Method in the madness?

In his public appearances here and abroad, President Duterte has been using a form of speech that may be likened to a dialect. He is not talking the way most heads of state talk. Too often, he has employed taboo language not usually heard in public discourse.

That is why his official spokespersons—people designated to explain what he’s saying—are having a hard time interpreting his speeches. They can’t say for sure what he means, or if he means at all everything that he says.

Yet, since he’s the president, they must assume that he does.  The problem is compounded by the fact that the President also likes to speak extemporaneously in English, of whose idioms he clearly has no command. This makes his speeches seemingly accessible to foreigners, though in fact they are not.

For example, I don’t think he is supposed to be taken literally when, during his recent visit to Beijing, he told his predominantly Filipino audience that he was inclined to form a triumvirate with China and Russia—“against the world.”  That sounds more like a line from the 1974 song “You and Me Against the World,” than a serious foreign policy statement.

Anyone who proposes anything like that must be out of his mind, or is patently ignorant of the complex relationship between China and Russia, or completely misunderstands the nature of the contemporary world. Mr. Duterte could be any of these. But, I prefer to think he’s just joking. Perhaps he may even be only half-joking. Because of its barefaced absurdity, the statement retains its plausible deniability.

“When people talk,” observes the psycholinguist Steven Pinker, “they lay lines on each other, do a lot of role-playing, sidestep, shilly-shally, and engage in other forms of vagueness and innuendo.  We all do this, and we expect others to do it, yet at the same time we profess to long for plain speaking, for people to get to the point and say what they mean, simple as that. Such hypocrisy is a human universal.”

I think the President has become so used to being applauded for his folksy verbal games—such as when he trails off with barely audible expletives to communicate mocking exasperation—that he has felt confident to bring his signature performance to audiences abroad. What this really amounts to is nothing more than a particular way of being irreverent and funny by mining the hypocritical side of a speech culture.

If he were not president, he would probably have made an outstanding Filipino version of Lenny Bruce or George Carlin.  One can imagine these American stand-up artists having a field day satirizing the world of diplomacy and governance to which they are outsiders.  But what a disaster it would be if President Duterte, or any head of state for that matter, plays such games within the system into which he has been thrust.

The least that could happen is that he would be misunderstood. People would not know when he is articulating policy or merely verbalizing a personal angst.  Without the benefit of clear policy statements, his administration could be plunged into chaos. If he persists in ignoring the procedural norms of the institutional system over which he presides, he could lose credibility, and, before long, the authority to speak for it.

None of this is certain.  Much depends on what public opinion encourages him to do, and, so far, his approval and trust ratings remain high.  I think the surveys indicate that Filipinos want him to succeed, and while they may be wary about where he’s taking the nation, they are giving him the benefit of the doubt.  So, let us assume for a moment that there is method in this madness.

Mr. Duterte would have thought that, because of his shady human rights record as Davao City mayor, he would never have been America’s preferred candidate for the Philippine presidency. He would have known that anything he did in his war on drugs would be subjected to the human rights and rule of law test by which America and the Western world put Third World autocrats on the defensive.  In short, he would have known he had nothing to gain from trying to please the United States or the European Union or the United Nations. Thus, he decided he did not need their approval. Perhaps he even believed that the only way he might earn their grudging respect is by antagonizing them.

But China is a different matter.  First of all, it is known that Mr. Duterte is keen to set himself apart from the pro-West elite that had ruled the Philippines for so long. The pivot to China is an eloquent expression of that wish. Secondly, by appearing to break with the West, he is telling China that he is not just another American stooge who speaks with a forked tongue.

What might he hope to gain from this dramatic turn to China?  Two things perhaps: One, he needs China’s presence to neutralize America’s power in the country and the rest of the Asian region. Two, he hopes to get China to jump-start the country’s own long-term agenda for self-propelling economic growth.

It could be a clever strategy, but, to the extent that it entails burning longstanding bridges, it is one filled with incalculable risk for the nation as a whole. It fails to reckon with the enduring American influence that, whether we like it or not, resides in our people’s consciousness and is built into our institutions. In like manner, it overestimates the capacity of Filipinos to rise overnight above deeply rooted racial prejudices and take a purely pragmatic view of the country’s relationship with China.

These factors are not only cultural; they are also structural.  No single individual, not even the willful Mr. Duterte, can hope to overturn them in the short span of six years by a mere shift in rhetoric. Moreover, I also believe that no form of mendicancy can be good for our country.