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Watching the audience

I ONCE read about a writer who frequented freak shows of itinerant circuses and who found the best insights into human nature, not from the “freaks” fascinating in their physical deformities, but from the audience of “normal” people.

The writer was fascinated by how otherwise decent and compassionate individuals could turn into some sort of “freaks” themselves, including the children. In the darkness of the makeshift theater, in the comfort of anonymity, they gave themselves permission to laugh and jeer, point and gawk at people who were deemed different and odd. They found nuggets of cruelty in themselves that they otherwise suppressed in polite society.

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So it may be with those who take part in the rallies and small meetings called by Davao City Mayor and presidential candidate Rodrigo Duterte. By now, we have become inured to the outrageous statements of this self-proclaimed “strongman.” Most recently and notoriously was his “joke,” though he described it as a thoroughly serious and sober recollection, in reaction to catching sight of the corpse of Jacqueline Hamill, who was raped and killed in the course of a hostage-taking crisis in a Davao jail in 1989.

“They raped all of the women,” Duterte told his supporters, recalling that when he saw Hamill, he was mad not just because she was raped but because “she was so beautiful.” He added, “the mayor [himself] should have been first,” as his supporters laughed uproariously.

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THOUGH this is just about the worst of his public gaffes—the worst made by any public official, let alone a presidential candidate at any time in recent memory—this is not what really alarms about Duterte’s history of sexually offensive statements.

I am more worried about the reactions of his supporters—including women—who laugh along with the mayor, seemingly delighted and tickled by their candidate’s frankness, his unfettered use of gutter language, including salty curses directed at his opponents.

Did they think about the message their laughter sent, not just to Duterte and his leaders and to Filipino voters, but also to the world, including Jacqueline’s family and country folk?

Jacqueline was a lay missionary who came all the way from her native Australia to minister and witness to the faith to the poor and most unfortunate of Filipinos, including those in jail. It was her misfortune to be caught in the middle of a hostage crisis, and a tragedy that her bravery and faith would be repaid by the most heinous of crimes. But to have her death and memory desecrated 26 years after the fact, to have her family and survivors painfully reminded of her loss, all at the service of a candidate seeking to bolster his macho credentials—that is cruel beyond all humane measures.

And for Duterte supporters to join in the laughter, indeed to lead it, as Duterte points out that he wasn’t at all amused as he told the tale, is to rub salt on the raw wounds left by rape and sexual assault. Laughter is not the proper response to rape. It is not funny, it is not amusing. All women—and not just rape survivors—are offended by the notion that sexual violation is somehow a form of gratification for men.

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AND that’s not the end of it.

Again in his defense Duterte said his crude language, his resorting to insults and offensive statements against opponents, was rooted in his poverty-stricken beginnings. (Although one must question how poor he really was given that he studied in two exclusive schools: Ateneo de Davao and San Beda College, even if he wasn’t able to graduate from either one.)

But even if he grew up in the most abject of circumstances, that still doesn’t—or shouldn’t—excuse his crudity. An urban poor leader, a woman, said she felt personally insulted by Duterte’s “excuse”: “Is he saying that all poor people are bastos (uncouth)?” she demanded to know.

Obviously, by bringing out the supposed class divide between himself and his critics, the mayor sought to exploit the economic and social gulf within Philippine society—a serious problem, true, but not a factor in his use of gutter language and people’s discomfort with it. Is he saying crudity is a hallmark of poverty, that a dirty mouth and mind are hallmarks of the poor?

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EVEN his closest political supporters, including the Cayetano brother-and-sister tandem of Alan Peter and Pia, have said they would sit down and “talk” with the mayor about his injudicious language.

Duterte has also offered an apology of sorts, though he said he would not take back his words.

But what do his supporters—the ordinary folk who flock to his rallies, even the business people and subdivision dwellers attracted to his macho image and promise of radical change—intend to do about their candidate? Cleaning out his mouth, coaching him in politesse, rehearsing more dignified and respectable behavior—all these are mere externals.

What do they think about the attitudes and values that inform his crudity and autocratic approach to governance? What checks and balances will they insist on to keep him on a truly democratic path and modify his authoritarian tendencies?

Duterte’s words are offensive and alarming. But of even greater concern are the thoughts, feelings and beliefs that fuel these words.

By your words are you known. And by your tacit acceptance and encouragement of your candidate are you, Duterte supporters, judged and found wanting.

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TAGS: Duterte, Elections, opinion, Rape, rape comment, Rape joke, rape remark, Rodrigo Duterte
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