Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Psychology of Our Outrage

Continued from Justified Outrage?

Outrage. It's a very strong word, but I think it rightly describes the reaction of many Filipinos on the infamous spoon-and-fork incident in Canada. Outrage, in the sense that I use it, means 'to cause to become very angry,' and many people are angry, indeed.

But: why are they so angry?

The simple answer is that it's a case of racist discrimination. Racism is bad. Racism is one of the last remaining evils in the world that must be rooted out and obliterated. Of course we should be outraged! Moreso because this incident of racism is directed against one of our own, and by extension, against us and against Filipino culture. What could be simpler?

I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that it's not as simple as that. Our anger is shaped by other factors, and it's important to understand these factors because they have much to say about us. To be sure, there are overtones of cultural discrimination, but I believe it extends much deeper than that.

We don't want to admit it, but the world at large is racist in one way or another. It is a shortcoming brought about by the limitations of human existence in time, geography, and culture. Suspicion of the Other is the rule rather than the exception, and who is more other than they who do not look like us and do not act like us? The only people who can truly claim to have transcended racism are those who have lived everywhere, have known everyone, and have completely divested themselves of their own cultural identities.

In its limited form, this instinct for bias is akin to patriotism. This bias is good because it permits us to love our own people and culture first. It ceases to be so when it own obscures our view of what is good in others and what is bad in ourselves. It becomes worse when it breeds intolerance. It becomes a sin when it causes us to lose sight of the humanity of others. It becomes a crime against humanity when it leads to the systematic oppression of a people.

Aided by accidents of history and culture, we are racists to varying degrees. But not all racists are created equal.

In respect to this, the so-called Western countries (and I qualify the term becuase it is ethnocentric in favor of Europe and therefore 'racist') find themselves in a peculiar situation. Most of these countries built their empires on slavery and colonization, in clear violation of their Christian foundations. This contradiction is especially acute when viewed in relation to the United States which was formed on the creed that all men are created equal and yet up until thirty years ago had to contend with segregation.

Driven by Western guilt and self-recrimination, the pendulum has swung in the opposite direction. Now the developed Western nations extol the virtues not just of tolerance but of absolute equality. Racism has become one of its few remaining taboos, along with sexism, orthodoxy, and pedophilia. Thus, one of the worst things that you can accuse an American or a European of is racism.

Unconsciously or not, we have seized upon this weakness and turned it into a weapon against them. When they wrong us in the very the principles that they hold most dear, we immediately have the moral high ground. It is very effective in three ways: (1) it is the perfect weapon for fueling outrage, because outrage requires moral indignation; (2) it is isolates the targets from their kin, who are just as indignant, making them easy prey; (3) it provides the accuser with moral comfort and support owing to the expectation of sympathy. Dean Jorge Bocobo calls this victimology, and we have raised this to a high art.

This answers in part, I believe, the question as to why so many Filipinos are angry over the spoon-and-fork incident. Crying racism is an easy, effective, self-fuelling, and psychologically comforting response. Indignation fuels moral superiority, and a morally superior person can do no wrong, or so we think. Whether this actually achieves the purpose of righting a wrong is another matter entirely; sometimes the purpose goes no further than moral indignation, blinded as we are by our own righteousness.

Satisfying as this response may seem, it is ultimately damaging on so many levels and we should take care how and why we resort to it.

The most obvious, of course, is crying wolf each and every time an incident like this occurs, and moreso if the cause was unverified. If this is going to be our standard response to the international community, how long before our audience wearies of our cries? What happens when a case of real merit and real urgency arises?

Our moral indignation can also blind us to the steps that we take to redress ourselves. Perched on our pedestal of moral superiority, any action can seem permissible. Picketing. Name calling. Death threats. Once that invisible line is crossed, we become no better than our adversaries. In fact, we can become even worse.

Just as moral indignation can blind us to our actions, it can also blind us to our own shortcomings. We risk falling into a damnable hypocrisy. With regard to the case at hand, some writers have pointed out to the irony of this inordinate attention to the eating habits of a Filipino-Canadian boy when there are so many children who go hungry in the Philippines.

This hypocrisy is something that we must constantly be on guard against, because it operates insiduously in our society on a daily basis. Witness how a criticism against a Filipino trait, when made by a Filipino, becomes a self-deprecating joke, e.g., "you know you're a Filipino slice your meat with the edge of your spoon"; but the same criticism, made by a foreigner, becomes an act of racism, e.g., "you should not eat with spoon and fork". Yet in both cases the object is effectively the same. How ironic!

Yet the ultimate irony here is that our indignation at racism is not our own but borrowed from our oppressors. When we cry racism is it because of "Noli Me Tangere" or "Mississipi Burning?" When we raise our voices in indignation, is it because of "El Filibusterismo" or "Schindler's List?" Are we driven by the memories of the Battle of Balingaga or "The Tuskegee Airmen" and "Glory?" We play by the rules defined by another culture, the same whom we accuse of racism: isn't that the ultimate act of racism?

All these acts compounded chips away at our collective psyche, further contributing to the deterioration of our national soul. We become forever victims to the machinations of powers and intentions beyond our sphere of control. We play the underdog repeatedly until it becomes the only part that we can play.

Then who is to say that we do not deserve the treatment that we get from our neighbors?


  1. Hi Dominique,

    This is a great read.

    Just a note, the United States was built on the basis that all people are created equal, which was the tenet of the Abraham Lincoln's anti-slavery stand ending in the civil war.

    Lincoln, may have wanted to build a United States of America based on that premise but the US did not believe that credo, not even during WWII when black military units were segregated from the white units.

    Many of America's greatest fighting units in Europe were made up all black military serving soldiers who, even in the thick of the war felt the hideous scorn of their white "comrades". There was no equality between the black and the white soldiers at that time at all! T'was not till the Vietnam War that blacks were recognized publicly as being at par and therefore worthy to serve in a war alongside their white comrades in arms.

    There will always be racism everywhere. It is absolutely a common occurence in the world because people are afraid of races they know nothing of.

    Kudos for the article again!

  2. Thanks, HB, for the compliment and for the capsule history of Blacks in WWII. This leads to another question, an interesting one, for research -- how were Filipino soldiers treated in their units while serving in the US Army? What were the reasons for the treatment?

    Not so much trying to raise the old ghosts of racism as wanting to understand the attitudes and perspectives and how the changes may have occured.

  3. Hi again Dominique,

    My Dad who served in the USAFFE with his twin brother and stationed in Corregidor until MacArthur fled to Australia said that there never was a question of equality between the regular US Armed Forces officers and men and the USAFFE - there was segregation even then but it was probably less pronounced than the military segregation imposed on the black fighting units who fought as fiercely as the whites in Europe.

    Several black officers and soldiers decided to remain and settle in Europe after WWII because they never had it so good - they were treated with as much respect and admiration by the population of even the most remote villages that they saved for whom many had never laid eyes on a colored man.

    There are a few books on the matter.

    To illustrate that even in modern times, the practice of implicit segregation is still rampant even among the very highly educated class in America, Reginald Lewis wrote a book which his wife, Loida Nicolas Lewis? published after his death titled "Why Should White Guys Have All The Fun?".

    Reginald used to tell me that he decided to get a crack at the market in Europe and transfer his operations in Paris because he didn't feel discriminated against in France.

    I could very well believe him. Sadly, he died early so Loida was forced to sell out all their holdings and repatriate to the US.

  4. Hi, HB: just got to read your comment now. Thanks for the info. I'll file this away for a future post. Great reference.