On Freedom, Independence and the Shackles of a New Millennium
On a scale of 1 to liberty, how free are we really?
In the wake of 2016’s rather turbulent elections in both the Philippines and the US, my household found a reason to celebrate—three furry ones to be exact. Three new Shih Tzus were welcomed and, in the spirit of the times, were named after personal heroes: Hillary (Clinton), Maya (Angelou), and Luther (King, Martin). While I could’ve gone local and named the last one Jose or Andres, I had just finished reading King’s I Have a Dream speech at the time and was struck by a recurrent line: “Let freedom ring.” I fell in love with the concept of reverberant, indisputable freedom.
Today we celebrate freedom. Already I’ve seen countless photos on Instagram celebrating being a Filipino—some with butterfly sleeves a la the Filipiniana terno to boot. The resounding sentiment is homogenous: Filipino pride with matching #IndependenceDay hashtags and the tri-colored emoji of the Philippine flag. Nationalism is on steroids today and for good reason.
Freedom Defined: An Independence Day Celebration
Freedom is an interesting concept. When I was young, freedom looked like summer breaks in March—freedom from homework and waking up at 5AM to be at the flag ceremony by 6:45. In high school, freedom became going out with friends to the mall sans an adult chaperone (mostly in the form of my own mother). In college, it became choosing my own classes, professors and schedules. My definition of freedom has been morphing ever since. In a very Maslow manner, as I go up the hierarchy of needs, or in the words of terrible birthday well-wishers, “get older,” its definition moves towards the tip of self-actualization. Freedom is constantly evolving.
How we defined freedom a century ago is the reason we’re celebrating a huge win today: independence from Spanish colonial rule. And by 1898 standards, yes, we are free. But what about by 2018 standards? How far have we really come since?
Just how free are we from colonial influence? I admit: I’m a sucker for all things Spanish—paella, sangria, even Gaudi. And it’s great to prefer these out of choice. But when choices are touted as superior precisely because they’re foreign—specifically, white foreign—does that actually represent choice free from colonial mentality? Whether it’s a mestiza bias during Miss Universe or a preference for an international retail brand over local—inherent biases care of our forefathers are still present today. Hell, we even celebrate humans with a ridiculously tiny fraction of Filipino blood. “Pinoy Pride!,” we cry. “Ang sarap talaga maging Pinoy!” we say. And we celebrate them over full Filipinos who look Pinoy, talk Pinoy, and who probably accomplished more than a passing mention in an international news site. In that sense, are we really free from the ingrained mentality that white—even just a tiny fraction of it—equals better?
The Law and Our Rights
Oxford defines freedom as “the power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants,” and “the absence of subjection to foreign domination or despotic government.” Gauging by these definitions, the Filipino can be considered free. In terms of rights, Filipinos are constitutionally protected. “The law is a tool for people to be more at liberty to exercise rights, free people from certain restraints, or empower people,” begins Attorney Irvin Velasquez, Junior Associate at BSR Law Offices. “Having the tragedy of the Marcos Era in mind, the 1987 Constitution was drafted to ensure that the power to declare Martial Law, and to utilize the police power of the state, are not abused. You also have the Bill of Rights which ensures that people’s freedoms are not easily trampled upon.”
By definition, yes, we are a democracy. Anyone who has ever had to deal with the effects of indelible ink post-elections is well aware of this fact. By definition, the government is accountable to its people and we have the capacity to influence change. But how superficial is this power? As a people, are our plights truly heard? People Power is a great example of affecting real change. But do we really have to utilize an entire nation and rally with a very real risk of danger just for change to happen? How far do we have to march, how many people do we have to mobilize, how loud do we have to cry to be heard?
Freedom of Speech and Digital Censorship
These days, everyone is a keyboard warrior. Whether people are waxing poetic about their chosen Kapuso/Kapamilya/Kapatid love team or harshly disparaging a restaurant and its offerings: people find power in the anonymity (and physical distance) relegated by the internet and, if challenged, we hide behind “Freedom of Speech,” a tenet of freedom I personally think we abuse. I have my own social media accounts—majority of them public—and I’ve always felt free to exercise this right to expression on the daily. In the comforts of my own home! In pajamas, too! All I needed was a reliable connection.
But this semblance of freedom doesn’t get one very far—especially if what is said steps on the powerful’s toes. I once used social media to voice out disdain over the political killings during a particularly volatile climate and woke up the following day to my public Twitter account hacked—complete with a new profile picture (of a bikini-clad foreign-looking woman) and the aforementioned posts deleted. I’ve never felt more subtly threatened and silenced. It didn’t matter that I never found out who was behind the hacking. The fact that someone would go through unimaginable lengths to get me (and apparently, a handful of other friends) to end the conversation on a certain issue and change the narrative, is honestly just frightening. Internet censorship is apparently real.
Shackle or No Shackle? The Penultimate Question
“The power of self-determination attributed to the will; the quality of being independent of fate or necessity,” as per Oxford, is by far my favorite definition of freedom.
Filipinos are capable of choosing for themselves. In fact, Filipinos are spoilt for choice. If we want coffee, we have at least three options in a 20-meter radius. We eat at our choice of restaurant, we shop at our brand of choice, we watch a movie in our preferred cinema based on our preferred popcorn. We are always choosing. That, in itself, is freedom.
But while we have the illusion of freedom, do we really feel it in its full capacity? We have the option to choose our mode of transportation—car, Grab, train, or bus—but are still subject to the four hour-long commute that plagues the normal Filipino daily. We have jobs but are subject to exorbitantly high income taxes or for minimum wage earners, now exempt from income tax, subject to inflation nonetheless. At the same time, employed citizens—a huge chunk of them—are on a contractual employment basis and therefore don’t enjoy benefits such as health care, dental care, or even Christmas bonuses.
While these don’t necessarily equate to the absence of freedom, they curtail the ability to fully exercise it. We are still shackled by fate and necessity. Many Filipinos still live in abject poverty. While Filipinos have the right to education, kids in the provinces don’t even have basic structures such as roads to get to school. Some have to hike or swim for hours daily to get decent education. Sure, they have the right to it. But it takes a toll just to exercise.
The constitution has time and again tried to address this. As Atty. Velasquez points out, “He who has less in life should have more in law, as declared by former President Magsaysay. The Philippines is replete with laws geared towards giving the less privileged assistance, such as SSS, Kasambahay Law, provisions on Homeworkers, Handicapped workers, among others, and providing Filipinos with better standards of living. It is just a matter of whether the government is able to realize these missions of the state.”
Yes, the constitution is on our side, but is the government? Are we free to report abuse without being victim-shamed? Are we free to speak out against public officials, say Senate President Tito Sotto, without an immediate anti-cyber liber bill thrown our way? Are we free to talk about Mocha Uson without repercussions from her cyber brigade and digital arsenal?
People only fight for freedom when it’s threatened. But just because we don’t see the shackles doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Everyone demands change for a better life but maybe it’s time to recalibrate our battle cry. More than surface-level change, we need to cry out a different plea—one with the power to catalyze real, effective, lasting change.
My puppy Luther, bless him, has one of the most annoying shrills I’ve ever come across. It’s a cry that demands immediate attention because it physically hurts. But like his namesake, maybe he’s on to something. Maybe we have to make our cries so absolutely deafening that people can’t help but listen. Maybe we have to change the pitch, so to speak; move from crying out for change, to fighting for freedom—all-inclusive, authentic and absolute—in a frequency that can’t be ignored. That hopefully in a hundred years, would pass the standards of the next century and the centuries thereafter. The Filipino deserves it.
Words Alyssa Lapid
Art Alexandra Lara