Learning From History; Four Steps For Our Social Movements in the Philippines to Succeed

There is a lot of anger in the Philippines right now. Protests grow on the streets and both sides throw anger, hatred, and sarcastic memes at each other. Whichever side you’re on, one thing is for sure: the War on Drugs will come to define this period in Philippine history.

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It’s easy to get sucked into the petty arguments and social media comments, easy to get angry with people from both sides who “just don’t get it”. It’s easy to get sucked into the details of every new scandal and lose sight of the long-term goal. So I wanted to take a step back for a while and learn from history. What can everyone do, on all sides, so we can break the cycle of anger and hate and together create a better Philippines?

Step 1: Breaking the Cycle of Anger and Hate

roosevelt quote.jpgThroughout the country, people are angry. People from all sides of the War on Drugs are angry about what is happening in the Philippines. In Change the World Without Taking Power, John Holloway writes how every social movement starts with a scream. The deep feeling something isn’t right, the scream that shouts enough is enough.

So first we must realise that everyone is in pain. People protesting on the streets now are angry and hurt about the lack of accountability for police. They are screaming. And it was a scream that swept President Duterte into power in the first place. Millions of people felt hurt, frustrated, and angry. Real problems went unmet while the pork barrel, ‘laglag bala’, and other scandals were dealt with poorly. For all the economic gains and some of the objective progress of the previous administration, they failed to show people they care.

Duterte showed he cared. People didn’t vote for Duterte because they’re stupid, as some people say, they voted for him because they were angry and no other leader offered a solution to that.

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Does that mean we shouldn’t be angry when a 17 year old boy is killed by police? Should we remain silent when addiction and drugs are serious problems in the Philippines? Of course not. But the way we react determines whether we can move beyond the scream and build a real social movement, or not.

In Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl writes how the only thing we really control is our own reaction. Written about his experiences of the Holocaust, it is a stark and brave read. Frankl writes how other people can control what you do, where you go, and even if you live or die. But no-one can control your attitude; it is the only thing that truly remains our own.

Such self-control takes sacrifice. First we must sacrifice our ego. If someone insults us our natural response is to demand retribution, but we know an eye for an eye only makes the whole world blind. If we want to create a world where everyone can see, we must break the cycle of anger and hate, we must return hate with love, return anger with kindness.

How do we do that?

Step 2: Show People You Care


In Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahnemann explains how the first part of our brains to evolve was the limbic system. This is the seat of our emotions, feelings, and instincts. Thousands of years ago, if we were startled by a rustle in the bushes, this system would spring into action and make us run away from the perceived danger. It kept us safe. During these moments our thoughts are overwhelmed by a small part of the brain called the amygdala, the seat of our emotion and memory, in what is called an amygdala hijack.

The ability for our emotions to effectively shut down our thinking process is useful when we are in genuine danger. If we stood around wondering what the rustle in the bushes was, we were far more likely to be eaten by a predator. Of course sometimes we end up running away from squirrels.

That we process our world through an emotional lens, that information is processed in our emotional brain (limbic system) before our thinking brain (neocortex), means we still do not do well at distinguishing between threats. Whether we are faced with a predator or a group of angry people marching down the street, our brain process these powerful signals in much the same way. Our emotions block most of our rational thoughts. This literally narrows our vision, as studies show when feeling such powerful emotions our vision narrows, we process only the information relevant to our fight or flight, and we miss many opportunities around us.

This is why many protests are futile. Not because the facts, figures, and arguments are wrong, not even because the cause they march for is wrong, but because of how they are presented. Shouting against something can only reach people who are already on their side, because we only listen to what someone has to say after we feel emotionally safe with them.

So how do we reach across and win people from the other side?

Step 3: Inspire With a Better Future

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The Civil Rights Movement started with a scream. More specifically it started with the scream of millions of people who had suffered horrible injustices for centuries. It became an effective movement when individuals, families, and entire communities rallied for something. They shared their experiences and their screams, but they went beyond that and fought for a dream; racial equality, the right to vote, recognition as human beings.

As Simon Sinek writes in Start With Why, a quarter of a million people did not march to Washington to hear Martin Luther King Jr. and other leaders speak. They traveled because of what they believed; they traveled because they had their own hopes, their own dreams. Dr. King spoke then, as he did on many other occasions, of a world where his children would be judged by the content of their character, not the colour of their skin. He spoke of black children and white children playing together as brothers and sisters. “I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, sons of former slaves and sons of former slave-owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.”

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Every social movement needs to win people over from the other side. If Dr. King only fought against racism, if he and many other great leaders had only called out the injustices of the system, they would have only reached the people who already believed what they believed. They could only preach to the choir.

Of course, uncomfortable truths do need to be told. As King wrote in a Birmingham Jail, “We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.” But to win people over we must get them to believe what we believe. King used the religious language of the time to frame all people as brothers and sisters. And for all the injustice black families had suffered, King was not demanding retribution, he was demanding they too be part of the family. That they too get a seat at the table, not that they replace someone in their seat. They presented a dream all people could get behind.

Not everyone will get behind the dream, of course, and there are still huge race problems in the United States. But this advice is key for all sides if we are to improve things. To say we are ‘anti-drugs’, or to proclaim a ‘War on Drugs’, is a recipe for failure. As President Duterte himself said, “Hindi makaya nga ng iba, tayo pa kaya? Iyong drugs na iyan (Others can’t do it. How can we? Those drugs), we can’t control it”. In part this is due to the negative framing of the problem. Duterte is right, the anti-drugs programs of other countries did not work. ‘Say no to drugs’ has never worked. Only a positive framing of the problem has ever succeeded; a better understanding of what drugs are and how we can control addiction.

So how do we make this dream come true?

Step 4: Give… and Keep Giving

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In Give and Take, Adam Grant writes about how our behaviour affects those around us. Freecycle, for example, is a website where people can offer things they no longer need for free. People literally give their stuff away for free. They could sell it online and make money, but they don’t. They choose to give it away. This isn’t rational behaviour from an economic point of view. But on a social level it makes perfect sense.

People reciprocate. Grant writes that when one person gives they send a signal to other people that primes them to give more too. When one person receives a kindness, they are more likely to do a kindness to others. This is why even those who visit Freecycle with the intention of getting free stuff are more likely to later give something back to someone else. A virtuous cycle is born.

Daniel Goleman, the founder of Emotional Intelligence, talks about how when passing someone on the street, who is lying on the floor in obvious pain, most people walk on by. Most people ignore the man, so the next person walking by is primed to do the same. But if just one person stops to help they break the cycle and other people quickly join in. On average if you stop to help a stranger on the street, six more people will stop and help too. One person’s compassion primes compassion in others.

Our behaviours are contagious. The positive side of this is caring and helping become a social act. The more we care, the more we give, the more others around us start to care and give too. Many people won’t respond by giving and sharing and loving immediately, but if we continue to give, to share, and to love they will eventually respond in kind more than before.

Creating a Virtuous Cycle

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So while there is so much more that could be said, and so much more that could be done, here are a just a few practical steps for how we can bring this all together in the hope of making lasting social change.

  • When you give your attention to something you give it power. Choose what you empower wisely. Our brains are wired to scan for threats, things that make us angry, and this is one of the reasons anger dominates social media. We are prompted to act on anger. Ignore the troll and we can stop adding fuel to the fire.
  • There is always something good to draw attention to, we can always replace the negative with the positive. By scanning the world for the positives and consciously choosing to share the good, we retrain our brain to be happier. This also, happily, makes us better at what we do. The ideal ratio? At least 3 positives for every negative (known as the Losada Line) and people feel emotionally safe with the feedback.
  • Standing up for something is important. But how we stand up is just as important. If we adopt a fighting stance, we signal to others we will attack. We are a threat. This is why the non-violence of King, Gandhi, Tolstoy, and others was so important, and so effective. When we signal that we care, that we demand justice but that we are not a personal threat to you, we can win over people to our cause.
  • Is our protest fighting against something, or does it show a positive vision? We are not anti-drugs, we are for a healthier society. We are not anti-extra judicial killings, we are for- a better justice system. When we re-frame the debate the potential is greater, but we have to answer hard questions. What is a healthier world? What is a better justice system? What are we really fighting for? When we can answer these questions, we have the power to create a movement, not just an event.



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