Duterte’s language-games

What makes President Duterte an interesting speaker is that, whatever the occasion, the audience never quite knows what to expect. His habit of discarding prepared speeches has become emblematic of this basic refusal to abide by the conventions of formal speech.

Consider his pronouncement last Tuesday, before a gathering of the country’s top business leaders and foreign diplomats: “Guys, I want you to know that I am thinking of resigning because I’m tired. I am not angry with anybody. My chase against corrupt government officials seems to be endless, and it has contaminated almost all government departments and offices.” Lowering his eyes, he then intones: “I do not think that I can fulfill my promise to the people. I said I will try to stop corruption, which I’m doing. But I cannot succeed even beyond my term.”

“What is he saying?” a friend texted me. “Is he stepping down?” I think that the key to interpreting Mr. Duterte is to focus on the language-game he is playing, rather than on the literal meaning of his words.

“Words are deeds,” wrote the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein.  They may often be used not to convey thoughts, but to perform an activity. The term that Wittgenstein coined for this type of activity is: “language-game.” Accordingly, in trying to understand President Duterte’s recent statements, it will be more useful to ask what he’s doing, rather than what he’s saying.

I don’t believe he is about to resign, or intends to step down — now or before the end of his term. Certainly, he looks exhausted and exasperated. He gives off the impression, doubtless unintended, that, with the presidency, he has bitten off more than he could chew. Still, if one carefully examines his statements, it would be clear that resignation is farthest from his mind. Kit Tatad, in his column, asks if he hasn’t lost it — a fair question, I’m sure, but only a psychiatrist can make that judgment 

As a sociologist, I am interested in the ways people use language. That’s the reason I find Wittgenstein’s approach to language fascinating. He says that people do countless things  with language. They can give orders, ask, thank, greet, intimidate, or curse. Or they can describe things or events, in which case it is reasonable to inquire into the truth of expressions.

In the extemporaneous talk he gave before the businessmen, Mr. Duterte recounted that he had previously shared the same thoughts of stepping down with top military and police officials. That the speech before the top brass of the armed services took place is, no doubt, true. And, his account of what he said on that occasion may also be accurate.

If that be the case, then it’s important to ask what he’s doing. What language-game is he playing? What effects on his audiences does he seek to produce?

I suspect that at least two games are at play in these recent speeches:  Game No. 1: “I am your last card”; and Game No. 2: “Cut me some slack.”

In the “I-am-your-last-card” language-game, Duterte reiterates a message he first articulated during the presidential debates. It has since become a familiar refrain that we keep hearing in almost all his off-script speeches. It goes like this:

The country has run out of options. Duterte is its last card, a leader recruited from the margins. He may be unpolished, ill-mannered, and in his advanced years, but he is the only one bold enough to overturn a dysfunctional social order. He does not need the presidency, not the power nor the honor it brings. He is ready to quit anytime. But, if he steps down, think of the chaos his successor would be facing.

A military junta maybe? He brings up this frightening scenario in a contrasting nonchalant tone. You don’t have to conspire to get rid of me, he tells the country’s military and police; I will voluntarily hand over the reins of government to you. But, without actually saying so, he also asks if this is a headache the military needs, or if the public would prefer to be governed extraconstitutionally by soldiers.

“Cut-me-some-slack” is a game he first introduced in one paragraph of his 2016 inaugural address: “In this fight, I ask Congress and the Commission on Human Rights and all others who are similarly situated to allow us a level of governance that is consistent to our mandate. The fight will be relentless and it will be sustained.” I interpret the plea for “a level of governance consistent with our mandate” as a polite way of telling his critics: “Get off my back” or “Stop giving me a hard time.”

“I do not think that I can fulfill my promise to the people. I said I will try to stop corruption, which I’m doing. But I cannot succeed even beyond my term,” he told the business leaders. Far from being an admission of failure, Mr. Duterte was actually reiterating a point he expressed on Day One of his presidency: “I know what I’m doing. Don’t throw the Constitution at me each time I do something out-of-the-box. ”

Sal Panelo, the President’s chief legal counsel, correctly reads his principal’s message in an interview he gave to ANC: “Well, perhaps what he is saying is, if you follow the Constitution, there are many restrictions that will tie the President in doing things that should be done. And a military junta, if ever there is one, would not follow the Constitution, and whoever is placed by the military junta could do things extraconstitutionally.”

That doesn’t sound to me like a confirmation that his boss is about to resign. Indeed, it sounds more like a warning that this President is prepared to bend the law to make it conform to what he thinks is necessary to solve the nation’s problems.