It is no exaggeration to say that the world is by turns aghast, appalled and enthralled by President Rodrigo Duterte. Unless the country is ravaged by a supertyphoon, the Philippines rarely receives this much international media attention. From agreeing to a hero’s burial for a dictator kleptocrat, promising to eradicate drugs in six months by killing pushers and addicts alike, and the running total is tipping over 2,000 murders, to calling President Barack Obama a “son of a whore.” Mr. Duterte, just in terms of sheer newsworthiness, is a gift that keeps on giving.
It is clear that none of his speechwriters, no member of his communications team, or his spokesperson, can rein him in and prevent his incredible tirades, that is, if they are actually trying to. The man will not simply divert and digress from his prepared speeches. He will not only resort to hyperbole and bluster. He does not simply speak what is in his heart and mind. He fumes.
He uses words that are intended to hurt, offend, abuse and insult. His deplorable attacks against Senator Leila de Lima, one of his harshest critics, accusing her of immorality and conspiring with drug dealers, come from a very dark place. Of similar provenance are the jokes that he cracks which culminate in sickeningly misogynistic punchlines. He insinuates, he maligns. Then back tracks. His words, he says, were not meant to be taken seriously. He shrugs his shoulders and denies that he was being personal. He blames local journalists for misquoting him and scorns the foreign press for making ill informed judgments about the country. Vulgarity and debasing the language of diplomacy and political rhetoric are looking like the Duterte presidential hallmark.
But just how important is verbal politesse and political eloquence, anyway, when a President is getting things done? Surely, as many argue, a cussing President who thinks nothing of puerile name-calling, is a paltry price to pay if concrete changes for the greater good are being made and promises kept? Moreover, to many, Duterte is coming across as authentic, as being a man of the people, a true outsider, a real anti-imperial Manila figure. Some of the country’s leading feminists have voiced their support for him. Even before he was elected, Luzviminda Ilagan of the leftist pro-women party, GABRIELA, applauded his initiatives in Davao that included a crisis shelter for women and a protection unit for children. In defiance of the Catholic Church, Duterte has promised to curb the country’s exploding population and ensure universal access to contraception. His appointments to the ministries of education, the environment, and agrarian reform, have been praised for their astuteness. He is attempting to end the long running war against communists and Muslim rebels through peaceful negotiation. He is taking a conciliatory stance toward China with regard to the West Philippine Sea. With the latest insult against the President of the United States, he is, as some quarters are now arguing, a genuine anti-colonial nationalist. His popularity ratings continue to surge upward. By harping on about the vulgarization of political discourse, Duterte’s critics seem to be missing the point by a long margin.
No other Filipino President in the history of the Philippines has flouted the rules of diplomatic etiquette so brazenly, nor used language so crassly as Duterte. Manuel L. Quezon (1935-1944) took pride in being sophisticated and dapper both in language and dress. The embattled Elpidio Quirino (1948-1953) and the obsequious but charming Ramon Magsaysay (1953-1957), both mediocre orators, would never think of insulting a US Ambassador to the Philippines. That “putang ina” is a favored public utterance of a Filipino President and, more profoundly, used to project power is truly unique.
Anthropologists have shown that in places like Indonesia and the Philippines, areas sometimes known as ‘island Southeast Asia,’ the concept of power has been construed as “spiritual potency,” an intangible, invisible energy that is sought and accumulated by leaders. This energy might sometimes be obtained through absorption from external sources, such as the defeat and death of an adversary. The accumulation of immense wealth and numerous followers, from which prestige was also derived, were understood to be signs of power. Perhaps less predictably, powerful and spiritually potent people were not distinguished by their brute forcefulness, nor by their direct and active aggression, qualities commonly associated with power in the Western world. Rather, they were known by their asceticism, inner concentration, contemplativeness, steadfastness and restraint. Spiritually powerful heroes were not traditionally portrayed as hulking, bellowing giants. They were of slender build, almost fragile-looking, with downcast eyes and a calm, mindful demeanor. Emblematic of this tradition is Arjuna, the iconic hero of Javanese legends frequently depicted in ancient narrative temple reliefs of Java and shadow puppet theater known as wayang. In these stories, Arjuna’s immense power and noble character is apparent in his delicate features, slight body, graceful movements, and a low and gentle voice.
The Arjuna model of a leader would today not capture the Filipino vote. The appearance of physical frailty suggests weakness and emasculation. Restraint seems outdated and indicative of flakiness. A few days ago, Duterte declared that he would eat Abu Sayyaf terrorists alive. “You know I can eat humans,” he threatened. “I will really open up your body. Just give me vinegar and salt and I will eat you… raw.” Duterte’s belligerent, warrior-form of masculinity holds us in thrall. His crassness is swooningly powerful.
At a time when we most need it, we are roundly rejecting informed and reasoned argument, civility and persuasiveness delivered with eloquent lightness by a noble, wise and silver-tongued Arjuna.