Philippines: Presidential language, conduct unfit for our classrooms and TV shows



 / 05:18 AM March 08, 2018

Someday, a generation more civilized than us will wonder why we elected — and tolerated — a President with such a foul mouth.

They will cite the curses and wonder why, despite the same expletives considered unfit in our classrooms and TV shows, despite the same rudeness regarded as unbecoming of critics and journalists, these were deemed suitable on the presidential stage.

The Harry Roques of this world explain that his cursing is a way of identifying with the “common people,” who feel betrayed by those who speak “decently” but act treasonously. But surely many of our countrymen who use the same language likewise take issue with his use of it, expecting more from the highest official of the land. Moreover, even those who see his actions as speaking louder than his speech will have to ask why we cannot have a president who is good in both word and deed.

Others, meanwhile, say he’s just joking — and must be understood in the context of “Bisaya culture.” But even today many Bisaya speakers say that his speech is unrepresentative of their values. As someone replied to my tweet about this topic: “I’m Bisaya and this continued use of ‘Bisaya humor’ to justify the President’s uncultured mouth is insulting to me.”

In any case, beyond the curses themselves, it is the content of his speech that make his language even more unacceptable.

First, there’s his misogyny, his ludicrous jokes about rape, his lecherous remarks about women, his lurid references to condom use, and, most recently, his call for soldiers to shoot female rebels “in the vagina.” Someday, a future generation will be revulsed at these instances — and wonder why we did not condemn these more forcefully and collectively.

Second, there’s his racism, his insensitive remarks about foreign nations and individuals: from his inane invocation of Jewish victims of the Holocaust to his characterization of Barack Obama as “so black and arrogant.” Not content with insulting Catholic priests, he cites a misinterpretation of Islam by offering “42 virgins” to prospective visitors to our country, achieving the dubious distinction of being racist and misogynist at the same time.

Then there’s his lack of respect for people: from calling the US ambassador “bakla” (as if it were an insult) to attempting to shame Leila de Lima for being “immoral” (as if he weren’t); from calling drug users “not humans” to telling protesting jeepney drivers to “suffer in poverty and hunger.” Instead of elevating public discourse he has lowered it, and while his insults may reveal more about him than the people he insulted, he does not carry his name alone, but that of our nation.

I am writing this for the future, when historians will seek to make sense of our time. There will be future revisionists,  latter-day Andanars, who will conjure up a golden age, and if they are creative enough, they might even succeed in casting Rodrigo Duterte as a philosopher-king, in the same way that people today are imagining Marcos not just as a hero but also as an enlightened ruler.

But I am also writing for the present, when we cannot surrender the standards that we have held for our leaders. And neither can we sanitize the truth by accepting “kabastusan” as sarcasm or hyperbole — or referring to it as “colorful” or “controversial” language. There are many ways to be honest without demeaning others. There are many ways to be brutally frank without brutalizing the presidency. Powerful Mr. Duterte may have become, but power is never a substitute for truth or for morality, and while his henchmen may yet rewrite the Constitution, they cannot rewrite our norms, our values.

“Take him seriously, not literally,” the Harry Roques of this world say, baldly suggesting that, like the proverbs of Solomon or the novels of Jose Rizal, his words contain some profound, hidden truth. But the more we look at the things he has said, the only truth that emerges is that of hypocrisy, lack of empathy, and moral bankruptcy.

If an emperor commands his subjects to be fully clothed, he must at least do so with clothes. If Mr. Duterte wants to uphold our nation’s dignity, he must speak and act in a dignified way.

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