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Commentary

President Duterte’s grammar of dissent

Liberalism describes the world in terms of the concepts of freedom, equality and human dignity. In contrast, communitarian politics is about local thinking or sentiments.

One way of proving the sentimentality thesis is by means of language. Adele Webb explains that “language is always central to politics.” President Duterte is portrayed by the media through his vitriolic speeches. In fact, the unsmiling aspect of his persona is not an exaggeration of his approach to politics.

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The notion of a grammar of dissent was used in the past to express opposition to religious teachings. Dissent, as an act of protest, is the rejection of a common treatise underlying the status quo. The concept is an ideological tool, one that is identified with the notions of anti-imperialism and anti-Americanism. Presumably, dissent presents a kind of radicalism that, while antagonistic, actually seeks to transform human society by dismantling corrupt systems.

To the class of bright young professionals, Mr. Duterte is viewed as the crime buster who will keep the streets safe. But to the vast majority of the people in Mindanao, he is called Tatay Digong. Indeed, Duterte’s disdain for protocol is a way of showing his open defiance of the Western point of view. The Western mindset appeals to rationality, dialogue and discourse. But Mr. Duterte knows that most Filipinos do not have that kind of mentality. The common tao values his emotions more than the dictates of reason.

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Wataru Kusaka writes this observation: “Listening to him made one feel as if he were drinking tuba (coconut wine) with locals in nipa huts. He also connected his nationalist view of history with the Visayas, Mindanao or Bisdak (Bisayang Dako) culture. He often relayed that ‘when Magellan came to the Philippines, Mindanao was Muslims’ land,’ similar to Yoyoy Villame’s famous novelty song Magellan.”

Duterte, it can be noticed, is angry in his speeches. This is not theatrics. Rather, he is deliberately doing it in order to bring emphasis to the value of emotions in the political sphere. Without anger, it is difficult to expose, rightly or wrongly, the passion for change. And to express antagonism against all those who disagree with his policies, for instance, is reflective of the reaction of the Bisaya against many decades of sociopolitical and economic exclusion.

Language does not only denote meanings. Peter Strawson explained more than half a century ago the difference between a “statement” and an “expression.” While a statement points to facts, an expression is meant to bring import to what the speaker intends to say. For instance, when a person says “p—na,” it is farthest from his mind that another person is a “son of a whore.” Rather, he is simply expressing his overt anger, disgust or violent discontentment over something that is unacceptable.

President Duterte has evoked the sentiment that the time has come for the Bisaya folk to take control of their political destiny. For this reason, “Bisaya na pud” engenders that sense of pride for a people who have felt dominated by the Tagalogs for the longest time. “Bisaya na pud,” as an expression of a struggle for recognition, is both an appeal and a cry. Behind it all, it can be said, is the reality of a hegemonic divide that is rooted in the country’s colonial history.

The term “buot” (will) is appropriate and instructive. “Kamo ra magbuot?” (So, you make the decision?) captures the negative sentiments of the Bisaya against elitism in Philippine society and politics. In this sense, if and when the term “buot” is used in political discourse, it becomes a persuasive tool.

The element of language is important. It reveals the soul of the constituted other in society that revolts against decades of neglect and oppression.

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Christopher Ryan Maboloc is associate professor of philosophy at Ateneo de Davao University. He is trained in democracy and governance at the Konrad Adenaeur Stiftung in Bonn and Berlin, Germany.

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TAGS: Christopher Ryan Maboloc, dissent, Duterte's politics, Inquirer Commentary, language and politics, Rodrigo Duterte
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