“Historians study the past not in order to repeat it, but in order to be liberated from it.” -Yuval Noah Harari, in his best-selling book (2016) “Homo Deus.”

In a recent forum via Zoom, I found myself listening to a guest speaker’s lengthy attempt to explain what he saw is a trend towards authoritarianism in Philippine governance. This surprised me because as a political scientist he ought to know that since colonial times we have never been anything but a strictly authoritarian society.

At home, on the strength of their authority alone, parents are always right. In school, teachers enjoy the same privilege. So do employer-managers in business and top officers of civic organizations. Even more so are bishops and priests in Church.

Our colonial culture ordains that authority is always right and to be obeyed without question. This is at the root of people’s submissiveness to and dependence on condescending, patronizing, and at times cruel authoritarian leadership in social institutions.

This cultural prison cell locks progress out. It stifles the freedom to search for alternative political, economic and cultural ways of coping with postmodern life. It keeps both individual and collective imagination from running free in the realm of alternative destinies or futures. It makes us wait passively (bahala na si boss) for initiatives from the top.

If we presume, as we do from centuries of conditioning, that the existing social order is the right one (God’s will?), we naturally anchor our life’s hopes on the right leader who would lead us to a brighter future. But how can a truly democratic leader emerge from within the authoritarian culture we inherited from the past and which we uncritically accept from our parents, teachers, religious, business and political leaders? I can’t think of any president that did not have authoritarian DNA in his/her veins.

Our close-mindedness to alternative political, economic and cultural systems and our current inability to discern what is fact or fiction about our history can be traced to two related causes.

One, we do not care to study our history at all. And two, when we do study history, teachers often teach it just to fulfill (without passion?) an assigned subject while students do it just to get a passing mark in a required subject.

Hence, we do not see the scars left in the Filipino psyche which explain why we have been overly submissive to and dependent on authoritarian superiors, why above all we now feel no loss of self-respect in having brought back to power the family of an ousted dictator.

Our present, made shameful by its main feature of a Marcos presidency, can only be understood as a product of an unstudied, unquestioned colonial past. We should study our history critically so we can break out of the prison of an unprogressive cultural conditioning and become free to imagine brighter albeit radical alternative futures.