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The post-colonial underling

/ 09:54 AM October 05, 2011

There are some of us who still think of underling as an insulting term. This is true especially for those who are pre-inclined to use name-calling as a political weapon of choice. But it is a term that reveals the name-caller more than his or her target. It gives us opportunity to conjecture the kind of world the name-caller inhabits.

In colonial times when underlings usually served the dictates of a colonial master, the insulting nature of the word was easy to understand. It would have been equal to the word collaborator, which was used commonly in  post-World War II to disparage those who worked with and for the invading Japanese. During the period of occupation they were powerful people but lost all these and more by war’s end. Such were the expected wax and wane of fortunes in war. And yet times have changed since then. In contemporary times change, too, is everywhere and it is difficult to tell if they are good or bad. If one wanted to make the most of change, one would have to see and understand the nature of it and make the required shift of personal mind-set in to adapt; and thus, change, too, the words one uses to describe the world. Post-modern theory recognizes the importance of words, especially, the changing meanings of words. These changes in meanings we hold reflect and give us clue to structural changes in society. Take the word underling for example.

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In colonial times, it was sometimes a matter of life and death for people to move up in society by a mix of political and economic means. This persists still in our day and age, especially for those who are not comfortable being underlings. For them becoming an overling is the main measure of success. And if it were up to them, they want to be the main-overling, top of the heap, and all that. This is excusable, given that we do still live in a paternalistic, semi-feudal society, only a few intellectual steps removed from colonial times.

Thus, it is still the custom to hate one’s overlings and to plot against them; openly, if possible, otherwise surreptitiously if the situation calls for it. This attitude is not bad. There had been times in our history when this was no less than a heroic attitude. Consider colonial times when we were under Spanish rule, and then consider the American colonial times. And after that, the time of martial law and then of GMA. The idea of automatically hating one’s overlings does have its positive side. And yet a thinking person would have to recognize that this cannot persist forever into the future if we want any future at all. And the reason for this is that it is an attitude of strife that does not bode well for individual and collective progress. At a certain point, we must have to choose well what overlings to hate and plot against and for what reasons and purpose.

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And since this is the age of information, it makes sense that we should know more and participate actively in the discussion wherever there is friction and strife between underlings and overlings in our immediate surroundings, such as what goes on in the University of the Philippines Cebu campus now. This is not a mere issue of the college. Just this week, another banner grew off the campus grounds, this time, announcing building plans for the college and warning “illegal settlers” that they may soon have to be relocated elsewhere. The sign muddles the issues here in ways we cannot even begin to comprehend.

Hopefully, the issue will not be settled by overlings bullying underlings and vice versa. Such would be the sure formula for disaster.

But we might draw some consolation from these thoughts. These are times when the position of overling does not guarantee success and true happiness. We cannot all be overlings. And then there are better things to do than aspire for a higher underling position, eventually to become the biggest overling of all. The maker of these texts would rather, for example, do art and write literature. We cannot all be overlings. And when we have an overling above us, we do not have to seek to destroy him and take over his place as if this was perfectly commonplace practice. This is only colonial attitude.

Indeed, the post-colonial underling knows that beyond his or her own overling aspirations, there are greater and more important aspirations. They go by names like peace, honesty, fair play, justice and eventual freedom from all that oppress us now. The post-colonial underling is right to think he or she can contribute to our highest human aspirations just as surely sitting alone working on a computer as by aspiring to be some powerful overling somewhere fighting overling battles just to rise up in the world. Output, not position, measures the person. The world is changing. And if one looks closely, it is changing because of underlings. To them the future belongs.

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TAGS: Colonization, History, Social Issues, Society
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