• Rhetoric, symbols, gray areas


    A LITTLE over a week with the new President and I have a sinking feeling that what informs much of our opinions about how this country should be run is a closet conservatism, if not a closet Catholicism, that is very rabid about choosing between black and white.

    Here, one finds that we apparently don’t like gray areas, and in this sense President Duterte will always fail: rhetoric pa lang, talo na siya.

    The transition period
    I’ve been judged as someone who is faltering on principles, on fundamental beliefs about human rights, given my general silence about the killings of alleged drug dealers and drug lords after Duterte won the elections.

    But it was really just about this: in the month or so between the time the President won the election and took his oath, my attitude was that the only person to blame for the killings and roundups should’ve been then President Noynoy Aquino. After all, he was still President, and he was still responsible for the peace and order situation in the country. The truth is no matter what the then President-elect was saying, PNoy was still in charge.

    But no one made him take responsibility, and we did not hear a peep from him about the roundups and killings. Mainstream and social media had pretty much agreed that this was all because of the President-elect’s rhetoric. In the process, we let PNoy get away with it.

    And when then President-elect Duterte acknowledged the killings, saying that it’s entirely possible that it is the policemen themselves who are killing potential witnesses who might squeal on them, few discussed this as one of many possible explanations for the killings.

    After all, it was easier to pin what was happening on the ground to the then President-elect’s rhetoric. Discussions were not welcome.

    Beyond rhetoric
    Now as President Duterte, the international media, with data from local media, have been talking about the Philippines given the roundups and deaths. Aljazeera.com has reported 45 killings since June 30 (as of July 5), all with “suspected links to drug trafficking.”

    On July 5 Duterte announced the names of police generals who in one way or the other have become embroiled in the drug trade. “Ito ‘yung mga tao who were given the honor to join the academies of our country, the PNP or the PMA, at the expense of the public. … By any language, it is really treason. Huwag ninyong lokohin ang bayan sa panahon ko kasi hindi ako papayag.”

    We are reminded that this is the rhetoric that won the President this election, but also it is rhetoric that is being proven to be anything but just that, because there are directives and orders that are affecting what is happening on the ground, and it is—good or bad—a fulfillment of the promise Duterte made during his campaign.

    This is what keeps me in this gray area, it’s what forces me onto it, because while I did not vote for this President, I respect those who did. Maybe their experience of living in the Philippines is such that the violence that drugs wreak on their lives is very different from my perceptions of it from the distance my social class affords me? Maybe all that I believe about drug rehabilitation, about justice, about jail time, maybe all that is theoretical and not at all what is true or correct for those who are actually victimized by the illegal drug trade?

    I do not mind that this President’s beliefs put mine into question, and that the vote of 16 million Filipinos has necessarily put me in my place, gray area as that place might be. As a good friend has told me: it’s only when you’ve been in that gray area can you even decide to go in either direction of black or white. At least if those are options at all.

    First 100 days
    Since Duterte won the elections, I have accepted an almost schizophrenia, always doing a double-take, always rethinking, reassessing, reconsidering where I stand on issues.

    Because, on the one hand, there is the President’s iron-fist method of dealing with criminals that requires a discussion about human rights, about crime and the right to live free from fear, about crime and the criminal’s rights to due process. On the other, this is the first President I’ve seen who is very clear about what nation needs, about how the marginalized and poor have suffered enough, about who it is we need in government, and what kind of government we need.

    There are those appointments from the militant sector, yes. But also there are symbolic decisions, ones that are premised on what is best for nation, even when it might not be seen as “presidential.” Say, sitting down with militant activists who were escorted from Mendiola and into the Palace on inauguration day. Breaking bread with the poor that same evening, and telling them “Kaunting tiis pa” instead of making impossible promises. Meeting with the Vice President and bringing her to her car afterward—a breach in protocol, but what a gentleman would do. Appearing at the Gilas game and raising his fist to the chanting crowd. Wearing the Philippine flag and the plainest of barongs on inauguration day.

    The decision to not rock the boat with China any more than the past administration already has, and as per Foreign Affairs Secretary Perfecto Yasay, searching for a special envoy to China (I suggest Chito Sta. Romana, please!), only bodes well for peace over Scarborough Shoal. It is also consistent with his directive to begin peace talks with the Communist Party, as well as create the conditions for peace in Mindanao. There is also the freedom he has given Cabinet Secretaries as far as serving the people is concerned, including fixing the benefits for and status of contractual employees, and opening up gates closed on impoverished farmers for years.

    Others have said they are cautiously optimistic. I am constantly optimistic but necessarily critical, balancing the rhetoric with the actions, the articulations with the symbols. I am also critical of myself, and am happy to stay in this gray area in the meantime. With President Duterte, I’m pretty sure I’m going to be here for a while.


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    1. If you were an honest journalist (a rare commodity), you would use a photo of how you look today, rather than one when you were younger and cute as a chipmunk.

    2. It is refreshing to see a journalist who tries to view events from a neutral point of view. There may be nothing at all wrong with being in the gray. The press should be critical, but it should be critical in a thoughtful way rather than based on personal bias or in search of headlines rather than facts. Change is happening, that is good for the country, but it has to be analyzed critically. I think the leadership is more open to honest criticism than many want to believe.

    3. I don’t think the president can multi-tasks….siguro mga kanan at kaliwang kamay ang magdedesisyon? I guess sasabihin nya_ “bahala na kayo sa economics, foreign affairs at iba pa. di ko alam yan dito na lang muna ako sa criminality, uuwi pati ako ngayon weekend sa Davao”……… let’s see when problems come simultaneously…..

    4. Nice perspective, kudos. Your 3rd and 4th paragraphs under sub-article “Beyond rhetoric”…if I were to translate / summarize what these mean, it would be: having an open mind; giving benefit-of-doubt; not being judgmental. Because similar to what your good friend said, unless one has spent enough discernment time ‘in the gray’, and yet makes a conviction, then one has been judgmental

      Now, if the counter-argument to this is to say that, “it is a matter of personal belief”, then I bring up a major news item two weeks ago about what a very high-ranking religious leader said that ‘not to kill’ is absolute…my reaction to that is: If not killing is ABSOLUTE, then what about soldiers, law enforcement personnel and the like, who have to use lethal force as necessary and legally required?…aren’t those actions considered “to kill”?…so then in this situation, where does the concept of being ABSOLUTE come into play?

      • Jojo whoever the high ranking religious leader saying that “not killing is ABSOLUTE” remind him of Sodom and Gomorrah and Noah’s Ark,

    5. There are times that Pilipinos make mistake in selecting a president. That happened during Pnoy election. 6 years of corruption. 6 years of destroying the middle class thru unjust taxation. When Pnoy left, nobody was sad to see him leave. I was over joyed. He is responsible for the increased criminality due to drugs. President Duterte is just cleaning the mess made by Pnoy. Like President Obama clearing the mess of Ex president Bush.

    6. Chito? Wasn’t Ericson also inside that police fiefdom at the same time? During those early 70s, Chito being from LaSalle altho with the MDP was perceived to be from the “burgis” whose class consciousness would surely be different from Ericson, the KM firebrand. Definitely, the two would have different approaches viz tsai-nha’s adventurism. I wonder what will Joma’s take against his former patron once the PCA ruling comes out next week.

    7. Bravo Ms. Stuart-Santiago! Always looking forward to read your interesting articles especially about President Duterte.

      Keep up the good work.


    8. Amnata Pundit on

      Its called the evolution of one’s values, as nothing is permanently set in stone, including your most basic of beliefs. To accept that we live in an imperfect and imperfectible world can actually be a liberating realization. In the contentious area of human rights, to see the world only from the eyes of the “victims” denies to us the fact that these “victims” who practice their rights by engaging in what the state defines as subversion, sedition, rebellion and drug trafficking are themselves denying other people their own human right to live in a peaceful and harmonious social environment. One may argue that this is not true but there is no absolute truth, especially in politics, only the truth that your conscience can live with. This is the function of the grey area, to give you a place where you can quietly struggle or rationalize with your conscience as you jettison your now seemingly unsupportable beliefs. Been there, done that but in my spiritual, not political beliefs. Good luck on this passage and may the force be with you.