Friday, June 2, 2017

Opinion: A sad day for the country and the planet

Photo by Fernando Sepe Jr., ABS-CBN News
NEW YORK CITY - Today we are confronted with two troubling and depressing developments - an attack in Resorts World Manila that left at least 36 dead, and Donald Trump's decision to pull the US out of the Paris agreement.

As per the Philippine National Police, in the Resorts World incident, a lone, "foreign looking" gunman was said to have barged into the casino, opened fire and stole chips - before setting himself on fire. The ensuing fire led to intoxicating fumes that suffocated most of the victims.

Coming at a time when the Philippines is trying to deal with terrorists in Marawi, and the subsequent declaration of Martial Law in Mindanao, the Resorts World incident has raised anxieties, especially among those who fear that it would be used a pretext to declare Martial Law. Reassuringly, government officials themselves have sought to downplay the development, stressing that it's not and shouldn't be considered a terror attack, let alone an attack from ISIS. But this raises the question: What was the basis for the SITE Intelligence Group - media's sole source for the earlier news - to claim that ISIS is claiming responsibility? How would they define a "ISIS attack" anyway? Given the very consequential nature of news of this nature, we need to ask these hard questions.

As a developing story, speculating or raising conspiracy theories is unhelpful, but even so President Duterte should quickly move to calm a nervous nation by giving reassurance that the incident will be dealt with appropriately - without resorting to disproportionate measures. Much will also depend on the level of professionalism of our uninformed services, and of course, our vigilance.

Meanwhile, here in the US, Donald Trump just announced that he will withdraw the US from the Paris Agreement. Though long expected from the world's most powerful ignoramus and America's "worst-ever president", it still comes as a sad turn for the planet, given how the US is by far the biggest carbon polluter in history - and Trump has been preaching about "fair share".

What should give us reason to hope, however, is the stiff resistance he is facing, both here and abroad; even China has been vocal about its support for non-binding but still very crucial Paris deal. "Make our planet great again", said new French president Emmanuel Macron - fast becoming one of the faces of enlightened global leadership. More reassuringly, American cities and companies are saying that they will stand by the agreement regardless of what Trump says or does.

When it comes to our looming - and ongoing - environmental and political crises, I wish that we in the Philippines will have the same resolve.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Doctoral defense speech: On the meanings and materialities of height

by Gideon Lasco

(Doctoral defense speech delivered at the Agnietenkapel, Amsterdam, 14:00, 23 May 2017)

To my esteemed opponents; supervisors, professors, colleagues, and guests, thank you for gracing my doctoral defence ceremony with your presence.

In my research, I sought to understand the ways in which height figures in Philippine society. What is the role of height, and height differences, in the everyday lives of young people?  And more broadly, how has the dimension of the vertical structured human experience?

These questions tap into very heart of the anthropological tradition, and the enduring debates in our discipline. Looking at humans as objects that occupy a certain amount of primarily-vertical space, but nonetheless retain the subjectivity to reflect on this spatiality interrogates the division between subjects and objects. Relevantly for medical anthropology, the undeniable physiologic and anatomic reality of height, as well as its genetic and nutritional basis affirm its biological contingency, but one that is always predicated on socio-economic factors - not just in its making, but in its measuring, and consequently, in its meanings and materialities.

For a long time, tallness has been associated with superiority. Aristotle saw the unique stature of humans as a mark of divinity. A century ago, physiognomists who believed that intellectual capabilities can be gleaned from physical appearances ascribed superior virtues to tall people, and undesirable ones to those who are short. Economists and psychologists today speak of a height premium, presenting empirical data that suggests that tall people have certain advantages - better jobs, higher salaries, longer life, more sexual partners. The measured body has consequently emerged as a metric of comparison at the level of nations.

Some biologists theorize that tallness was an evolutionary advantageous trait, although studies on islands also suggest that shortness or insular dwarfism can also be adaptive. These studies, however, constitute tall and short people as groups or populations; and do not look at individual experiences that surely differ: not all tall people are successful, just as not all short ones are truly underdogs. With all its tensions, contradictions, and complexities, the topic can surely profit from being approached ethnographically.


In thinking about height, certain premises quickly emerged and found ethnographic footing. The first is that height is always relational: people measure their height not just according to a ruler, but with each other: boys according to other boys and also girls; children according to their parents; individuals according to their peers. I am tall in my field site, above average in my home city of Manila, but short here in Amsterdam.  n the other hand, one of the Dutch tourists I met in my field site complained about the size of the tricycles and the jeepneys, lamenting that “the Philippines is not built for tall people”.

But height is also a ‘body project’; it is not perceived to be certain nor inevitable especially for young people. This lack of finality gives rise to possibility, hope, and a lot of interest in products and practices that are perceived to make children grow taller. Even among adults, one’s height can be modified, and today I am wearing shoes that make me three inches taller; shoes that make my height up to par with the Dutch average of 6 feet. Its mere availability in Philippines shopping malls speaks of how marketable - and commodified - height has become.

Finally, height has value depending on its context. Context, of course, is both ethnographic and historical and I found it necessary to preface my research with a historical chapter. I identified the American colonial period as a significant moment in history where height mattered. Americans and Filipinos, who were called by the colonial power as "little brown brothers”, were juxtaposed as a way of legitimizing the “civilizing mission". Height provided a physical framework by which colonizer and colonized measured each other. Government positions, civil and military, had corresponding height requirements, giving economic value to tallness.

My other chapters looked at the life stages of young people: from child rearing where we see parents’ attention to height to schools where height begins to emerge as a organizing principle - and employment.

“My life would have been very different if I were a few inches shorter,” says a beauty queen who attributes her escape from poverty to her tallness - a tallness that allowed her to be “discovered” by a talent scout and eventually led to her college education.

“I would have gotten an athletic scholarship in Manila, if only I were 5’7 and taller,” laments a basketball player whose incredible skill, unfortunately, was not matched by a height that could overcome the very material limits of the architecture of a basketball court. “We can teach basketball, but we cannot teach height,” explains a basketball coach.

“I would have wanted to be a flight attendant but I couldn’t because I’m short,” says a teacher who also complains that the taller students bully her.

But it is not all resignation; people challenge. “I may be short, but people listen to me because I have leadership skills. They look up to me even if I’m the shortest in our college” a student leader tells me. “Height is a structure,” she adds unintentionally invoking an sociological concept as we chatted in the Palawan State University.

By thinking with the vertical we can gain so many insights about how people see themselves in relation to others and the physical environment. But aside from calling for a broader consideration of what an embodied approach to anthropology might look like, and providing an ethnographic response to views of height as deterministic or a mere metric, my study also hints at the troubling picture of people being made to aspire for something literally beyond their reach, and how height differences may not just reflect -  but also reinforce - societal inequalities.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

The Spectator

by Gideon Lasco

It was a lie all along, but the truth must finally be told: We did not believe the child who said that the emperor had no clothes.

I was there when it happened—the emperor’s grand parade. Everybody was excited. Ever since the two tailors came, the town had been talking about it: the clothes made of the finest, most exquisite fabrics in the world; clothes that, rumor had it, were so lofty and noble that they could not be seen by the feeble-minded.

Looking back, nobody really asked why the emperor was so obsessed with clothes or parades. Nor did we ask why we ourselves were so excited. Perhaps we did not yet learn to question why we do the things that we do. All I remember was that everybody was talking about it. Even though, just like today, it was not easy to earn a living in those days, everyone—men, women, and children—wanted to watch the parade; and on the day itself, the whole city was full of people: the farmers let go of their plows and the fishermen their nets just to watch the spectacle.

Perhaps we all wanted to forget how difficult our lives were.

The parade started with much pomp and grandeur. The palace gates opened as the trumpets were sounded, and then marched the foot soldiers, the knights, the ladies-in-waiting in their beautiful dresses. Finally, accompanied by two handsome pages, came forth the emperor.

As soon as the emperor emerged, people gasped and sang praises of how beautiful his clothes were. To be honest, at first I really didn’t see anything; what I saw was his grotesque nakedness. But very soon—I swear—I thought I could see a faint veil enveloping him. As he walked across the moat towards the town square, I could even imagine a halo of gold surrounding him. And so I joined the crowd in amazement and wonder.

Then suddenly, a little child cried: “But he has no clothes!”

At first no one paid him attention: I only heard because I was close enough. I saw the fear in the eyes of his parents as they tried to hush him, but the boy was stubborn, and kept repeating: “But the emperor has no clothes!”

The crowd, unsure of what to do, fell silent, riveted by the boy’s words, partly out of astonishment, partly out of fear. The boy kept shouting, beginning to wonder why nobody would respond, let alone agree with him. The silence of the crowds only amplified his cries, until almost everybody could hear them.

Then, while we were still transfixed by what was going on, the royal guards came, and without saying a word, took the poor child away, muffling his mouth with their hands. His parents were too terrified to resist, and the best that everyone could do was to act as if nothing had happened. The parade went on; the crowd kept cheering, but I could sense that something had changed, and I did not dare look at the emperor, fearful of what I might end up saying or thinking.

It was only when we finally got to our homes that the people talked about what happened, and that we admitted to each other that the emperor had no clothes.

By then, we found out that the boy had been killed, but nobody dared ask why, or how. We were angry and anguished, but most of us remained silent. Only when the emperor dared to parade again in his repulsive nakedness did the memory of the boy inspire us to finally shout in unison the truth: a shout that would eventually lead us to the palace gates and finally into the throne room, where we, at long last, realized that we had been blind not just to his nakedness, but to his tyranny.

We knew in our hearts that the boy ought to be a hero; an example for generations to come. But we did not want to perpetuate the memory of our own guilt; the conspiracy of silence that would haunt us to our graves. Thus, we told the rest of the world that we had listened to him from the very start.

(Note: Essay; Originally published in The High Chair 22: July-December 2016)

Monday, December 5, 2016

"Tumataba ka ngayon"; "Pumapayat ka ngayon": Why we greet each other with physical appearances

by Gideon Lasco

In the Philippines, family and friends sometimes greet each other by commenting on changes in their physical appearances. Common examples include:

“Tumataba ka ngayon ah!” (You’re getting fat nowadays!)
"Bakit parang nangangayayat ka?" (Why is it that you're becoming thinner?)
“Bagong gupit!” (New hair!)
“Blooming ka ngayon ah!” (You’re 'blooming' today!)

Many have wondered why physical appearances figure in Filipino greetings, and some have frowned upon - or even ridiuculed - this practice. But before we form a negative opinion about it, let us first examine what this form of greeting does in our everyday lives. In what follows, I offer my insights based on my personal experiences:

First, it establishes when people last saw each other. By using the body as a clock, people are able to date their previous encounters. Take note that the greeting is not “You’re fat”, but “you’re getting fat”; tumataba, not mataba. The progressive tense links past and present, and invites people to talk about what transpired in between.

I realized this when, in a previous reunion, one of my titas said I was getting fat, and another said I was getting thin. At first I thought that such contradictory comments are proof of the greetings’ perfunctory (and therefore meaningless) nature - people just say it because they feel compelled to say something. But it later dawned upon me that the two titas actually saw me in different times: one saw me after I arrived from the US (where I almost always gain weight thanks to my relatives), and the other saw me after my PhD in Europe (where I almost always lose weight due to the pricey food and my tight budget).

The fact that I had to explain my changed body by telling them where I traveled, and what transpired in those travels, made me realize that the body, by establishing previous encounters, serves as a starting point for further conversation.

Second, it communicates a concern for one another’s health and beauty, as when, instead of just asking “how are you today?”, a family member comments on your growing belly. Take note that in these greetings, people are not measured against other individuals, but against their own (previous) selves.

We can see this during high school and college reunions, where people tease their former classmates for having gained weight, fully expecting them to return the ‘compliment’. Can we not link these greetings, then, to a shared nostalgia of our former bodies?

Finally, it speaks of a different kind of openness in our culture. We always think of Filipinos as more reserved (“mahiyain”) in the way we express our feelings, compared to the more straightforward Westerners. But there are also aspects of our lives where we are more open. Filipino psychologists speak of our notion of “kapwa” as proof that our society has never seen the "self" and the "other" as fully distinct - and I think we should move towards "embodied" way of looking at this intersubjectivity.


As Christmas draws near, we will hear more and more of these greetings in parties and gatherings. Surely, one year of cross-fit will earn for a young man a “ang ganda na ng katawan ni Junior!” from his doting grandparents; the young woman who cuts her hair short will not go unnoticed. On the other hand, when I hear stories of people who suffer beneath their smiles, I also agree that in some contexts, this way of greeting has become offensive in a day and age when people have increasingly staked their identities and notions of self-worth in their physical appearances.

One way of dealing with this problematique is to reserve our appraisal in settings where people share the same level of intimacy: I don’t think it’s a good idea to comment about your teenage niece’s weight in front of her barkada. Another is to be sensitive for instances when it can be offensive: surely, someone who is struggling with weight not need be to be reminded of her obesity. In other words, we must learn to appraise not just other people’s physical appearances, but their feelings.

These concerns notwithstanding, I hope we can appreciate the good in our customs, and not always resort to self-disparagement. Our way of greeting, I submit, invokes an intersubjectivity that involves not just our social selves, but our physical bodies; a concern for each other’s health and beauty, and a desire to link the present and the past. In the Philippines, we greet each other by commenting on changes in physical appearance, and I think that's wonderful.

Los Banos
December 5, 2016