Political illiteracy is not just a problem during the campaign season or during elections, or immediately after the elections. Political illiteracy is a deeply rooted condition found across all classes in Philippine society, from obreros to the most moneyed elite. While it would be impractical to demand that everyone form a dependable political consciousness for everyone’s sake, one cannot help but dream that this was the case.
Political illiteracy makes people vulnerable to disinformation and propaganda. State narratives remain naturally dominant because of all the resources the government pours into maintaining the status quo. What we see in social media is nothing new—it’s only more effective, perhaps, because the disinformation is delivered directly to people’s screens through social media.
While there is no shortage of reading materials and individuals who are more than willing to share their insights and a more formal framework for understanding what kind of society we have, there are many factors that reduce the effectiveness of informal pedagogical attempts at the lowest levels of society.
The traditional model of learning at home, for example, dictates that the main wellspring of knowledge would be the adults, who are also responsible for the education and welfare of the other members of society. This is simply an ideological model—and ideology often crumbles in material practice. While it is possible for the adults to become bearers of political literacy and knowledge in general, these adults find the idea of learning politics on their own tedious and not worth their energy or time.
For average Filipino adults to self-learn politics in the critical sense, they must also develop the discipline to read and seek new sources of reliable and credible information. Obviously, the biggest hindrance to this is the easy access to social media, where most disinformation drives exist.
A political illiterate with no means to learn complex concepts and even the history of the nation, will easily uptake fake news and so much trash found on Facebook and elsewhere, because these disinformation drives speak the language of the unlearnt. In this regard, we are already truly reaping what decades of miseducation has done to several generations of Filipinos.
The neoliberal swing in the eighties following the flight of the dictator is the biggest factor. Neoliberalism degrades vulnerable nations and austerity measures naturally destroy public education systems. By restructuring a vulnerable nation to become a cheap source of labor, discursive spaces for the essential learning of politics, humanities, language, literature, and the social sciences will also shrink, year by year, as these domains directly counter the movement and proliferation of global capitalism.
We are faced with a dangerously stagnating Philippine mindscape, where people are reduced to pawns of the global capitalist system, voiceless and bereft of even the smallest motivation to self-learn what will save the country from so much destruction and poverty. The distance between political consciousness and learning and earning the daily wage for survival, is too far and too hard for the average Filipino.
In this sense, we can say that learning becomes a taboo in local custom. Any fellow learner who wishes to change the mind of his neighbor would have to contend with the cold, unwavering reality that we often pause over our own lapses, sins, and abominations. The age-old relativism in cultural anthropology provides much context to how these problems roll over from generation to generation. The maxim “Tout comprendre, c’est tout pardonner”has never degraded into an archaic term because as humans, we do have a tendency to forgive even if we are just beginning to understand something that we deem irrational and frighteningly out of place.
Do we lash out at a breadwinner who wakes up at 4 AM to sell his wares, so that by 9 AM he would be able to bring home food and other supplies in the era of COVID-19? Do we cast the first stone on a delivery person who only wants to earn enough to feed four children?
The transcendence via intellectual illumination that we all imagine after we teach someone political views or perhaps even just the truth about political clans becomes even more fat-fetched dream than what they imagine elections are truly like. And yet, here we are, also trapped by the vicious cycle of elections in the Philippines, where ‘politics’ is exercised by the masses through the ballot.
Leo Tolstoy’s posthumously published novel Hadji Murat bears a line, spoken by a Chechen warlord of the same name: “Every people finds its own ways good.”
When we address others who to us seem lacking political knowledge or political consciousness, we must necessarily consider how others have adopted under the duress of our neocolonial conditions. We go against entire belief systems that are deeply ingrained by cultural nationalism. Kwame Anthony Appiah explicates the difference between beliefs and desires in Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers:
“Because beliefs are about the world, and there’s only one world, they can be either right or wrong, and we can criticize other people’s beliefs for being unreasonable or simply false. But desires can’t be right or wrong, in this sense. Desires are simply not responses to the world; they’re aimed at changing it, not at reflecting how it is.”
I find Appiah’s conjecture important in anyone’s quest for ‘correcting and teaching’ people who we perceive are in the wrong. That in the process of trying to overcome another person’s belief system, we must take care to understand what their desires are and how we can tie the more ethical choices to these desires. After all, as Appiah said, desires serve ‘to change the world’ even if the expression of such desires are seemingly fractured or faulty to other spectators. In the end, those tasked with pedagogy may have to radicalize how they radicalize others.