‘Culture’ not an excuse
When President Duterte publicly kissed a married overseas Filipino worker in South Korea, his spokesperson Harry Roque was quick to defend it, saying that such behavior “is very much accepted in the culture of Filipinos.”
Other presidential allies, while lacking the sophistry to make such a sociological claim, shared Roque’s line of thinking.
Erwin Tulfo cited the Filipino crowd’s hiyawan (cheering) to argue that “there’s nothing wrong” with the act. Mocha Uson shared a video of Ninoy Aquino being kissed by women on his fateful flight to Manila to imply, distastefully and disingenuously, that what Mr. Duterte did was acceptable even to his critics.
Roque has since backtracked from his remarks, but his initial statement follows a well-trodden way to defend the President. Even before he took office, Mr. Duterte’s rude, expletive-laced language has been explained as part of “Bisaya” or “Cebuano culture.”
When he catcalled TV reporter Mariz Umali in June 2016, Gabriela Rep. Luzviminda Ilagan defended him, saying: “Ganoon talaga ang mga Bisaya (Visayans are really like that)… It’s just a manner of speaking but not the thought, it’s not the content.” Months later, Roque’s predecessor Ernesto Abella defended Mr. Duterte’s calling the US ambassador bakla (gay) by saying that “the Cebuano subculture speaks in a very rough kind of humor.”
These arguments are misguided for a number of reasons.
First, to say that Mr. Duterte’s public display of lecherousness is “acceptable” to Filipinos is to deny the fact that most Filipinos have always valued decency and modesty. Even Joseph Estrada, himself a womanizer, criticized Mr. Duterte for his lack of “finesse.” And Mr. Duterte himself appealed to these values when he hypocritically attacked Sen. Leila de Lima for her alleged “propensity for sex.”
Saying that Mr. Duterte’s behavior is acceptable also denies the fact that even today, many Filipinos are disgusted by his actions — just as many Cebuano speakers are offended by his speech. Roque’s assertion, in the face of this outrage, is not just wrong but presumptuous.
Second, while many Filipinos may be “playful” in various aspects of their everyday lives, we have always held our leaders to a higher standard. Take note that Mr. Duterte is not a typical Filipino or Cebuano; he is the President. Societies all over the world have much higher expectations from their leaders, and for good reason: they are supposed to be role models for good conduct.
Our own laws reflect this ideal: Republic Act No. 6713 calls for the “highest standards of ethics” among public officials. Thus,
Ferdinand Marcos himself, with no small irony, said in 1981 that a leader “cannot lead well unless his behavior, his policies and values, his life, are an education to his people.”
Thus, Pia Cayetano tweeted in 2015 that she was “shocked at the lewd dancing supposedly provided by MMDA Chair Tolentino at a political gathering.” We need the Pia Cayetano of old in these misogynistic times.
Third, even if we are to accept that Mr. Duterte’s actions are because of “culture,” it still does not excuse him. Yes, the rules of engagement between women and men, as well as the sense of propriety, varies from country to country, region to region. And yes, anthropologists speak of “cultural relativism,” calling for respect for these differences.
But they are also quick to say that there are limits to this principle. Corruption, too, can be argued to be deeply ingrained in our society, along with nepotism, even tribalism.
But being “cultural” does not necessarily mean “ethical,” let alone “presidential.” And what was acceptable in the past doesn’t necessarily have to be allowed in the present.
Indeed, using the “culture card” is misguided because it implies that culture is static and normative, when it is neither. That it is part of “Saudi culture” for women not to vote or drive does not mean it has to stay that way. That it is “acceptable” in some communities for men to abuse women does not mean that reprehensible practice should be allowed to continue.
To use “culture” as an excuse for Mr. Duterte’s words and actions is to normalize behavior that we should relegate into oblivion, and not elevate to the presidential stage.
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