The bullying of Leni Robredo

It all began from the first day she assumed the vice presidency. Flushed with their success at the polls, President Duterte and his people acted as if she did not exist. To them, she was just an annoying reminder that their electoral victory was not total. She was not invited to the inaugural at the Palace. In those rare occasions where their joint attendance was expected, the President barely acknowledged her presence.

In keeping with the pretense of magnanimity after a bruising campaign, Mr. Duterte appointed Robredo as head of the Housing and Urban Development Coordinating Council (HUDCC). By itself this was not a Cabinet level position. But, since she was the Vice President, like former VP Noli de Castro who had held the same position, she was made a member of the Cabinet. It didn’t take long, however, before she would be barred from Cabinet meetings. The justification given was that, as the leader of the opposition, she could not be fully trusted.

The President said so himself. He preferred to belittle her capability in his speeches rather than formally demand her resignation. Out of delicadeza, she resigned. But that did not stop the ritual of degradation to which she was subjected. The President’s trolls continued to portray her as a useless public official, amplifying the oft-repeated canard that this soft-spoken woman was an ignoramus and a weakling.

Still, she remained unfazed by the personal attacks against her. It was as though she had taken a vow of humility. She kept busy  at her job, doing what she could with the limited powers and resources of her office.  It couldn’t be helped that foreign media would seek her out for her views on a range of issues—including the controversial war on drugs. She was, after all, the Vice President.

So low is the President’s estimation of her capabilities, largely a function of his misogyny, that it is a wonder that he would bother at all with whatever she says in her interviews. Robredo’s critical comments on the conduct of the drug war apparently pricked his machismo. How dare you, he seemed to tell her.

That was how the so-called “offer” for her to lead the anti-illegal drugs campaign was made. It wasn’t an offer at all. It was just another one of those puerile statements that issue from the President’s mouth whenever he’s having a tantrum. “Let’s see you do it your way,” he was telling her. I will appoint you and give you all the powers you need to end the drug problem, he mocked her.

The more the President talked, the more the taunting took the form of a challenge for VP Leni to prove once and for all her worth as a public servant. Sensing what his boss was up to, the Malacañang spin master Sal Panelo chimed in and gave the presidential outburst the tone of a statesmanlike gesture. They thought they were having the fun of their lives at somebody else’s expense.

To their utter surprise, the lady accepted the offer, publicly setting aside all her reservations. She took their every word at face value and called their bluff.

She did not make a fuss over the fact that the formal position to which Malacañang eventually appointed her—as cochair of the little-known Inter-Agency Committee on Anti-Illegal Drugs—was far from the role of drug war czar into which they had initially cast her. She did what every responsible civil servant would do upon being appointed to a position—meet with the people you’re going to work with, get a good grasp of the problem, and seek the counsel of experts and international agencies that have been dealing with the problem much longer and on a broader scale. She laid out her own  understanding of what success meant in the war on drugs and what needed to be done.

Three weeks after they foolishly challenged her to lead the antidrug war, the President and his minions have begun to panic. VP Leni is getting all the attention and praise that a devoted public servant richly deserves. You can’t just fire someone like that without giving the impression that you are envious or afraid that she might succeed.

Unable to wait for her to commit an egregious mistake, Mr. Duterte and his men have taken to portraying every move she makes as a threat to national security.  They’re insulting the public’s sensibility. They really just want her to quit, the way she quit as chair of the HUDCC out of a sense of propriety. But this time around, I could see that Robredo is determined not to be bullied into giving up. They would have to fire her.

The other day, I participated in a session on bullying in schools at the recent “Ako Para Sa Bata” International Conference held in Manila. I came away from that discussion with the insight that what makes bullying (in person or in cyberspace) particularly potent is the presence of an audience. Bullying is performative violence in need of an audience. Without an audience that confers approval by applause or tacit consent by silence, bullying would have little effect.

It occurred to me that the kind of bullying we now find in the nation’s political life is no different. More than ever, it draws its oxygen from the kind of audience participation that is mobilized through social media.  If we allow trolls to control that poisoned sphere by doing nothing or, worse, by joining in the heckling through the various tools now available on various social media platforms, victims of bullying have no one to turn to for support or validation of their self-worth. They turn inward, and a growing number take their own lives.

Without the power to control the narrative, VP Leni’s resignation at this point would be a form of suicide. We should not allow that to happen.