by PJ Capistrano, LUCID scholar
I went to the Upper Pulangi district of northeastern Bukidnon to learn about corn farming, especially the ordinary tasks farmers have to tackle when growing corn, things that I had little-to-no knowledge about, as someone who grew up in the city and works mostly in front of books, pen and paper, students, or a computer screen. I also hoped, secondarily, to have a better understanding of the issues and concerns close to people’s hearts. And while my knowledge of the technical processes involved in growing and harvesting high-yield variety corn indeed increased, I found that—more importantly—there are now faces, names, and stories of people that I carry back with me.
The philosopher Emmanuel Levinas devoted his life’s work to reflecting on the origin of the ethical demand, the demand for justice, and how we ought to respond to it. The ethical dimension, he writes, is only opened up in the encounter with another human being, in recognizing their face. Levinas doesn’t mean “recognizing their face” in a literal sense—though this can be a part of the encounter—rather, by this turn of phrase he attempts to designate the moment I recognize that this other I’ve encountered is another human being who exceeds my capacity to understand them, whose very existence resists being confined to a box or a stereotype. This moment of recognition shakes the self’s complacency, the unreflecting conviction that I can grasp the world in my knowledge, and that knowledge is how I can assert my control over others. The demand of justice is only possible because I have encountered a human other and have had this complacency rattled; I was reminded that, no matter how hard I try, I cannot grasp the entirety of this other.
I found myself returning to Levinas as I prepared myself to start my PhD studies, even though his work is not the focus of our research (the focus is, rather, on the social and economic justice impact of high-yield variety corn farming among small farmers in the uplands of Bukidnon). Every time people asked me to describe my research and I mentioned how I would be working in Bukidnon—a province which was familiar to me, since I had previously lived and worked there—everyone seemed to respond with a confidence that I didn’t share. My familiarity with the area, they would say, would be to my advantage.
So why did I not share in that confidence? Levinas explains it better than I—to be complacent in one’s knowledge of the other is the beginning of injustice. If one is committed to social justice, how can one even begin to do justice to people’s lives with the confident complacency of ‘been there, done that’? The demand of the research was to ground theoretical discussions of justice in the reality of people’s experiences of injustice–a demand to listen first.
The end of April is a busy time in Upper Pulangi. It’s tag-sanggi—harvest time—for corn, and it can seem as if every available level surface is devoted to golden corn kernels being put to dry. The covered multi-purpose hall near the Pagdawat* house is a prime drying location. As soon as the corn is harvested, sacks of husked corn cobs are taken straight to the hall. Women begin coming to the hall for panghipus—the process of removing the kernels from the cobs (shelling corn) by hand. They earn sixteen pesos (PHP16) for each sack of cobs they process. Though the work is time consuming, it is not difficult. Some women bring their small children with them, while others catch up on the latest neighborhood news and gossip. I decide to join in with the women, as Ate Emy,* the oldest of the Pagdawat sisters, is among them. The women try to dissuade me at first—I am from the city, unused to this type of work, and they say that my hands will hurt and blister from the repetitive motion of removing the kernels from the cob. Nonetheless, I persist, and get into the rhythm of shelling, and am slowly included in the chatter as they begin to talk about children.
Something is different about this harvest season, though. Two weeks earlier, the national government announced that the barangay elections would push through, and barangay politics seems to be the undercurrent in the women’s conversations. Much is unsaid, but meaningful glances are exchanged as motorcycles arrive, one after another. Their riders enter the meeting room attached to the multi-purpose hall. As a visitor to this community, I don’t know what these glances refer to, but I gather that it has something to do with the barangay elections. The campaign period was set to begin in two days, and the incumbent kagawad (councilors) were meeting to prepare for the end of their term.
Forty or so minutes later, a middle-aged, well-fed-looking couple comes out of the meeting (though the meeting itself has not yet adjourned). They wander around the hall, talking to the women. The husband strikes up a conversation with Ate Emy and me. It is the incumbent barangay captain and her husband; they also happen to own the corn that I and the women are shelling.
Meetings like this, I find out later, are of particular interest to the Pagdawat family. Their father was a community leader and local politician for 30 years—first serving in the barangay council as kagawad, later elected as barangay captain, and at the time of his death, was the Mandatory Indigenous People’s Representative to the barangay council. Those years saw their barangay grow from a small, mostly indigenous population, to one that is populated by both natives and migrants from other parts of the Philippines. I can see a sense of joy and pride in her father writ on Ate Emy’s face as she recounts his life.
Now, over five years after their father’s death, their youngest (and only male) sibling is the only elected member of the barangay council who is indigenous—all other elected officials are migrants. He plans to run for re-election. He tells me later, over dinner, that it’s because the indigenous wouldn’t have a voice in the barangay decisions otherwise. His mother isn’t positive about his re-election prospects. When I ask her why, she shrugs and says, “We don’t have money.”
Later, she cautions me about walking to the other parts of the village by myself—there’s plenty of of cash going around during elections, she says, and that means a lot of men are getting drunk. This turn of phrase puzzles me. It is only a few days later that it dawns on me that this conversation was a veiled reference to candidates handing out money for votes. I am a bit disturbed at the matter-of-fact way the family handles this, but then I realize that my own experience of local elections has been insulated by the relative privilege of my position as a middle-class teacher in Metro Manila.
Ate Emy says, a few days later, cash for votes is an instance of the dark side of the migrants’ influence in the community. This practice, she says, began only when migrants started running for barangay elections. She recounts how her father would often say that the indigenous people could learn much from the migrants, but she herself is cautious—in her opinion, not all things that they have brought have been good. She could not tell me this the other day when we were shelling corn because the barangay captain and her husband were there. They were the first to buy votes, she says, back when the barangay captain first ran for election as a councilor. Emotion colors her voice; it seems to me that there is more to this story than I can learn in my one week’s stay here.
One may think, if there is more to this story than I can glean from a week, then why visit at all? Following Levinas, I maintain that every task of reflection on justice and injustice must begin with the encounter with the other. This encounter, moreover, ought to lead to self-examination. In my case, it has highlighted the tenuous nature of my own position as a researcher and scholar, and my responsibility in relation to the people whose lives are directly affected in my research.
As a researcher from Manila, I am in a position of both advantage and disadvantage. I am advantaged in terms of my socio-economic class, my educational attainment, my ‘insider’ status in urban areas, my grasp of the bureaucratic systems citizens of this country need to navigate (and are often at the mercy of), and my access to a wider range of services and better quality of goods. Yet I am disadvantaged in terms of my ‘outsider’ status in the countryside, my virtually nonexistent experience in farming work, my limited understanding of having limited agency in local decision-making processes that directly implicate my life, and my superficial relationship with the land that we are all dependent on. Because of this advantage/disadvantage (really two sides of the same coin), how can I even aspire to do justice to the experiences of the Pagdawat family and of others like them?
Paradoxically, the demand to do justice also comes from this experience of advantage/disadvantage. For Levinas, the recognition of how my position is unjust in the face of the other is always accompanied by the demand to respond ethically.
To retreat from the demand is to support the status quo. The late feminist philosopher Iris Marion Young reminds us of this: “In everyday life it is easy for the immediacy of interaction with particular others to overwhelm our attention and energy, leaving little room for taking a broader social view and for thinking about how we need to organize so that their collective consequences might do less harm…If those of us who stand in relatively privileged position in social structural processes give priority to the demands of immediacy, however, we are likely to reinforce some of that structural privilege in our interactions.” (Responsibility for Justice, 163-164)
While I am still frightened and challenged by the intellectual demand to ground discussions of justice in the reality of injustice, the week I spent in the Upper Pulangi is a necessary reminder of why it’s a necessary struggle: because, covered over by all these philosophical theories of justice, and easily forgotten, are the real lives of human beings—people with faces.
*Names have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals. “Pagdawat” is an invented name, based on the Binukid verb “dawat,” roughly translated as “to receive or to welcome.”