes to show how satisfying an average Juan finds social acceptance. But how far will he go to get it?

Possibly due to the importance placed on social acceptance, students focus more on grasping it. They would much rather prefer to remain inside the safety of their circle of friends than stand up and out for something they believe in.

Besides, this fast moving, tech-environment calls for the academically inclined and not exactly the socially concerned. Seldom is it found at present, an ‘all for one, one for all’ motto of a nation. Sure, the Philippines has a collective culture – giving more attention to the collective rather than the individual. This is true. However, an unfortunate incident is that the collective granted more significance is the body that means something to the individual. This could be his family or his circle of friends – very seldom could it be his country. It’s more of an each-man-for-himself attitude, worsening to the extent of maltreatment – personal gain at the expense of another.

This researcher believes that the paramount attention given to social acceptance has influenced the displacement of the views of activism. To concentrate on more concrete problems, the happiness and satisfaction found in being welcomed and part of something bigger or something significant: to need and to be needed; to love and to be loved in return; to be considered indispensable and to find others who will be indispensable to him. This has become a major priority to many youths. Even to those in UP.

In fact, there exists a rather large gap between the UP students and the masses that support them. Louie Montemar, chairman of SAMASA (Sandigan Para sa Mag-aaral at Sambayanan) and Norman Camay of the People’s Service Corps – UP [a social service oriented organization], leaders of two once active student movements agreed that one of the reasons for the student majority’s lack of enthusiasm and participation is their detachment from the basic masses. Their isolation has led them to believe that they are not of the same level of existence, or so to speak. Thinking that they are not affected by what happens to the general public not within their circle of acquaintances and possibly, the locality. How much more then for those individuals who live their quiet life for themselves. If only these people could realize that they live with these “others” who suffer adversity and actually do so then they could learn from them and probably reach out. Hopefully then, the student majority could be active in such issues despite their elite origins.[10]

Another explanation is offered in the Official publication of the Communicators of UP [called “Lanog,”]. The editor’s note mentions that the majority of UP students are ‘silent’ because:

�· They are not fully informed of the facts
�· They are tired of hearing form one side of an issue all the time
�· Or worse, they lack the foresight of how these seemingly unimportant issues affect them in the future.

So many reasons, assumptions – so many possibilities yet even more questions. These can be rooted into our Filipino being. But values such as SIR promotion, paninindigan [amor propio], and hiya can also prove aggressive and manipulative; beneficial and helpful. It can be handled and modified to win another’s compliance or at least neutrality. Some of these values may be signs of weakness, but it need not be – it need not continue to be. The due respect, courtesy, and tact, which come with paninindigan [amor propio] when properly conducted, can be a gentle leading which may be the route to power.

“. . . the 3% who although insignificant in number are the negative leaders . . . the radicals . . . who know what they want and will plan to get what they want through whatever means . . . the 12% leaders who are intelligent enough but do not know what they want, but would be willing to be swayed, once their idealism is caught . . . the 85% ‘sheep’ . . . the apathetic students . . . those who do not know what they want . . . who do not say what they want . . . but when added to a dynamic leader, will act accordingly . . . to achieve what is painted as ideal.”[11]

A quotation from Fr. James Culligan, who analyzed the composition of the studentry in 1970, states an apathetic 85% of the youth that could be moved once under a dynamic leader. There is hope! But what is it in a leader or in any activist in fact that should be cultivated in order to achieve a set goal?

�· One ought to see and maximize the power of the majority, especially the youth.
�· One must be able to analyze society, criticize it, and suggest changes with a must-hear voice.
�· Militants should remain credible by excelling in their studies.
�· One must be flexible to the changing times.
�· One must start from and with the students.
�· One must be creative.
�· One must use the facilities of mass media to the hilt.
�· It would be more beneficial if the faculty supported the movement.
�· The group would be better united even amidst political adversity.[12]

This is the ‘enlightened’ activist. He no longer clings to the former expressions of activism – hard and serious. He has returned from the gruesome past with a sense of humor. He explores new more creative forms of activism.

If we are to see through the ideology of activism – its picture-perfect images of freedom, independence and honor, we will stop being so idealistic and realize that it cannot achieve everything. It will not always shake the nation but it must do more than arguing and shouting, we must take action and with that are risks [ it is opening a Pandora’s box of mistakes]. Just as pearls are made from a laceration on an oyster’s flesh when it opens its mouth to feed, so also from the tiring and trying experiences will come too our pearls of wisdom as well as the fruits our actions have sought.

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