Sometimes I think we Filipinos would not be in a problematic position on major issues of national life, if we could only ask the right questions of ourselves and others at this point in history.
It is striking that both the question-and-answer method of Maoist/Marxist dialectic on social change, and the Socratic method of dialogue in Western thought, emphasize the importance of asking questions in regard to endeavors of great import.
With Mao, the questions usually came before the answers. There is always a purpose for inquiry. What are the targets of the Chinese revolution? What are its tasks? And what are its perspectives? Mao himself supplied the answers to the questions.
In our country today, the method is strangely reversed. We are supplied with answers before the questions are asked. Consider:
Answers before the questions
1. Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez is supplying “federalism” as the answer to grave national problems, before asking the basic question: Should the country undertake constitutional change towards federalism, which could result in 13 or 14 Philippine states (according to the count of the old and new Pimentels), when we Filipinos have not succeeded in governing, securing and developing just one Philippine republic?
Alvarez is so confident about his answer that he has a timetable when the new constitution will be drafted by an appointed body and when it will be approved by a constituent assembly.
2. Senators Panfilo Lacson and Richard Gordon are now frenetically completing their Senate committee report on the inquiry into the drug killings and alleged human rights abuses, but they still have not asked the basic questions about the war on drugs: Is this war necessary?; what are the facts about the country’s drug situation?; can anyone or any competent agency validate President Duterte’s oft-repeated statement that there are four million drug addicts in the country?
3. SWS and Pulse Asia repeatedly tell us that President Duterte enjoys high satisfaction and high approval ratings with the Filipino people, but they still have to show us that they have asked real questions of our people – like asking every survey respondent, “Are you or are you not satisfied with the way President Duterte has killed or caused the killing of over 6,000 drug suspects in the war on drugs?” or “Do you approve or disapprove of the way President Duterte is killing or ordering the killing of drug suspects in the drug war?” If they do not ask the questions, their reports mean nothing.
4. Before temporary foreign affairs secretary Perfecto Yasay, Jr, executes the big somersault in PH foreign policy – from alliance with America to alliance with Russia and China – he should tell us what questions or problems this new policy is supposed to answer. Are we abrogating our mutual defense treaty with the United States? Are we writing new defense treaties with China and Russia?
5. Before anyone could ask for extraordinary powers for DU30, some people were already swearing by the term as the solution to the monstrous traffic gridlock that has paralyzed Metro Manila. No one asked the questions that would require this answer. Why must the President himself deal with the traffic? Can’t ordinary presidential powers solve the situation? Why extraordinary?
Sometimes it looks like our government is just President Duterte talking to himself. When he opened himself to questioning by TV interviewers, he gave the same answer over and over. And there were online websites that readily attested that the interviewers were so biased, and that DU30 was so brilliant with his answers in the interviews.
At other times it looks like the houses of Congress are just nodding in agreement to presidential initiatives, thereby confirming that the Congress is just a rubber stamp; or that the Supreme Court is just watching tremulously from a distance in silence.
My worry here is that we Filipinos are being stampeded or mesmerized into acceptance of certain answers to national problems, without witnessing the required deliberation and debate on public policy that is required by our system of constitutional government.
To get to the heart of problems and to get at the truth of things, we have to employ what is called Socratic questioning or critical thinking.
Socratic questioning, to quote Wikipedia, is disciplined questioning that can be used to pursue thought in many directions and for many purposes, including: to explore complex ideas, to get to the truth of things, to open up issues and problems, to uncover assumptions, to analyze concepts, to distinguish what we know from what we don’t know, to follow out logical implications of thought or to control the discussion…. Socratic questioning is systematic, disciplined, deep and usually focuses on fundamental concepts, principles, theories, issues or problems.
The art of Socratic questioning is intimately connected with critical thinking because the art of questioning is important to excellence of thought.
Critical thinking and Socratic questioning both seek meaning and truth. Critical thinking provides the rational tools to monitor, assess, and perhaps reconstitute or re-direct our thinking and action. This is what educational reformer John Dewey described as Reflective Inquiry: “in which the thinker turns a subject over in the mind, giving it serious and consecutive consideration.”
I emphasize Socratic questioning and critical thinking in addressing public issues, because it is fundamentally important to ask the right questions right, in order to get good or useful answers.
Time for creative leadership
In his seminal book, Leadership (Harper and Row, New York, 1978), the political scientist James Macgregor Burns first presented his much-praised theory of Transforming (or transformational) Leadership, as distinguished from transactional leadership.
I will discuss the theory in another time, but for now I will focus on an insightful comment he made on the transformational presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Burns wrote:
“It is significant that the enduring New Deal emerged not out of Roosevelt’s hundred days of 1933, when he gave a brilliant demonstration of executive leadership, but out of ‘the second hundred days’ of 1935, which emerged out of decades of intellectual ferment, political action, and legislative as well as executive policy-making. It is significant too that, to the degree that Labor brought fundamental change to Britain during the late 1940s these achievements had their source in decades of intellectual creativity, ideological ferment, policy conflict, and political organizing – especially party-building. Executive leadership, to produce intended real change, must be solidly found in power and principle.”
This is not well-known. We think the reforms of the hundred days made the New Deal happen. In fact, the work of creativity and innovative leadership came after.
It is not in the halcyon and early days of power where the leader does his greatest deeds. It is in the more sober and sustained periods of trial, where real accomplishments are made. In the early days, achievements tend to be flash-in-the pan; later, they prove more lasting and meaningful.
I mention this here because we are now past the first 200 days of the Duterte presidency. It has now entered a phase of major challenge, when its capability and commitment to reform will be tested. This is a time when Duterte’s leadership will be on under greater scrutiny, when the results of his reforms will be charted and measured, and when his capacity for political leadership of both the Executive and Congress will be determined.
Because DU30 has staked so much of his leadership on the drug war, the evaluation of the Duterte presidency will depend to a significant degree on how the drug war will be adjusted, sustained or concluded. Qualities of personality and character will become more of a factor for success in undertakings.
In the end, the verdict on this most unusual and iconoclastic presidency will depend on results. We will know DU30 to be either transforming or transactional, according to Burns’ terminology. What SWS or Pulse Asia say will become irrelevant.