We certainly got our money’s worth of name-calling and mudslinging in the second presidential debate. We were treated to Senator Grace Poe’s haranguing of Vice-President Jejomar Binay, whom she just stopped short of calling a thief. On his part, Binay questioned Poe’s loyalty to her country and, referring to Hitler’s notorious chief propagandist, for reasons he kept to himself, went on to call Poe and former secretary Mar Roxas “disciples of Goebbels.” Mayor Rodrigo Duterte simply let rip. He called Roxas “pretentious,” a “fraud,” a “weak leader,” “like a moron” and “like a zombie.” Roxas preferred to deal in insinuations and met every accusation with the sort of smug, supercilious smile that is probably a genetic tic.
Name-calling among political candidates aspiring for high office, and the way candidates react to accusation and insult, captures our attention because it is shocking and amusing. But also because we think that the display of churlish behavior gives us insight into their personalities. In heated exchanges, the politician who lets their guard down, lets the polished mask slip, reveals their honest thoughts and displays their true character. One media pundit went so far as to make the preposterous claim that a sharp riposte delivered in the English language equates with the virtue of manliness. “Duterte spoke English like a real man, Hemingway style,” Teddy Locsin, Jr. puffed.
Name-calling and insult-hurling have a long and distinguished history. In late nineteenth-century Europe, our expatriate intellectual patriot heroes, José Rizal, Antonio Luna, Marcelo H. del Pilar and others, were supremely good at doing both. Del Pilar had nothing positive to say about Spanish commoners and called them frivolous, without ideals and conviction. Rizal, outraged by a respected female Spanish novelist who had attacked Filipinos in the Madrid press, dispensed with polite niceties. “She is a despicable whore,” he said. He also accused the writer of being a prostitute, adding, with a final anti-Semitic sneer, that she even had sex with Jews. Graciano López Jaena reserved his most vicious name-calling for the Spanish friars in the Philippines whom he vilified in his satires. He called them brutes – sexually depraved, gluttonous, liars, cheats, foundlings and porn addicts. He, too, added a gratuitous anti-Semitic jibe saying the friars were worse usurers than Jewish money-lenders.
Antonio Luna took aim at a Spanish editor of a newspaper who accused the Filipinos of being effeminate, dirty, indecent ingrates. Luna went on a rampage. He searched out the offensive journalist in a Madrid café and, in full public view, spat in his face. “I told him he was infamous, a coward, and a cur” Luna blustered. Punning on the man’s name with the Spanish word for excreta, Luna challenged the offender to a pistol duel.
All this bravado was meant to defend Filipino honor and assert the moral superiority of Filipinos. Or, specifically, to show that elite Filipinos, such as our illustrious patriots, were civilized, gentlemanly, and chivalrous, and not the uncouth and backward mass lacking in courage, passion, and good taste as portrayed by their racist Spanish detractors.
Name-calling is not confined between individuals. Governments can be beautifully skilled at taking down a leader who doesn’t toe the line or bend to the will of more powerful nations. The diplomatic historian Andrew J. Rotter has recounted how, during the Cold War, the US and British governments helped depose the newly elected Prime Minister of Iran, Mohammed Mossadeq, in a coup in 1953. British and American officials called the Iranian PM “fragile,” “emotional,” “hysterical,” “immature” and “effeminate” – all the sorts of female-associated traits that disqualified a man from leading an oil-rich nation. Mossadeq’s unforgivable offense was to demand that his nation had more of a share, through nationalization, of the profits from Iranian oil generated by a British oil company which had, for years, been siphoning off the majority of its profits to Britain and had exerted considerable influence in Iran’s politics.
Name-calling is powerful. It can delegitimize leaders; it can be about honor and patriotism. Sometimes, however, it doesn’t amount to anything much but hot air politicking. This, I think, sums up the name-calling that occurred in the second presidential debate. Since none of the presidential candidates are guided by any discernible political ideology in their thinking, resorting to name-calling came across as merely tactical point scoring. After all is said and done, Binay recognizes Poe as a kumare and dismisses her attacks as “just politics.”
All the name-calling in the debate distracted us from really listening to the candidates’ stance on important issues. Duterte’s grasp of environmental and climate change issues seemed limited. He called the UN and all developed nations “hypocrites’ and we know that he fully supports coal-fired power plants. Poe thinks it is a good idea to open more prisons, lower corporate income tax, and doesn’t quite know what to do if China attacked Philippine coast guard ships. Binay repeatedly accused the government of under-spending and vowed to spend more if elected; and Roxas is set to continue the daang matuwid approach which is noted for broken promises and has accomplished little to alleviate mass poverty. Each of these positions, if you can call them that, cries out for elaboration and much closer scrutiny than they have been given. But they are not what made the debate memorable or even interesting.
Name-calling, instead, seemed to be the arbiter of the presidential candidates’ conduct.
Rachel A.G. Reyes is a historian of Southeast Asia and author of Love, Passion and Patriotism: sexuality and the Philippine propaganda movement, 1882-1892 (2008).