Monday, March 07, 2011

A shared sense of belonging

At the coffee shop where I routinely get my morning fix, customers mill around the counter in a way that often makes it difficult to distinguish those who are (a) in the process of ordering and paying, or (2) waiting for a concluded order to be served. So it is a normal and routine courtesy to politely ask: "Where do I get in line?". The remarkable thing here is that even where a queue is not readily apparent, one actually exists. Each person just makes a mental note of who came first -- and the collective outcome simply comes together in a natural way.

Even where there is a physically obvious queue, such as in a supermarket with multiple checkout counters, the kind of decency that is all but alien to the Filipino mind routinely manifests itself here. Once while waiting in line for my turn to pay for a trolley full of groceries, a cashier showed up and opened a previously closed checkout counter adjacent to the one I was lined up in. The person behind me politely told me he was jumping onto that counter and invited me to go ahead of him seeing that I was, in fact and quite obviously, ahead of him in the queue we were presently in. I thanked him and we both went for the newly-opened counter. In the broader scheme of things, both of us saved a bit of time -- in a way that was fair to both of us.

In the above examples, a simple criterion applies to becoming a functional member of this collective -- each one only need remember his place in the queue.

There are many other examples of systems where general order and/or harmony emerges from a shared sense of basic courtesy amongst their participants. The above two examples illustrate systems that are simple enough so much so that it is easy to see the causal link between the outcome observed and the behaviour of individual elements within the system. In those examples, the courteous behaviour individually applied by the system participants clearly resulted in a harmonious or orderly outcome overall.

More complex systems are the same in principle -- individual behaviours that follow a set of shared, albeit more complex set of rules, result in a collective outcome. The only difference is that the causal links become less readily observed as the comlexity of a system increases. The term emergent property or outcome is usually used to describe such phenomena that "mysteriously" arise from complex systems. The mind, for example, is an emergent property of the human brain -- a phenomenon that is an outcome of extremely complex interactions amongst the billions of individual elements (e.g. individual neurons) within the brain. Somehow, a thinking mind happens and is kept functional as a result of those billions of massively-networked neurons firing electrical impulses at one another every single second throughout the entire life of a person.

Yet neurons by themselves are no more complex than any other cell in the body. Examining a single neuron will not in any way give us any insight on how a brain produces a mind. In the same way, the behavioural drivers of an individual person are pretty much useless when trying to predict the overall behaviour of the society in which he lives.

Following this line of reasoning, the foundation of civic culture in the Philippines can be seen as residing in the way ordinary individual Filipino citizens regard one another. If there is a general respect and trust for one another, as the thinking goes, it indicates that most individuals see themselves as having a general collective personal stake in society at large, and the overall collective in theory goes on to mature into a harmonious and prosperous society.

But what do we see in Filipino society?

Systems whose effectiveness rely on basic trust and decency often fail.

Democracy is one such system that in theory relies on the wisdom of the collective. In practice, though, it merely relies on the wisdom of the majority. There's a big difference between the two. When we say "collective" we usually mean a collection of elements that can be regarded as a unit. On the other hand, "majority" merely refers to a section or subset of such a collection of elements.

In my simple coffee shop example, the order observed amongst the waiting customers is possible because they behave as a collective. Each customer's individual sense of place in the queue, makes the system work. Without this shared sense of individual place, arguments or jostling may take place, and some customers may simply leave.

To generalise this observation, if the set of individual rules that makes collective behaviour possible is not shared among all elements of a system, the behaviour of the system becomes less predictable, less consistent, less rational, or at worst, utterly chaotic. Instability in such systems happen even if the majority of customers upheld the rules as long as even a minority exists that doesn't.

Think now of a system where the majority do not behave in accordance with rules that by design are pre-requisite to an outcome expected of said system.

What is the expected outcome of "democracy" as a system of governance applied to Philippine society?

Think of this question in light of the obvious reality that the vast majority of Filipinos do not see their role in a democratic system in the same way that you and I do. It puts into proper perspective this "bewilderment" at the behaviour of, say, a House of Representatives whose members are elected by popular vote doing things perceived to be "not in the interests of their constituents". Why be so "shocked" and "disappointed" by such an outcome? Maybe it is because we expect a body constituted by members that are products of The Vote to do the right thing year after year after year. This expectation is underpinned by a doozy of an assumption -- that the Rule --or the choices -- of the Majority is right.

Unfortunately the majority IS NOT necessarily the same as the collective. Specifically, the collective interests are NOT necessarily the interests perceived by the majority.

Our ability as a people to behave as a collective will not come from political solutions. It will not come from new systems of governance, nor will it come from any new "leaders" or even "heroes" stepping up to the plate. Our ability to behave as a collective -- as a UNIT -- will come only from deep within the fabric of our character as a people and from a shared sense of what it means to be an individual that belongs.

We have a long LONG way to go, for even in the simple task of defining what The Filipino stands for, we merely shrink back, shake our heads, and tell one another, bahala na.


[This article was originally published by the author on 04 June 2009 in the now-defunct FilipinoVoices.com.]

2 comments:

  1. The interesting thing is how compassion and consideration influence one's ability to think ahead, from simple things like making appointments rather than barging in, to more complex matters such as trying to figure out how zoning can best protect people (from noise, pollution, or mudslides). A reactive society like the Philippines is a callous society, and a blind one, to its own callousness.

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  2. It could be a function of how much Filipinos see themselves as stakeholders in their society. Perhaps without that stakeholder ethic -- that sense of belonging -- Filipinos will always regard one another and their own land in the same way that they use public toilets -- like pigs.

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