Bullying, the ethics of care, and ‘malasakit’ and the politics of resistance

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ANTONIO P. CONTRERAS

A FRIEND has pointed out that I was wrong when I tweeted, “You only bully the weak. So, if Leni can be bullied, then she is weak.”

She indirectly accused me of lacking in “malasakit,” or a sense of empathy. This stems from her impression that I was insensitive to the plight of the bullied, in that what I said was an affirmation of the reason why they are bullied in the first place. “Malasakit,” or empathy, would have been manifest when you comfort the bullied, and do not blame them that it is their fault that they are bullied because they are weak.

For her, this was exactly what I failed to do when I affirmed in my declarative that only the weak are bullied.

There are many ways of extending “malasakit” to the victims of violence, whether structural or physical. One form would be providing comfort, in being a shoulder to lean on, in assuring that no matter what, you are there for them.


But we have to realize that bullying exists because of unequal power relations. It is not that the weak should be bullied, but rather that real or perceived weakness emboldens people to bully their victims.

Being a friend to lean on, providing relief to the victim which could range from simply being there to provide comforting words, to providing aid and assistance, are indeed important ways of dealing with the bullied.

But this is not enough to alter the structural foundations of the unequal power relations. We have to do more.

We have to fight back.

Those who are not being bullied and who work for their cause should go beyond comforting the victims. It is not even enough to propagate campaign slogans condemning bullying, and shaming the bullies. It has to include making them accountable for their actions.

It is clear that we have to openly confront the bullies, and that we have to transform the bullied to enable them to fight back themselves, without us having this patronizing attitude that they need only our comforting hands to assure them that it is not their fault. When we do the latter, we will not be able to address the structural roots of their victimization.

James Scott enumerated various mechanisms by which the weak fight their oppressors. But even Scott recognized that these so-called “weapons of the weak” will not uproot oppression from its structural foundations.

A big part of the reproduction of helplessness is the misplaced celebration of “malasakit” where there is too much caring for the weak, or the young. I see this as a patronizing attitude that has done damage to the ability of younger generations to be able to engage the structural roots of oppression in society.

Our generation has endured so much at a time where we have to survive not only a dictatorship, but the drudgery of everyday life. As students, we had to fall in line for every subject we have to enroll; we had to do manual search for materials using dusty card catalogues in damp libraries; and we had to brave rain and wind since our classes were only suspended when it was typhoon signal number 3.

We vowed never again would we allow our kids to suffer these. They have now online enrollment and search engines. Classes are suspended the moment a heavy downpour occurs. We spend money for their tutorials, even as we take time out of our work to help them with their assignments and projects.

This is the culture of “malasakit” that has rendered the young vulnerable and unable to negotiate the complex and difficult terrain of real life. Many of them have high levels of intelligence, but have challenged EQs.

Many of them feel privileged, yet cannot handle contradictory ideas and automatically label as bullying anyone who confronts them with a line that they disagree with. And then they run to us for “malasakit”.

It is important that we teach them how to distinguish “abusive” from “offensive,” and to discriminate bullying from aggression and conflict. This is critical to prevent bullying from being trivialized. Not all types of aggression are forms of bullying, and as Martin Williams said, trying to label every act as such “undermines the horror of genuine attacks”.

It is time to cultivate the strength of those who are real victims of bullying. This can be done not just by expressing “malasakit” and being there to comfort and assure them that it is not their fault, but by making them realize that the cause of the bullying lies in the perception of their weakness.

You only bully the weak. And the weak has to be taught how to be strong. This is the only way that one can disrupt the structural bases of the unequal power relations.

This will embolden the victim of bullying to face their bullies and make them accountable for their actions. This will make them assert their power and their subjectivity, and end the objectification. The outcome of this will be more structural, for it will interrupt the unequal power relations that feed the bullying. It becomes an embodiment of transformative politics, for it is amounting to some kind of a revolution that attacks the structural roots of oppression. This will both disempower the bully and empower the bullied.

After all, Marx did not just express his “malasakit” to the proletariat. He exhorted them to organize, rise up and fight back.

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