The Pollyanna Principle

Statue of Pollyanna
Standard

The advent of every new year inevitably brings with it not only the cheery predictions of hacks who claim to have the power to foretell what will happen in the next 12 months by telling the world which celebrity will be sleeping with whom or how the economy will perform. It’s also one more opportunity for the survey firms to regale the citizenry with what the average man-on-the-street thinks is in store for him in this earthly paradise. Not to be outdone, one’s favorite commentator is also likely to weigh in with his or her forecasts on what will happen in the political scene in the coming 52 weeks.

Almost to a man (and woman), whether feng shui hack, man-on-the-street, or media pundit, these creatures will tell you every new year that they expect — they don’t hope, they expect — things to be better, whether in terms of better employment opportunities, the lower price of eggs, or the bright prospects for an end to corruption, the coming of peace, and the achievement of social change.

This rank optimism is remarkable considering how often the rest of us have been constantly and consistently disappointed with the way things eventually turn out every year.

Philippine society has after all been in crisis for centuries due to the rapaciousness and incompetence of a ruling elite nurtured by colonial rule and sustained by imperialist intervention. Unless something happens to radically alter that reality, the chances are that things will either remain the same, or that any change that does occur is likely to be for the worse.

But why the belief persists that things will always be better as the old year passes into history is understandable. So conditioned have most people been to poverty, injustice, political instability, violence, uncertainty, and fear for the future that they think these to be the normal scheme of things. As a result, any change no matter how inconsequential to the lives of millions is regarded as significant. Since change is the one certainty in life, it’s easy enough to predict, and to believe, that every change is for the better.

It’s called the Pollyanna Principle, and was so named by a social psychologist after the 1913 American children’s novel Pollyanna, in which the heroine of the same name believes that good things will always happen.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that many if not most Filipinos are either truly afflicted with childlike optimism, or else pretend to be so disposed, in the hope that believing that something will happen will make it happen. It would be charmingly naive and even beguiling as a national trait — if only it didn’t interfere with the necessity of recognizing and changing what’s wrong with Philippine society.

Political upheaval, invasion and war have at various times sharpened the contradictions in Philippine society. These have led to attempts to understand how the divisions rooted in the political, economic and social disempowerment of vast numbers of Filipinos on the one hand, and the monopoly over wealth and power of a handful of families and political dynasties on the other, sustain a society of vast inequality, violence, and injustice.

The reality is that 2016 ended with signs that 2017 may usher in another acute stage in the Philippine crisis — but every one, the media included, seems determined to ignore it.

Six months after Rodrigo Duterte assumed the presidency, as in many times past — most outstandingly during martial law (1972-1986) and the Gloria Macapagal Arroyo regime (2001-2010) — the Philippines is once again in the grip of a human rights crisis that’s threatening to morph into a major political upheaval.

Everyone should by now be aware that the Duterte “war on drugs” has so far cost the lives of 6,000 men and women whose guilt has not been established except in the imaginations of the Duterte regime and its police force. In addition to being such an offense to the Bill of Rights that it has caught the attention and condemnation of human rights groups world-wide and even the United Nations, this toll is threatening to create a bigger crisis: that of a return to authoritarian rule.

The next few months of 2017 will tell if, in an attempt to resolve a crisis that’s fundamentally its own making, the Duterte administration will push it to even more dangerous levels, plunging the country into a maelstrom of violence only a radical shift in political power can remedy, or if it will continue to hobble along while further savaging the Bill of Rights until the end of its term.

Duterte’s pre-election promises of change on a wide range of issues — from corruption and the drug problem to foreign relations and peace talks with the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP) as well as the release of political prisoners — resonated among a people who may not have articulated it in coherent terms, but who, as the Left has long argued, are hungry for change and even revolution.

But most of these promises have remained unfulfilled, while Duterte’s preferred approach to the drug problem has led to an unprecedented number of killings, mostly by a police force he has empowered as judge, jury and executioner. In the process, this policy is not only undermining the Bill of Rights including the presumption of innocence, but also enshrining the use of unaccountable State violence against the poor as the only means of addressing the country’s problems.

The resulting crisis in human rights and the rule of law is turning into the likely excuse for what the Duterte regime itself has warned is an impending attempt to oust it via a coup d’etat by a combination of forces hostile to any accommodation with the Left.

These include an officer corps ideologized in the primacy of defending elite and US interests, as well as those other forces that exaggerate the influence of the Left on the regime and which therefore fear that that “influence” will lead to the authentic political and economic reforms that will compromise their landed and corporate interests.

Their and their foreign patron’s supposed concern for human rights is a pretense and a sham, but as propaganda, they hope, strikes enough of a respondent chord in the hearts of those truly concerned over what’s happening for them to welcome or support an anti-Duterte putsch.

These circumstances have thrust upon the media the responsibility of providing the Filipino people not only the information but also the analysis and explanation necessary for them to understand the current stage of the Philippine crisis. What is even more important, the media can help citizens realize what measures are needed to help prevent, and — if it should come to that — to adequately respond to, the present crisis’ deteriorating into the restoration of an authoritarian regime. The latter can occur through a successful right- wing coup — or through the Duterte regime’s suspending the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus or even declaring martial law.

To help prevent a return to dictatorship, the Philippine media must closely follow and provide appropriate and timely analyses of political developments in the coming months so the people may be forewarned of the threat to their rights.

But there is opportunity as well as challenge in the reemergence of the threat of an authoritarian restoration. It can enable the media to more fully function as an instrument in educating the people on the need to broaden their awareness of, and commitment to, the imperative of democratizing political power as the only path to authentic development.

The question is will the dominant media do so, despite their corporate and political interests? Will they instead insist on carrying on with business as usual, and implicitly assume, like Pollyanna, that what the next 12 months will bring are good things rather than bad, thus lulling the citizenry into complacency while things go to hell in a hand basket?

First published in BusinessWorld. Photo from David Fulmer’s Flickr page.

Leave a Reply