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Public Lives

Speech and the written word

/ 12:24 AM September 11, 2016

In everyday life, we tend to assign less weight to oral speech than to the written word.  The spoken is presumed to be “ephemeral,” liable to be misheard, reinterpreted, or denied.  The written word, in contrast, is thought to be “indelible,” its meaning cast in stone.

But, the literary scholar Roland Barthes, in his classic essay, “The Death of the Author,” reverses this equation. He argues: “[I]t is ephemeral speech which is indelible, not monumental writing…. Speech is irreversible: a [spoken] word cannot be retracted…”

Nowhere, perhaps, is this insight truer than in international gatherings of heads of state or foreign ministers, where diplomatic language is the norm. Participants studiously avoid giving off-the cuff remarks in order not to be misinterpreted. Most speak from detailed notes or simply read a prepared speech. At the end of such meetings, a carefully crafted communiqué is typically agreed upon and issued to make sure there is no room for misunderstanding.

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In such gatherings, words do matter. Utmost cordiality is observed even among representatives of rival nations. That is why presidents, prime ministers, and monarchs bring with them a staff of seasoned diplomats and writers who prepare the ground for their principals long before the latter actually meet. A strong opinion loosely uttered by one head of state in the presence of another could be taken as a slight. The consequences that follow could be costly, and unfortunate because unintended.

It is one thing for a nation’s leader to speak and act in a calibrated way in the pursuit of a clear and coherent foreign policy. It is quite another to allow oneself, especially on the international stage, to be a captive of the contingencies of oral speech. “Speech can be a stream of consciousness, with unfinished utterances, half-formed thoughts, and a healthy smattering of messy slang. You don’t have to know how a sentence will end before you start it.”  (Chi Luu, “Is writing a technology or language?”) It is from this that extemporaneous speech draws its charm and power, as well as its inherent risks. This is particularly so if one happens to be a head of state.

Under our system of government, the President is vested with the power to determine foreign policy and to conduct foreign relations with other states. He alone can negotiate treaties on behalf of the country, although, under the 1987 Constitution, such treaties are subject to ratification by the Senate. A 1988 Supreme Court ruling denying media access to minutes taken at a treaty negotiation (G.R. No. 84642) made this very clear: “The President alone has the power to speak or listen as a representative of the Nation. Congress itself is powerless to invade it. The President is the sole organ of the Nation in its external relations, and its sole representative with foreign Nations.”

This responsibility makes it imperative for any president to always speak with caution. Whether it is to communicate a substantive shift in foreign policy, or it is simply to reiterate time-honored principles in foreign relations—such as sovereign equality and noninterference—it is important for any administration to clearly state if it is veering toward a radical rethinking of the country’s existing alliances. If it is, our people deserve to know.

The President cannot say one thing and then, immediately after, his staff scrambles to redescribe what he actually said. If done too often, it can undermine the President’s credibility. In an era where speeches are instantly recorded, transcribed, and retrieved, there is hardly any room for widely differing interpretations. Fortunately, the rules of diplomacy give parties enough leeway to offer or demand clarifications of controversial statements—precisely because words have contexts and consequences. Parties at the receiving end of strong statements often want to know if there is a hidden message behind these utterances.

I think it was right for President Duterte to seek out US President Barack Obama at the Asean leaders’ gala dinner to tell him that the widely reported slur he had uttered on the eve of the summit was not meant for the American president. Obama himself had said: “I don’t take these comments personally because it seems as if this is a phrase he’s used repeatedly—including directed at the Pope and others—a habit, a way of speaking.” Still, the US side firmly canceled the bilateral meeting with the Philippine president. One can be gracious without being a pushover. That’s the way of diplomacy.

The other day, it was Mr. Duterte’s turn to relate his fleeting encounter with Obama to a group of Filipinos in the course of his visit to Indonesia after the Asean summit. “I told him in a holding room, ‘President Obama, I’m President Duterte. I never made that statement. Check it out.’” Obama’s response, according to him, was: “My men will talk to you.” To which Mr. Duterte replied, “OK.” One could be courteous without being obsequious, or forthright without being offensive. That, too, is the way of diplomacy.

Obama, who is winding down his second term as US president, would have been the last person to let this issue rankle and dominate media reportage of his final official visit to Asia. He was, above all, concerned to show the world that there is solid support for the US pivot to Asia. He wanted assurance that Asia-Pacific nations continue to see America’s presence in the region as a stabilizing factor and as a necessary counterweight to China’s assertive presence in the South China Sea.

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If we disagree with this view, we should say so, without being hostile.

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TAGS: Asean Summit, Barack Obama, Rodrigo Duterte, Speech
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