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‘Sup? Major! Major!

Yet another failed quest for a Ms Universe title elicits a few reflections on the supposed shallowness of Filipino mores and culture.

Twice the favorite and twice spurned: in the dating world, such a disappointing result as that suffered by the Philippines’ past two contestants in successive rounds of the Ms Universe pageant would elicit some deep questioning of the self. “What’s wrong with me?” would be the burning question. And it is.

For the second year in a row, many commentators believe that the Philippine contestant missed out on being crowned Ms Universe due to less than satisfactory answers in the Q&A round. The first attempt went under when Venus Raj answered the question, “what is one big mistake you have made in your life?” with something like there had been no “major, major” stuff ups in her life so far (questioning the premise that she would even commit one) thanks to her parents’ influence and social upbringing.

That answer led many to surmise that the Q&A segment was not the Philippines’ strong suit. This year that point was made all the more clear by the simple fact that our contestant, Shamcey Supsup, having graduated at the top of her class at a leading university, should have had all the mental faculties to grapple with the question posed to her, and yet she still failed to impress.

For the benefit of those who haven’t followed events so far, the question was, “would you change your religious beliefs to marry the person you loved?” And the answer given by Ms Supsup was, “If I had to change my religious beliefs, I would not marry the person that I love. Because the first person that I love is God, who created me, and I have my faith and principles, and this is what makes me who I am. If that person loves me, he should love my God, too.

Now as one column opined, Supsup was “robbed” of the crown for providing a “Christian” answer. Certainly, if that were the case, then most Filipinos would agree with the premise that the question was loaded and that the judges were biased. But was that really the case?

The question posed to Ms Supsup did not make religious conversion a requirement for matrimony. It wasn’t prefaced with, “If you had to change your religious views…” as Shamcey’s answer was. It left room for her to still maintain her religious beliefs while entering an interfaith marriage. The question was about whether she would (voluntarily, if at all) change her religious affiliation to please her spouse and presumably fit in within his religious community.

The answer given by Shamcey was not necessarily of the wrong kind (“No, I will not change my views”), but rather it was simply couched in the wrong terms. It probably should have been along the lines of her maintaining independence (which was what the judges were most likely looking for) while being married (“I cherish my views and expect my future spouse to respect them, just as I would his.”).

American Bias

We have to acknowledge here that a certain amount of cultural bias was embedded in the question. For one, in America (where the Ms Universe franchise is based), the predominance of Protestantism has been eroded to a bare majority (of 51% of Americans as revealed by a Pew Survey back in 2008). Protestants are splintered into many denominations broadly characterised as Evangelical (26.3%), Mainline Protestant (18.1%) and historically black churches (6.9%). The more unified Catholics comprise the next biggest group (23.9%).

Given the fragmentation of denominations in the US (somewhat like a marketplace of religious ideas), it is no wonder that many do change their religious affiliation whether for marital or other reasons as 44% of adults surveyed have done at one point in their lives. The largest rising group is of those unaffiliated with any formal religion (16.1%), a large chunk of which (nearly half) still maintains a certain kind of spiritual belief or practice (freedom of religion is alive and well in America).

Rather than resisting the need to change her religious views out of a sense of independence, Ms Supsup’s reply seemed to imply a certain intolerance towards those who didn’t share in, and an expectation that they conform to, her beliefs. A majority of Americans by contrast (the same Pew Survey showed) agreed with the following statements that “many religions can lead to eternal life” (70%) and that “there is more than one true way to interpret the teachings of my religion” (68%).

Even among ‘born again’ Evangelicals, those who have held a very literal fundamentalist view of the Bible, the affirmative responses were 66% and 64% respectively. Among Catholics it was 79% and 77%. On the one hand, the monotheistic religions to which most Americans subscribe teach that there is but one absolute deity and consequently one absolute truth. On the other hand, a sizable majority of their adherents are willing to entertain a more pluralist and tolerant world view. What could have caused them to hold somewhat inconsistent views (a kind of Relative Absolutism as framed by one author)?

One visiting scholar from the US who came to Australia (and whose radio interview I cannot quite find the link to right now) claims that it has been the growing prevalence of interfaith marriage that has acted as a conduit for greater religious acceptance and tolerance in American society at large.

Among Catholics, 22% are in an interfaith marriage. Among Evangelical Protestants, that ratio is 32%. Among Jews, it is 31%. And among mainline Protestants, it is 46%. These figures lend some credence to the scholar’s view. To quote a line from Star Wars, “only a Sith (of the dark side) deals in Absolutes.

So going back to the matter at hand, within the American cultural context, Shamcey’s views would generally be regarded as tending towards religious intolerance by a majority of its people. In closed societies in fact, that sort of reasoning would support a caste system where intermarriage would lead to social stigma which makes it strange, given the humble socio-economic status of the contestants’ families.

The answers supplied by both Venus and Shamcey would be seen either as a product of ignorance or a sign of personal or cultural arrogance. An unwillingness to admit that one has ever made any sort of mistake in one’s life is similar in nature to maintaining a view that only one set of faith-based beliefs are true. It is no wonder, given the sort of monolithic Catholicism practised in the Philippines, why it remains one of the few places in the world where public debate over reproductive health and responsible parenthood or divorce for that matter still rages on.

The Shallows

This cultural and religious monotheism pops up in many areas in Philippine society. I have previously highlighted our response to the World Values Survey in which churches emerged as the one single institution that garnered almost universal trust and confidence (placing us in the same league as Iran, Zimbabwe, Saudi Arabia, Tanzania, India, Indonesia, Nigeria, Bangladesh and Morocco). Our country may not be called Philippinestan; and, our people may not be required to wear veils over their heads, but in a cultural sense, they in fact do.

It was not for lack of beauty or brains that our contestants failed to secure the Ms Universe crown. It was perhaps due to a lack of independent thinking or a broadened worldview. In other words, Filipinos tend to take a very dogmatic approach in developing their thoughts and ideas, adopting the official world view handed to them in a sort of unthinking or mindless way.

As F. Sionil Jose asserted recently, there just seems to be an intellectual and cultural malaise of shallowness afflicting the Filipino. Now before I get bunched together with the anti-Pinoy (and for that matter anti-Christian) crowd, let me qualify Jose’s assertion by saying that to some extent this is partly to do with modern technology and isn’t confined to Filipinos alone.

As in the book, The Shallows by Nicholas Carr, one could mount an argument that in a world where the word google is a verb, where e-books show us the feedback from other people before forming our own thoughts regarding the author’s thesis or narrative, and where cloud computing enables us to select friends, music and reading material based on what we are currently viewing, our ability to pay focused attention in reflectively forming a considered view has been seriously undermined if not impaired.

But even before the digital revolution converted us all into a bunch of twitterers (enunciating our views before ruminating), reading culture among Filipinos has been sorely missed (“why read and form our own views when we have other people to do that for us?”). Jose’s prognostications are echoed in the pop scene by music guru Toti Dalmacion who has lamented over the years about the narrow scope of the average Pinoy’s listening palette (although he recently acknowledges that this is slowly changing).

Both Jose and Dalmacion represent opposite ends of the cultural spectrum between high and low art (although Toti might contest the characterization of what he does as art). Both are considered mavericks in their field, yet recognized for their accomplishments. It is not that they want to see everyone subscribing to their particular sensibilities (Sionil’s independent bookstore Solidaridad and Dalmacion’s now defunct Groove Nation record bar attest to their high standards). Those with an astute sense of literary or musical awareness after all revel in the exclusive nature of their proclivities (for them the kind of material one reads, watches or listens to matters because they define the “you”-ness of you). It is more a question of why aren’t there MORE Filipinos who engage in similar pursuits.

In other words, why do the vast majority of our countrymen simply shut themselves out from cultural exposure? Why do they subscribe to the orthodoxies that they have been fed with by the “shallow” media sources or their church? Why do they fail to dig deeper, explore or venture out on their own (as if doing so would spell mental or social suicide)?

This is more than just an intellectual wank by a bunch of grumpy elitists. The same thing can be applied to governance–to the way our leaders manage economic policy in particular. Successive governments (the current one included) have been quite happy to apply the orthodoxy of Washington’s economic high priests in determining the course of development for the country, as I have previously pointed out. The result is an economy that has been described as being too “narrow, shallow and hollow” by the same experts who ironically espouse the same official world view.

The failure of our nation to rapidly catch-up with the early- and late-industrializing nations of Continental Europe and East Asia despite our rich natural endowments of beauty and resources including a skilled and well-educated workforce has long been the topic of conversation within the development community. Yet anyone who dares question the establishment’s formula gets labelled a radical or heretic and then treated as a pariah.

It seems it doesn’t matter whether we are competing in a pageant of beauty and brains or a marketplace for ideas, goods and services. When it comes to answering some of the most basic of questions, Filipinos tend to rely on a purely formulaic and dogmatic approach. Unfortunately, in the diverse and pluralist world that we live in, that sort of mindset will simply land us among the runner-ups instead of the world’s best.