Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Filipinos and Gambling

FILAM STAR (October 7-13, 2011)

The actor Omar Sharif, a notorious gambler in his time, once said that gambling is strictly a form of entertainment and should never become the means for producing a livelihood or an alternative for resolving financial matters. Sharif’s point is an important one for those who try their luck at a blackjack or pai gow poker table but fail to draw a line between sheer amusement and the makings of a destructive addiction.

Both frequent and leisurely gamblers may try to dismiss this idea, but they are haunted by the specter of compulsion. It should go without saying that it takes mental discipline to avoid sliding down that dangerous road. The problem is that acquiring that mental discipline is easier said than done, especially when people are lured to the exciting, if unrealistic, possibility of winning more money than they could ever dream of.

It may vary significantly from individual to individual, but it should be kept in mind that gambling in the bigger picture involves a moral debate. Is gambling in and of itself wrong or is it merely a harmless pastime when kept under control? As greater numbers of Filipinos succumb to the allure of gambling in the midst of deteriorating economic conditions in the United States as well as in the Philippines, there are Filipinos standing on both sides of the gambling divide.

Many Filipinos, and Filipino Americans for that matter, view gambling through the lens of innocent pleasure and essential recreation. However, for more conservative and straitlaced Filipinos, particularly those whose worldviews flow from their Christian faith, they are appalled at the very thought of gambling. These Filipinos see it as a blight on them as a national and diasporic community. Gambling to them is a source of shame and ignominy. It is a pernicious disease that society should be cleansed of, a disease that turns Filipinos away from their familial and spiritual values.

Yet, the more we explore the phenomenon of gambling and its relationship to the mental health and well-being of Filipinos, the less certain the contentions of its detractors appear. With the goal of bolstering gambling as a socially-legitimate activity, advocates abide by a tenet of gambling which is to judge it on its own objective merits and not on strictly moral convictions. Gambling does after all, contrary to conventional wisdom, have its beneficial side.

For many Filipinos, there are few more likely settings where they can temporarily get away from their problems and anxieties than a gambling establishment. Deservedly or not, the stigma of irresponsibility and immorality always follows these Filipinos, but never enough to stop them from going completely. The key question though, for more sober-minded Filipinos, is gambling more salutary or detrimental?

Gambling has historically been encouraged among Filipinos as an accepted form of social activity. Filipinos integrate gambling into their social lives as something that not only conforms to their social norms, but that is also natural to their orientation as a people. This is only because in emphasizing the cultural and ethnic kinship they share with each other, Filipinos apply gambling as a glue that keeps their social relations intact.

Added to Filipinos’ primary motivations for gambling is their desire to make their lives better financially. They prefer to believe that the odds in making substantial amounts of money from gambling are better compared to other more orthodox means. As would be expected in an impoverished nation like the Philippines––or in an America that is experiencing a deep economic recession––where economic prospects are limited, gambling becomes an opportunistic end in itself.

This is where things begin to go wrong. Filipino gamblers, just like other gamblers, subscribe to the myth that they can make a stable living this way. By capitulating to this myth, addiction turns into a real likelihood. Problem gamblers are born as a result.

Filipinos’ love affair with gambling is set alongside the delights and drawbacks that come with its contributing causes. Some Filipinos gamble to break the chain of a stultifying existence. And others simply see a treasure at the end of the rainbow. While one can make a convincing argument that gambling can only lead to misfortune, the variable in the debate—that gambling is an enjoyable and even restorative vice—serves as a reminder that it is a more complex issue than what many of us realize.


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