THIS column was always an undeserved gift, for which I will never be able to adequately repay The Manila Times. This paper took a risk in giving a voice to an utterly unknown and unimportant young girl, who wasn’t even living in the Philippines at the time. Now, three and a half years later, still unknown, unimportant, and desperately seeking to hold on to that youth, I wish to say thank you (so very much). Unfortunately, I no longer have the time required to do justice to such a gift. But I’d like to do service in my last column to what the Times taught me over these years. In a nutshell, it taught me how to be a better member of society, and it also showed me my own possibilities for hypocrisy.
This column is what came out of staring through the close of my twenties when I was unexpectedly offered a public stage upon which to think. I didn’t have a beat or an ax to grind, and what this space to think aloud became to me was a negotiation and meditation. In having to write on a public stage, to take a stand on issues, and to move others to do the same, the Times forced me to be a better citizen of the Philippines and better member of our society. I had to observe the world around me toward thinking through what mattered enough to put into print. Then I was forced to work through my precise opinions on those matters, and to substantiate them with evidence and argumentation. Lastly, I had to render them in a form (at least somewhat) intelligible to others. In this responsibility, the Times truly made me better equipped to contribute to the world around me. I really must thank Dante Ang 2nd and Bobi Tiglao for that.
Regarding the topics I chose to write about, they varied, but from the beginning I knew that what I wanted to do was to probe our society’s uncomfortable subconscious. I wanted to critique the elite, classism, LGBT discrimination, and what I perceived to be a dangerously growing hyper-nationalism that at times erupted into anti-Chinese racism. I don’t know how well I did this, but I do know that I learned a lot about myself in the process of leveling my critique of the elite.
I realized that my critiques of inequality had to come from a place of self-critique. Anything less would have been hypocrisy. In fact, I thought that this is what I had to offer: an immanent critique, which would be more effective for the fact that it issued from within. When I moved home to the Philippines halfway through writing this column, however, it became harder and harder to square my anti-elite critique with my own life. It is one thing to rail about inequality while living in the first world, where all the conveniences are already built into the infrastructure such that I could live a fairly middle-class life without having to sacrifice any comfort. But when I moved home, it just felt dishonest.
One of the pieces I am most proud of is the article I wrote while living in the US on the hyper-consolidation of the oligarchy, “The neoliberal nightmare, IS-Manila, and the Philippine elite.” But the truth is that since I’ve moved home my social circle has not meaningfully expanded at all; in fact, I’ve only become further removed from others and from the injustices of Philippine life now that I’m home. We have so many ways here of gating ourselves in. Our society is so small and only gets smaller all the time as we continue to marry each other and then retreat into the safety of maternity/paternity where you are generally allowed to ask yourself what is best for your family first and above any other question. (There’s a reason why successful revolutionary leaders tend not to have families.) And traffic doesn’t help, either. I’m only incentivized to stay within my known quarters, to use my inter-village sticker to get from point A to point B, and to never leave the confines of those villages if I don’t have to, lest I end up on EDSA for hours. Really, it is deeply disturbing that in moving physically closer to the inequality I sought to critique, I became more sheltered from its living, breathing, violent reality.
This country is so riven by class, especially in this capital city where we are each so separated. What I’ve learned is that self-critique is all well and good—it’s good to air things out and it’s good to make others more self-conscious through my self-reflections—but ultimately if there is no meaningful change to my life or others’ lives, I don’t know what any of it was worth. What’s the point of just being ‘aware’? And even worse than that: am I just expiating my own guilt through writing such that I actually prolong my ability to live my life of comfort amid entrenched poverty? Yet, it’s not really sensical for me to sacrifice comforts I can afford, to completely falsify my own life toward some vanity of affected solidarity with others. In fact, that’s likely even more insulting. The fact is I don’t understand inequality and I haven’t had to understand inequality, and I shouldn’t be writing about it if it’s just going to be writing at the end of it all.
Here’s to hoping that we finally achieve truly inclusive growth, to hoping that we reorient our lives, and to hoping that we are made to feel, every second, all the violence and injustice of the reality that we do actually live in. Writing, thinking, and being aware aren’t enough. We need to feel it.
Nicole Del Rosario CuUnjieng is a PhD Candidate in Southeast Asian and International History, at Yale University, and co-founder of PAMPUBLIKO.com.