The Deeper Basis of ‘Pwede Na’ in Filipino Culture

While most Filipinos are familiar with pwede na as a negative trait in their culture, I have recently realized that it is more deeply engrained in Filipino culture such that there are times when one does not even know one is influenced by it. I think it is connected to the culture’s collectivist view and its non-intellectual nature.

The collectivist view places a higher value on belonging to a group than to an individual remaining distinct. There are many ways of interpreting this including the common fault of Filipino culture, that of accepting the judgment of the majority as good even if reason or personal opinions differ, and of sacrificing individual needs for the good of the group. Let us remove these extreme cases to avoid having to discuss those negative aspects and instead use the simple definition.

Meanwhile, a culture has a non-intellectual nature when it, for whatever reason, does not encourage the contemplation of the more abstract ideas like justice, good, honor, etc. and the currently accepted values, beyond what is necessary for practical reasons. While a culture may need to have a definition of justice, good, honor, etc. it may be more willing to accept or adapt foreign definitions instead of coming up with its own based on its history and particular culture. Also, once it has accepted a definition and a set of values which define the group, it will no longer reassess ideas except when values are challenged by the changing times.

While an intellectual nature is not the same as individualism, we may say that to be an intellectual, one must be an individualist because intellectual thought cannot develop without the willingness to consider being different from the group if ever one’s thoughts lead to that conclusion. For example, a collectivist who has intellectual tendencies may arrive at some conclusions which go against the values of the group, but since he values belonging, he will not take his conclusions seriously and may even discourage himself from further intellectual thought.

On the other hand, it is possible for a culture to be collectivist yet at the same time value the intellectual. The collectivist aspect comes in when less talented members of the group accept the intellectual’s conclusions even if they go against the group’s original values. They may even be proud of their intellectual’s achievements because the prestige somehow rubs off on the group, i.e. the intellectual is seen as what the group is capable of achieving. The group’s values changes in light of the intellectual’s conclusions.

In a collectivist and non-intellectual culture, this praising of talented individuals is also seen but more for achievements which do not shake the fundamental values of the group. For example, it is easy for the group to praise a talented singer because his achievements will be reflected on the group but will not directly challenge the group’s original values.

Collectivism by itself tends to discourage change because the members must refer to the group’s identity for theirs. Change, even if advantageous, may be difficult for collectivists to accept because their nature requires them to accept what their group accepts. For a group to change, either its individuals need to arrive at their conclusions separately or else the intellectual in the group is able to convince others to change. The former describes the collectivist and non-intellectual nature while the latter is the collectivist culture which values the intellectual.

Since the non-intellectual nature also tends to be survivalist, i.e. only achieves for the sake of surviving, the traditions of such a culture will likely not include high standards of personal achievement. Looking at the attributes Filipinos usually admire, they are more collectivist and non-intellectual than otherwise: bayahihan (cooperation), pakikisama (ability to get along with people), and family. Those who are considered intelligent are usually admired only if amiable as well, while the solitary intellectual will be shunned even if his intellectual achievements are greater.

The survivalist nature of the non-intellectual also results in the lack of encouragements for personal achievements. While achievements are not necessarily discouraged, the lack of encouragements results in individuals not so inclined to achieve to remain ordinary. In addition, since collectivism makes people side with fellow members of their group, there is a tendency to downplay an ambitious individual’s failures by saying “It’s ok, you are still great to us/we still love you/etc.” instead of using the failure to fuel the ambition.

Thus, the pwede na culture is sustained, but it may not be obvious even to observers. The non-intellectual nature discourages critical and deep thought while encouraging a survivalist nature; and collectivism is passive with regards to personal ambition. The result is an uncritical, shallow and survivalist culture which allows the group to survive but not much else.


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