Ballot, ‘bayot,’ and Mother’s Day
We’re accustomed to electoral politics. But history shows that lasting social changes didn’t start with political institutions. Rather, they began with ordinary people who worked at the level of culture. Think of the early women’s rights activists in America, those female Quakers who organized the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention in a chapel. Or Rosa Parks who symbolized defiance against racial segregation. These people questioned dominant culture, a world view prevalent in one’s society and unconsciously expressed through ways of thinking and doing things.
We’ll achieve significant change if we switch attention to cultural politics.
The alternative title for this piece is “A vocabulary for cultural politics.” Certain italicized words provide a description of social phenomena that we experience but have no word to call them.
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A few days after Rodrigo Duterte called Mar Roxas bayot, I witnessed a row between two bus passengers. I had the luck to get a seat at the rear end in that mid-afternoon commuters’ hell. The quiet but ready-to-erupt temper among the put-upon passengers was broken by a heated word war between a woman and a middle-aged man. It began when she accused him of elbowing her. Of course, the man denied it. But the woman stood her ground. She remarked that he seemed to have grown old mindlessly, that he was probably gay: “Parang wala kang pinagkatandaan. Bakla ka yata.”
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Duterte’s rape joke kept netizens busy for days. It mobilized women’s groups decrying sexism, the mayor’s unfair comment on women. Grace Poe used the incident to launch a pro-women campaign ad. Presidentiables and their supporters milked the issue until another Duterte mishap comes along.
The bayot name-calling didn’t generate much ire among the public. Perhaps it was interpreted as an exclusively LGBT slur with no major political purchase. I waited for weeks for LGBT and women’s groups to release a statement denouncing it. Despite our annual gay beauty pageants, the country is still insidiously homophobic.
Conflating bayot with weakness isn’t merely gay bashing. It is an inherently covert attack against women. We have lost sight of its operative discrimination because even women have been socialized to perceive social relations through the eyes of men. If men can be patriarchal, so can women. Patriarchal women have internalized the social programming to think like men and to practice a value hierarchy where feminine traits play second fiddle to and women are judged through a man’s norm.
Roxas could have had his noblest moment if he responded differently. Instead of insisting that Duterte couldn’t argue through facts, Roxas could have earned more admiration had he retorted through cultural politics. What’s demeaning about bayot? Why do you equate femininity with weakness? What’s wrong with being soft-spoken?
But that’s a tall order. Cultural change is not a top-down job; it starts with ordinary people thinking extraordinarily.
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When people hear the word “culture,” they often imagine highbrow art, ballet and Shakespeare. In our political discourse, culture is considered auxiliary to more “important” areas like economics, governance and social welfare.
However, real transformation can only happen in the level of culture, not in electoral politics. Describing cultural politics, lesbian Mexican-American activist Gloria Anzaldua writes: “Nothing happens in the ‘real’ world unless it first happens in our heads.” Culture isn’t minor.
Instead of compartmentalizing the political and the cultural, we better acknowledge how they influence each other. For example, the sorry transport system wastes employees’ productive hours, results in tardiness and creates animosity among bus passengers. Patriarchal culture encourages sexist, homophobic slurs to hurt someone you believe to have elbowed you.
If we want change at the core, we should embrace cultural politics as a buzzword.
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The day before Election Day, we celebrate Mother’s Day. Rather than material gifts for our mothers, let’s include the femininity question in our checklist of picking leaders at the local and national levels. Do candidates consider femininity an inferior trait? Do they use it as a weapon of abuse? Do they pay lip service to womanhood but maintain a covert sexist attitude?
This is not a choice between Duterte and Roxas. It’s more than electoral politics. It’s a choice between our grandmothers, mothers, daughters and other women we love, and the use of femininity as a weapon of insult. The kindest we can do after Mother’s Day is to choose them.
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What happened to the man in the bus? He backed off, turned tail like a beaten dog. He knew what hurt most: to be called bayot.
Cyril Belvis is a doctoral candidate of the Philippine Studies program at the University of the Philippines Diliman. He teaches literature.
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