A man in San Francisco, it is told, once received notice that his brother in Manila sent him a huge basket full of crabs from the Philippines. But when he went to claim it a customs officer had the names and labels accidentally mixed up. The man ended up being made to choose from among three huge baskets full of crabs the one sent to him. At first, the man appeared upset; then he hit upon an idea. He opened all three baskets and watched. In no time two of the baskets had crabs climbing up to the rim unbothered. The third basket, on the other hand, was oddly quiet. The reason? Every time a crab climbed up it was dutifully pulled down by the others. The man’s face lit up into a smile. Triumphantly he said, “This is it! This third basket is the one from the Philippines!” So goes one more legend of the Pinoy ‘crab mentality’.
The first time I heard this story from a priest in a conversation, spiced up with other hilarious details and embellishments, I remember all six of us laughing so loudly my sides ached. But we all agreed. There’s nothing so Pinoy, so real, so human and so destructive of unity as our so-called ‘crab mentality’.
But what is it about? Why do we have it? What do we do about it?
Some critics say that the ‘crab mentality’ is basically positive; it’s about Pinoys’ collective desire for justice and equality. No one must be given special treatment, all persons being equal (in dignity); all must be treated as such before the law etc. Understandably then, when someone thinks he’s better and deserves better, Pinoys pull him down. This seems fine except that it doesn’t apply in all the social classes. Poor Pinoys are seldom known to practice ‘crab mentality’ in regard to rich Pinoys; and the opposite is unthinkable. The ‘crab mentality’ seems to thrive best when Pinoys are in the same social, professional, work, family and local conditions.
Other critics say that the ‘crab mentality’ is nothing but pure and simple envy. Nothing else explains better, for instance, when a very successful Pinoy or Pinay is showered accolades by everybody but fellow Pinoys. Or when a Pinoy neighbor reacts to a kabayan who acquires the latest SUV or high tech ‘toy’ by himself buying a similar, better and/or more expensive one. Or when a Pinoy/Pinay who becomes an elected leader in a community of kabayans suddenly loses very good friends who later form other Pinoy groups in which they maneuver themselves to leadership positions. “I hate to tell you this,” an American husband said to his Filipino wife, “but what’s keeping you guys from being united is that every time you form an association everybody wants to be president!” Indeed our ‘crab mentality’ has nowhere better to be than the Hall of Shame.
There’s not a single explanation why Pinoys have it or particularly associate Pinoy culture with it. In fact, an Australian, upon reading it being talked about in Manila, promptly called the ‘crab mentality’ an Aussie reality too. Or maybe an American who comes to understand it would also say it’s an American reality. In truth, it’s a human reality. Perhaps we Pinoys have it only to a greater or lesser degree than others. I have a sense that, if we delve into our history a little more deeply, we might discover in our colonial experience of being regarded a race well below that of our colonizers part of the explanation.
But deal with it we must today. Let me suggest that, first of all, we must name what it really represents. If it represents the real aspiration for justice and equality in social relations, in giving and receiving equal services, in seeking equal treatment before the law, then the ‘crab mentality’ is the right mentality. But if it represents envy, then we had better listen to our conscience and the voice of our faith. Those who are the object of the ‘crab mentality’ do very well when they put on humility because the success, wealth or power that set them up above fellow Pinoys are passing gifts in a temporary existence; they do even better when they use these things generously to express compassion and service to others. When we are tempted to adopt the ‘crab mentality’ we must listen to St. John Chrysostom when he said: “Would you like to see God glorified by you? Then rejoice in your brother’s progress and you will immediately give glory to God. Because his servant could conquer envy by rejoicing in the merits of others, God will be praised.” St. Thomas More saw the things that invite envy differently. “If we were to…esteem everything according to its true nature, rather than according to men’s false opinion, then we would never see any reason to envy any man, but rather pity every man—and pity those most who have the most to be envied for, since they are the ones who will shortly lose the most.”
‘Crab mentality’? For crabs maybe. For us Pinoys, I think there’s only one option: ‘Pinoy mentality’.