Cutting "inidividual initiative" down to size

27 November 2003

What is your contribution to nation-building?

What have you done?

Self-righteous calls to do one's part to "contribute to Philippine society" (whatever that exactly means) and self-serving rhetorical questions like those above prevail in discussions between passionate (albeit passion that is misguided) Pinoys.

Whether individual initiatives are done for the right reasons or not, the results of said initiatives (as far as the intended scope of effect) are what matter. If we "scope" one instance of an individual initiative as, say, hitting a nail on its head with a hammer, then our expectations of said initiative should be nothing more than to find a nail driven down into a piece of wood. Yes we have done our individual part in that instance but there are many other nails that need to be driven down before a house is built.

National progress, therefore, is not up to "individual initiative" alone. To get a collective effect requires something a bit more than individual effort. The effort must be either concerted or driven by an institution (such as the Elite) that exerts significant influence over, serves as a role model for, or sets the trend for the Society.

The kind of individual initiative embodied in movements such as ivolunteer (to cite the latest incarnation of said "individual initiative") have been around for decades but have hardly made a dent in the slow but unrelenting slide to degeneracy of the collective character of the Philippines (compare the civility of our society in the 60's with that of today).

To cite another example, the Ateneo's Tulong Dunong program has been around for years, yet one will find that such concepts of social responsiblity hardly ever get ingrained in the majority of Ateneo graduates. Consider Ateneo grads as a laboratory experiment for such an approach to change as "individual initiative". The results speak for themselves. When was the last time you met an Atenista who consistently embodies the ideals that the Jesuits supposedly worked hard to impart?

Clearly there is no shortage of volunteerism, individual initiative, charity work, or whatever one wants to call initiatives that are envisioned to kindle a general spirit of civic duty in the general public -- an expectation that is, at best, naive and at worst, presumptious. Such initiatives are best considered for what they are -- individual efforts to make a small difference in one's immediate sphere of influence for whatever personal fulfilment said initiative might afford its proponent.

Individual initiative will only get so far as to give personal fulfilment to the individual who practices whatever initiative he/she chooses to initiate individually. To expect such individual initiative to eventually result in collective results is a far-fetched proposition. We misguidedly use individual initiative to give us comfort that we are above society's dyfunction. In its worst form we use it to absolve ourselves of said collective dysfunction. "Basta ako ganito ginagawa ko. I am doing my part!" Doesn't this sound disturbingly familiar?

Isn't it a bit presumptious to actually think of one's self as a member of that elite granfalloon of "socially aware" people who are "doing something"? Or that what one is doing is of greater importance or benefit to society than what the other is doing? In a young field called "chaos theory", it has been proven that in complex systems, one is never too sure about the overall effect of even the smallest disturbances in said system. Let us be a bit more cautious about what we consider to be "doing something" in light of this.

To help counter this instinct for self-righteousness we must always remember that Pinoys are famous for pakitang taoism -- loosely translated: grandstanding. Before individual Pinoys can get to the point of undertaking individual initiative as a means to personal fulfilment the Pinoy has to learn first to lose individual initiative as a means to gaining social acceptance. Going to church in the Philippines is a glaring example of individual initiative used to further less-than-noble personal ends.

Is it done to be socially acceptable (to friends and family)? Yes for maybe 80% of cases.

Is it done for personal fulfilment? That is a bit debatable as far as Pinoys are concerned.

Is it done to gain a set of skills that benefits the society at large? Highly unlikely.

And yet we consider going to chuch to be a collective virtue of Pinoy society. That remains to be proven.

Whatever we are doing individually, let's do it properly for personal fulfilment at the very least and do it well when it gives us exceptional personal fulfilment. But let's not use our personal fulfilment goals (i.e. what should be the real reason we pursue individual initiatives) to pretend to be "doing our part" or, worse, to set ourselves apart from society -- the collective. At the end of the day, and whatever we do individually -- we are still all accountable for the collective state of our society.

Government should be aware of its role in putting individual initiative in its proper perspective in Philippine society.

Everyone, rich or poor owes it to themselves first and then society to direct their efforts -- their individual initaitives -- to achieving personal fulfilment. That personal fulfilment for some equates to individual financial wealth is their business.

Government should relegate itself to creating the environment for individuals to pursue personal fulfilment. When government starts grandstanding about being the key to people's personal dreams, that is where it sets itself up for unrealistic expectations from its constituency. When said unrealistic expectations are unfulfilled the result is widespread lack of confidence in the government and the propagation of that passive-aggressive psyche against civic duty that Pinoys are notorious for.

If government sets people's expectations right from the beginning -- in simple terms, "we'll set the mood, you deliver the goods" -- instead of stoking the already prevalent dukha mindset of the masses (which partisan politics of the Pinoy kind is very good at), then our politicians can focus more on keeping society healthy instead on focusing on keeping individuals hopeful -- an unrealistic goal considering that keeping society healthy (in our case bringing it back from the dead) is often a painful process from an individual perspective.

The perceived shortfall of Government to achieving the unrealistic "we shall save you" expectations it set up itself to be expected of is the reason behind the emergence of a self-righteous individual initiative perspective in the "haves" of our society. It is a manifestation of the guilt the Elite feels for the quality of the Government it routinely tolerates.

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