All we need is...discipline?

 Of all the great pantheon of things that we could learn from the First World, from fiscal policy to holding the door open for people coming up behind you, we have chosen to fixate on one little quirk that Filipinos have learned from living in a foreign country: the custom of standing to the right while riding an escalator and leaving the left lane free for people who want to walk.



This is patently ridiculous. Escalator steps were meant to be occupied by two people, standing abreast, one holding each railing. Lovers can snuggle up against each other as they ride side by side; a mother with a recalcitrant child can hold her hand to make sure she doesn’t leap about; and the elderly can teeter with one hand on a cane and the other in the firm grip of her minder. Filipinos have been riding the escalator with great sang-froid since the first one opened in a department store in Escolta. It’s safe to say that it’s a technology with which we are acquainted.


Suddenly we’ve been doing it wrong, all wrong. Everything you thought you knew about riding escalators is wrong. You’ve been riding escalators wrong all your life. We must do as the great white man does, as people in civilized, industrialized, advanced, first-world, developed, disciplined, rich countries do and stand on one side of the escalator, usually the right, while the left side of the escalator is for people to walk up, or down, the escalator. Malls have begun enjoining people to adopt this practice, while social media has been on a rampage campaigning to change people’s natural behavior on the escalator.

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Not only is this quixotic, but misguided. It has been pointed out, but not often enough, that Transport for London researched this during a three-week period in 2011 and conclusively found that it’s faster if everyone stands. An analysis of the data by researchers at the University of Greenwich (Kinsey, Galea, and Lawrence 2011) showed that 74.9% of people preferred to stand, compared to the remainder who wanted to walk. How much faster is it to walk? Most escalators are standardized at a speed of 30 meters per minute, or 0.5 meters per second. The average speed of someone climbing the escalator upward was found to be 0.7 meters per second. Those who walk achieve speeds up to 1.2 meters per second. If we take the average escalator between floors to be 10 meters long (its length, not its rise), they arrive at the top in 8.3 seconds as opposed to 20 seconds for those standing still.



These people who have an extra 11.7 seconds are obviously winners at life, so I hope they spend these precious seconds they have gained on charitable deeds. Because they have gained an extra 11.7 seconds, but by devoting an entire lane to their need for speed, the entire escalator-riding society at large moves more slowly. Some might call this selfishness; I shall more charitably call it individualism. This is not to mention other factors that some might nitpick at about the application of this study to the Philippine context: that the study was done in a busy London Underground station (Holborn) rather than a shopping mall. The differences in context only validate my argument further: people in a mall aren’t rushing to catch a train, which might be one reason why you would break into a run; in most cases our escalator-riding is not when rushing to get to work—and this is as good a time as any to argue for more escalators on the MRT and on pedestrian overpasses.



But individual gain at the expense of the common good is nothing new. One motoring blogger recently posted a picture of vehicles trying to merge into a lane. In the caption he wrote: “[T]here is no […] solution until we address discipline. It all starts with discipline.” The need for “discipline” has become a popular refrain these days: “Disiplina ang kailangan” followed by something about Singapore or Bangkok or Qatar or wherever they saw the great benefits of discipline. We are a country, it sounds, of bratty, unruly schoolchildren, who need a firm rod to whip us into shape. The more fanatical might say that “discipline” is the only thing standing between us and “progress,” another loaded word that everyone thinks they understand but actually no one does. It might not even be too much of a stretch to say that many of those who voted for the president did so in the belief that he would bring discipline to a disorderly country.



If you were to press those who insist that we lack discipline what exactly they mean by it I think you would get wildly varying answers. On the face of it discipline means following the law, and I’ve had Uber drivers unironically deliver long sermons about it while driving like maniacs. Everyone likes the idea of discipline, but if you’re the only disciplined driver on the road then you start to feel like a loser. It only takes one wise-ass driver to cut the queue for everyone else to feel like a chump and chaos ensues.


If discipline means following the laws, then may the heavens have mercy on those who try to follow the law. For instance, if you do follow the law and pay proper taxes, this is like blood in the water for the corrupt, rapacious henchmen of the Bureau of Internal Revenue, whose favorite prey are small- to medium-sized businesses who try to unravel the arcanities of the rules rather than pay protection money. The law, in our country, is a way of keeping the weak and the poor down; it is a tool, selectively enforced, for the acquisition of power. This is not news. But it also means that we all understand that obeisance to the law is not what we mean when people say we need discipline.



If you were to see a group of men marching in a straight line, turning on their heel, not breaking formation, then you might be tempted to exclaim: “What discipline!” But it doesn’t mean that they are disciplined; it merely means that they know how to walk in a straight line. Dogs can be trained to do this—kudos to both the dog and the owner—but this is not discipline, either. It is being well-trained. The only things that can march in a straight line better than humans are robots, so perhaps this is what some of the proponents of discipline want: a nation of robots.


I come from a traditional boy’s school, and most of my childhood was spent collecting “Discipline Reports”, nicknamed “green slips” after the color of the paper they were printed on. Punishment consisted of an hour of standing under the sun in a squatting position, a punishment my father used to receive from the Japanese soldiers under the occupation when he failed to salute them. Punishment, not just severity but the certainty of it, is the essential converse of discipline. Behind the idea of discipline lurks punishment: the kind used in the military, in schools, and in prisons. In Mr. Duterte’s version of discipline the mutilated body of the delinquent is central to the mythology—and it is the latter which serves to control and to consolidate power. Displine is simply another word for fear.



Those who believe that Filipinos are essentially barbaric, uneducated, and undisciplined have their theories tested when they encounter the Filipino abroad: the ones who queue, pay their taxes, drive between the lines, cross on the green, and even hold elevator doors open; which is to say almost all of them. This leads us to the inevitable conclusion that it is not that Filipinos are undisciplined, but that the Philippines is a place that leads its inhabitants (including foreigners who have been here for any length of time) to act in a manner that seems to be “undisciplined.” The reasons for this are fairly evident: there is no sense of a common good, of subsuming one’s short term benefit (being able to cut across the lane) to society’s broader interest (all the cars being able to move through). This is why we our blood banks are empty and those in urgent need of blood have to send out calls through social media for relatives and friends to donate.



What we want when we say we want discipline is actually a functioning civil society, a term that has fallen out of fashion but whose ideas remain at the bedrock of all those countries which we admire so much. This kind of “discipline” is not a militaristic obedience imposed by one man; but going the other way nor is “true discipline that which from within”; I think these people are confusing discipline with their conscience, or perhaps with their inside voice. What it does need are functioning institutions, and these are precisely what are being weakened under the present conditions.


It is under the guise of bringing “disipline” that authoritarianism is being imposed and power is being taken from us. Killing people without trial is not discipline; it is a show of strength and a warning against dissent. Imposing a dictatorship is not discipline; it is seizing power. Those who think that what the country is getting now is a thrashing that a naughty child deserves should think again. In a society that has given up its freedom there is no such thing as discipline: there are only consequences for stepping out of line.

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