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Honesty, lies and Sara Duterte

We are not naïve, stupid or gullible. We know and even accept that in politics and in public life, white lies, untruths, evasions, dissimulation, feigning, pretense and bullshit are at times necessary, even required for political wheeling and dealing.

At the same time, truth and honesty are universally valued and cherished in social and private lives. We categorically believe that lying is wrong. Lies rebound on the liar, and we know how a single lie can wreck lives and destroy reputations. Plato was unequivocal. He said lies were evil and poisoned the soul of the person who uttered them. The French Renaissance philosopher Michel de Montaigne concurred. “In plain truth, lying is an accursed vice,” he said. “We have no tie upon one another, other than the reliability of our word.”

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We can be similarly uncompromising. We demand truthfulness and honesty from our elected public servants and from our colleagues and friends. We teach our children to be truthful and honest and regard as treacherous the lover, husband or wife who is found to be untruthful and dishonest.

That said, I have been trying to fathom Sara Duterte’s thinking. The President’s daughter has recently been saying a lot about lying and honesty. But given the nature of politicking in this country, the talk has spiraled out of the realms of reason.

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As far as one can gather, her argument can be unpacked as follows: (a) all politicians lie, everybody lies; (b) honesty should not be an electoral issue; (c) there is no legal requirement for senatorial contenders to be honest, truthful and of good moral character. Neither are academic qualifications necessary. Philippine citizenship and being able to read and write would suffice.

One could take the view that championing lying, as Sara does, is hard-as-nails pragmatism. Lies can decrease conflict, promote harmony, forge compromise. In this way, one is able to justify lies, accept the utility and necessity of telling lies, if the outcome is beneficial—if more good than harm can come from falsehood. The unbounded pessimist Friedrich Nietzsche went further. He said: “That lies should be necessary to life is part and parcel of the terrible and questionable character of existence.”

Yet, society cannot possibly function if, as Sara contends, we accept that everybody lies all the time. Society, writes the British philosopher Anthony Grayling, operates on probity and integrity. “For the ordinary transactions of daily life, we have to believe that most people are telling the truth most of the time.”

Those who penned the Philippine Constitution would agree. Section 27, Article II is explicit: “The State shall maintain honesty and integrity in the public service and take positive and effective measures against graft and corruption.”

Moreover, Section 1 of Article XI states: “Public office is a public trust. Public officers and employees must at all times be accountable to the people, serve them with utmost responsibility, integrity, loyalty and efficiency, act with patriotism and justice, and lead modest lives.”

I can’t see how these passages can be read as anything but a stern rebuke of Sara’s legal justification for lying and dishonesty in public life.

Sara is mayor of Davao City and running for reelection. She has been doing no campaigning of her own. This seems to be because she is very busy being the campaign manager and spokesperson for senatorial candidates running under her regional party Hugpong ng Pagbabago. Clearly, she is confident of winning the Davao mayoralty without too much effort on her part.

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Loud and swaggering, Sara has enormous presence. She is not a senatorial contender but acts like one. Those who think that she has her eye firmly on the presidency and aims to succeed her father are probably right. Which is precisely the reason why we should listen to her carefully. She is amassing power before our very eyes.

Sara advocates lying and dishonesty as acceptable for those in public life. Why should this be so troubling? Because, as Grayling writes: “To tell a lie you have to know the truth but deliberately intend to communicate its very opposite to your audience. You thus commit a double crime: of knowing but concealing truth, a precious possession; and of purposefully leading others away from it.”

Would Sara apply this standard on her children? Would she allow her husband to deceive her with lies and dishonesty?

Rachel A.G. Reyes ([email protected]) is a historian of Southeast Asia and writes commentary pieces on science, gender and politics.

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TAGS: Constitution, Davao City, Hugpong, integrity, Lies, President Duterte, Sara Duterte
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