‘The many ways of repression’
Our theme has it right: In the time of Duterte, there ARE many ways of repression. Let us count the ways. There is the KIPO: Killed in Police Operation. There is the DUI: Death Under Investigation. There is the category that has claimed the lives of dozens of innocent children: Collateral Damage. And there are the metaphorical deaths: Death by Revocation of SEC Registration, Death by Veto or Non-Passage of Congressional Franchise, Death by the Weaponization of the Rule of Law, Death by, or in, Troll Farms.
“None of this is unique to the Philippines. Democratic decay is a reality in many parts of the world, and these ways of repression are practiced in other countries, too.
“I want to limit my remarks to a way of repression that is familiar to all of us, and used in the four corners of the earth: the phenomenon we call ‘normalization.’”
For the first time in its nearly hundred-year history, PEN International held its annual Congress in Southeast Asia — in the Philippines. I was privileged to take part in the Congress, as a member of the panel convened to discuss “The Many Ways of Repression.” I and Pia Ranada of Rappler represented the Philippines, on a panel that included Lucina Kathmann of Mexico, Danson Kahyana of Uganda and Tetyana Teren of Ukraine. Professor Cristina Pantoja Hidalgo served as moderator.
1. By normalization, I meant our attitude, our disposition, to “explain away” the latest outrage as part of “the new normal.” Another rape joke, another casual violation of the law, another betrayal of the public interest, another lie? That’s how things are today, we say.
2. I gave two sets of examples, to illustrate how we embrace aberrant behavior as new-normal.
3. First, the language excuse. I showed three headlines from three different news sites, from three different years. Any one of them is representative. “Gabriela rep backs Duterte: Ganun talaga mga Bisaya.” This attempt to excuse the President’s outrageous behavior as language- and culture-dependent is not only false; it is reprehensible.
4. Second, the humor excuse. Again, a set of three headlines proves the point. Here is one: “Rodrigo Duterte jokes to soldiers that they can rape women with impunity.” Funny, no?
5. These examples show that one of the driving forces behind the normalization of aberrant, dangerous, inhumane or antidemocratic conduct is the very human need to not deal directly with the disruption, to look away, the better to accept the new normal. Passive acceptance enables normalization.
6. I then showed a full-page ad that ran in the Marcos crony newspapers before the Snap Election of Feb. 7, 1986, published as a “Declaration of the Coalition of Writers and Artists for Freedom and Democracy.” Some of the biggest names in Philippine art and culture had attached their names to the ad, which was a declaration of support for Ferdinand Marcos. I showed the ad not to shame the signatories, many of whom are still alive, but to highlight this particular passage: The Filipino voter, the declaration read, faced “one of two choices: to reestablish Philippine democracy on a new and more enduring level… or to risk a future dominated by the specter of unending strife, hate, vengeance and perhaps a bloody fratricide…”
7. This passage offers a false choice—what in those days we had already learned to call a false dichotomy. Marcos, the dictator, was praised as the leader committed to democracy, while Corazon Aquino, the martyr’s wife, was condemned as the harbinger of unending violence. The intellectually dishonest quality of the writing can be seen most clearly in the phrase “bloody fratricide.” By definition, the killing of one’s brothers or sisters is already bloody; the use of the word only proves that the writers, greedy for justification, were loading the dice.
8. And false choices enable normalization. The traitors in the Duterte administration rationalize their subservience to Beijing because they act as if the only alternative to a reasonable assertion of our rights is war.
9. What can writers and artists do to fight normalization as a way of repression? Rizal offers a means of fighting. Seeing our problems clearly, he wrote in his dedication to “Noli me tangere,” is a necessary part of the cure. “I will do for you what the ancients did for their sick: they exposed them on the steps of the temple so that each person who invoked the Supreme Being might propose to them a remedy.” So clarity is one of the particular gifts of the arts, of literature. It is the task of the writer, the artist, to sharpen the definition of the reality we live in, as photojournalist Raffy Lerma did with his searing street Pieta—and to force us to see.
10. But the creative spirit can also help fight normalization by transmuting the trauma of our time, via the alchemy of art, the unbearable lightness of literature, into potent, enduring truths. I ended by flashing riveting passages from Floy Quintos’ “The Kundiman Party” on screen, and making the play’s theme my own: “Sing. Remember. Resist.”
On Twitter: @jnery_newsstand, email: [email protected]
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