Tough love for Duterte
I HAVE come to greatly admire Rody Duterte for becoming a “folk hero” for many Filipinos, for inspiring people from all walks of life, and for representing the vision of a disciplined citizenry, a more inclusive country, and a no-nonsense approach to governance. His opposition to mining, his conciliatory tone to insurgents, and his sensible policies in Davao City are just a few of the things I like about him, and even now, I am seriously considering supporting him in the coming elections.
But clearly, his joke about an Australian woman who got raped and killed in 1989 is foul and offensive. It doesn’t matter who said it, or in what context. It is wrong and must be called out for what it is. It is wrong and he must apologize for having said such abhorrent words.
“It was just a joke,” some people say. But there are some things you don’t joke about—at least, not in public. To talk about women, more so rape victims, as sexual exploits—even in jest—goes beyond the acceptable limits of decent speech, and one does not need to be a feminist to be outraged about the misogyny in his language.
To Duterte’s defense, some have pointed out that the entire story was actually of him coming to the rescue of the victims. “You should see the whole video!” they say. But I watched the whole video, and nothing on it will change the fact that he said what he said. No matter how many times you’ve said “I love you” to your mother, surely cursing her is still abhorrent. Some acts are intrinsically wrong regardless of what happened before or after it.
Then there are those who say: “But the others are far worse, for they are raping the nation!” It is true that there are people who are “raping” our nation and our environment, but using rape as a metaphor in this context is to dishonor those for whom it is more than a metaphor. The greater evil of some does not wash away the lesser evil of others. Else, the Holocaust would have rendered all other crimes insignificant, which is definitely not the case. All wrongs deserve to be called out for what they are, regardless of the many other wrongs in the world. We live by this principle—whether or not we admit it—as when we get mad at the heavy traffic even when others get killed in vehicular accidents. Surely, we still have the right to get mad at a reckless driver even when all he did was cut our lane.
Another (non-)argument is that Duterte has done a lot for women in Davao. This may well be true—and certainly should be given due recognition. But again this does not excuse his behavior. Manny Pacquiao giving the nation so much honor through boxing does not give him the license to insult gays, and no one should be spared censure—neither Vice Ganda nor P-Noy himself—if they were to say similar things about any group of persons.
One final point contends that Duterte must be understood in terms of the macho image that he embodies, and that his speech is par for the course in the provinces. Again this may be true, and an ordinary person can say whatever he or she wants—I could not care less—but he cannot do so when carrying the weight of the nation’s dignity on his shoulders. The presidency itself is not a joke, and we cannot allow someone who jokes in such foul taste to represent us. Presidential immunity applies to lawsuits, but not to good manners.
A few months ago, when Duterte cursed the Pope—again, in jest—he apologized and even promised that he will not curse anymore. For me, his apologetic tone was proof that he was no Donald Trump, and I took this humility to his credit. Surely, if he were to show this same attitude now, he will win (or salvage) the respect that many have placed on his brand of leadership. The next best thing to a president who doesn’t make mistakes is someone who acknowledges it when he does.
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A gentle reminder to the Filipino electorate: Your candidates are not infallible, and it’s OK to call them out for their mistakes even if you still want to keep supporting them for other (overriding) reasons. “Nobody’s perfect” is not a justification for someone’s faults, but a reason to correct them and make them less imperfect. Indeed, we ought to critique and challenge our preferred candidates to make them better, instead of emboldening them to be firm to the point of being stubborn. Needless to say, this applies not just to Duterte but to all the other candidates.
What’s not OK is unconditionally defending all their words and actions without reflecting on whether they are actually right or wrong. What a tragedy if the cost of supporting someone is the betrayal of your own values, our shared values. What a tragedy if you see the presidential race as more important than the rights and dignity of women and men.
It has been said many times before: Who we support in the presidential race says so much about who we are. But this is equally true of how we support them. Critically engaging them—that is, celebrating their strengths but not being blind to their flaws —is the best way for us to help them grow and mature to be the president we envision. If their hearts are truly for the people, then surely they will listen.
On the other hand, the only thing that’s more frightening than a candidate who makes a joke out of rape is that many of his supporters are rushing to defend him even when he’s clearly in the wrong.
And so my advice to all those who support Duterte: Show him some tough love, and I think he will emerge to be a far better candidate.
Gideon Lasco is a physician and medical anthropologist. Visit his website on health, culture and society at www.gideonlasco.com.
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