Reckless.Offensive. Callous. Misogynistic. Psychotic. Any of these words, and more, can be used to describe President Rodrigo Duterte’s gutter thinking and foul mouth. His latest tirade against former US President Barack Obama makes it clear, however, that “racist” needs to be added to the stinking mix.
Taking potshots at politicians is par for the course and an American president is fair game. So maybe it was not that difficult to brush off the moment when Duterte called Obama “son of a whore.” But since spitting out that particular epithet in 2016,Duterte has sunk deeper into the cesspit. He has renewed his attack on Obama and called him “so very black and arrogant” and told him to “go to hell.”
Duterte has cursed the Pope and joked about rape and murder. He has notoriously vowed to kill 100,000 people, or those he considers to be “drug-pushers, hold-up men and do-nothings,” and to dump their bodies in Manila Bay to fatten the fish. He has boasted about personally killing people, even relishing the recollection. In December 2016 he admitted to a BBC reporter that he shot dead three people while he was mayor of Davao. “I don’t know how many bullets from my gun went inside their bodies. It happened and I cannot lie about it,“ he said. A few days ago, speaking before the Filipino community in Danang in Vietnam, he said that when he was a teenager he had stabbed someone to death “just over a look.”
This kind of talk cannot be excused as being merely “colorful language,” or “hyperbole,” or jest, as Duterte’s fork-tongued spokesmen would have us believe. The Philippine president is speaking like a bloodthirsty psychopath.
Duterte’s ugly, invective-filled speeches and horrific pronouncements stomp on every convention, courtesy and nicety required by serious diplomacy. Not only has he upended “political correctness,” he has also violated basic common decency that people everywhere have a right to expect.
Like other people of color, Filipinos have long been oppressed by racism and are forced every day to endure the brunt of racist thinking and action. Rightly, we react and protest against every insult and slur, real or perceived. And we are even more sensitive to racism when we are out of the country.
Filipino-Americans resent being called “Flips” and “gooks.” We think the biscuits that resemble Oreo cookies, described as “black on the outside, white on the inside,” and known as “Filipinos,” are racist. In 2013, UK-based Canadian comedian Katherine Ryan came under flak, and even received death threats, after she told a joke on a BBC comedy show that mocked cosmetic testing: “We don’t use any of our products on animals. We use Filipino children.” Prince Philip, the 96-year-oldhusband and consort of Queen Elizabeth II, who enjoys a reputation for being gaffe-prone, drew ire for his remark about the Philippines being left “half-empty,” as “you’re all here,” addressing a Filipino nurse employed by the UK’s National Health Service (NHS).
Yet Filipino outrage was muted when Duterte insulted Jews. In September 2016, he admiringly referred to the Holocaust and embraced genocide as a model, and Hitler as someone to emulate. “Hitler massacred three million Jews,” he said. “Now there are three million drug addicts. I’d be happy to slaughter them.” When he gave the middle finger in a rude gesture at EU lawmakers, who condemned the thousands of extrajudicial killings occurring in the country, his listeners, a group of local businessmen, cheered and clapped. When he threatened to slap the French UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial executions, Agnes Callamard, in the face, his words were greeted with whoops of delight.
Politicians fear being laughed at. A scornful citizenry has the power to wreck political careers and topple governments. “Against the assault of laughter,” said the American writer and satirist Mark Twain, “nothing can stand.” But we are laughing alongside, not at, the buffoon. Has Duterte tapped into some reservoir of bigotry, racism and hate within us?
Jo Koy, the wildly popular Filipino-American stand-up comic, has joked about such uncomfortable issues as Filipino racism and prejudice toward black people. In the Netflix series, Jo Koy: Live from Seattle, the comic performs a set in which he recounts the reception his family gave to André, his sister’s black fiancé. “I’m just gonna be honest with you, I’m gonna put it all out there,” he begins. “No one is indirectly more racist than Filipino moms.”
André is described as “daaaark. There’s black. Then there’s nighttime.” As Jo Koy tells it, when his mother first met her future son-in-law, she hid her purse, fried a batch of chicken, and put basketball on the TV. The familiar stereotypes result in an explosion of laughter from the audience who recognize the racism. But his mom does not completely get away with it. Jo Koy says: “I go: Mom, you know what you did. Stop right now.”
Filipinos have yet to say the same thing to Duterte. Speaking at a forum on drugs in Manila in May this year, Carl Hart, a neuroscientist and professor at New York’s Columbia University, refuted the President’s claim that the drug shabu “shrinks brains.” Duterte called him a “fool” and his research “bullshit.” When Callamard endorsed Hart’s findings in a tweet, the President said, “she should go to [sic]a honeymoon with that black guy.” The President’s supporters showered Hart with death threats and he was forced to flee the Philippines.
Duterte talks like an unapologetic and unreconstructed Ku Klux Klan thug. He does not care to represent his country in any way that garners international respect. He is embarrassing the nation and shaming us all. It’s time we said “stop!” right now.