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PH politics and ‘argumentum ad mortuos’

The term “necropolitics”—or the politics of death—is becoming a buzzword in the media especially as we approach the national elections. Some see it as a playful but creative rehash of the term “narcopolitics” famous in Latin America.

Necropolitics is popularly understood in this sense: political candidates invoking their departed relatives deemed to have been persons of virtue in order to gain public approval, which may eventually be translatable to votes. Observers mention several examples.

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Cory Aquino won the presidency with ample reference to her husband Ninoy Aquino’s murder. P-Noy became president largely because of Cory Aquino’s death. Grace Poe topped the 2013 senatorial elections on the strength of Fernando Poe Jr.’s name, and will not dare distance herself from her late adoptive father as she aspires to be president in 2016. Leni Robredo won against a political dynasty in her province partly because of the death of her husband Jesse Robredo. Expect his image to continue to appear on our TV screens as she campaigns for the vice presidency. Mar Roxas connects himself both to his father Gerry Roxas and his grandfather Manuel Roxas. Even Alan Peter Cayetano reminds the public that he is the son of the late Renato Cayetano. In interviews, Bongbong Marcos trumpets his father’s achievements.

These observations are not without basis.  But the label “necropolitics” is misguided. It was coined by the African philosopher Achille Mbembe to refer to the “contemporary forms of subjugation of life to the power of death.”  Building from the French philosopher Michel Foucault’s notion of biopower and biopolitics wherein sovereignty is exercised through disciplinary tactics that administer the body and the biological processes, Mbembe theorizes that sovereignty is also effectively deployed through necropolitical measures manifested in “the power to dictate who may live and who die.”  He says that “in our contemporary world, weapons are deployed in the interest of maximum destruction of persons and the creation of death-worlds, new and unique forms of social existence in which vast populations are subjected to conditions of life conferring upon them the status of living dead.”

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Since “necropolitics” is an inappropriate description of Filipino politicians’ antics, I invent a more fitting phrase: argumentum ad mortuos—taken from Latin and translated into English as an “appeal to dead persons.”  Many of us are familiar  with fallacies or deceptive arguments such as argumentum ad hominem (appeal to the person), ad misericordiam (to pity), ad verecundiam (to authority), and others.  Let us now include argumentum ad mortuos in this wide array of invalid reasoning.

Just like any other fallacy, the ad mortuos fallacy is deceptively convincing for many reasons:

It suggests that the moment of dying is a moment of handing over not just tangible inheritance (such as properties) but also intangible virtues (such as integrity). This is fallacious because you cannot simplistically transfer intangible virtues in the same manner as you would a tangible inheritance.  It is not always the case that “ kung ano ang puno, siya ang bunga,” or “the apple does not fall too far from the tree.”

It does not appeal to our sense of reason but entices our sense of sympathy. However, for an election to become an authentic democratic exercise, participants must vote based on enlightened reason and not on benighted sympathy.

It operates on selective memory, which highlights the accomplishments of the dead and buries into oblivion their inconsistencies, frailties and betrayals.  Thus, we forget their humanness, if not their erroneous ways. The irony is that while the ad mortuos fallacy makes us remember, it is as well an effective tool for forgetting.

It appeals, not to our sense of duty, but rather to our sense of shame and guilt. Out of respect for the dead, we confer benefits on those they left behind.

It satisfies our appetite to support the underdog. While we identify with the winners, we are also known to empathize strongly with the little guys. Oppressed people aspire to become the oppressors, the Brazilian Paulo Freire used to say. We may add that oppressed people also sympathize with those perceived to be oppressed.

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And finally, it reveals how Philippine politics is managed by political, if not cultural, dynasties.  With a few exceptions, candidates for public office can only appeal to their dead because those dead were once the rulers of this country (politically, culturally, economically and socially).  Many of those dead yearned to continue living powerfully through the power enjoyed by their siblings and other family members.

If we do not get rid of the culture of political dynasty that rules this country, expect the ad mortuos fallacy to thrive well into the years to come.

So how should we handle this fallacy?

First, we must distinguish the dead from the living. Hard as it may be because of the deliberate shrouding through the mass media, we still must assess the living based on his or her own merits and not in reference to the perceived virtue and accomplishments of the dead.

Second, challenging as it may be because history always includes distortion, we must critique some narratives especially if these are advanced by people with vested interests.

Third, problematic as it may be to separate reason from emotion, we must strive to become reasonably sympathetic and sympathetically reasonable.

Fourth, improbable as it may be, we must rally behind legal moves to stamp out political dynasties.

Franz Giuseppe Cortez teaches philosophy and good governance and social responsibility at the University of Santo Tomas.

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TAGS: Elections 2016, necropolitics, political dynasties, politics
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