By FORMER VICE PRESIDENT JEJOMAR C. BINAY
Just recently, a legislator, reacting to the controversy involving the Bureau of Corrections (BuCor) and its officials, expressed his preference for a “killer” to head the agency. Normally such a brazen declaration from a public official would not pass quietly. But it was reported matter of factly, receiving at best mild indignation in the opinion pages. In social media, however, the outrageous idea was roundly cheered by administration partisans who proclaimed it as a final solution to the chronic corruption in the agency. The same can be said of a public pronouncement of high-level dislike for media, one media entity in particular, punctuated by cussing and a reference to body odor which the audience found amusing.
In the past, bullies and hotheads in government were more the exception. Their coarse demeanor and language stood out. Today, they seem to have grown exponentially.
When media provides regular and even prominent space for coarse language from our leaders, such behavior becomes normal and acceptable over time. The dignity and decorum associated with high office becomes a casualty. On Facebook and Twitter, the preferred message delivery system of administration partisans and trolls, such behavior is seeded to further consolidate the base who feast heartily on a buffet of curses directed at political opponents, women, media, and the clergy. But crude words on social media are not the exclusive franchise of administration supporters. Opposition partisans can be as crude and as mean. There are times when social media becomes so toxic that the only recourse is to log off.
Of course there are those who argue that we should look beyond the coarse language and appreciate the performance. However, debate becomes almost certain on this point. Some sectors would contest that there have been improvements in traffic, peace and order, and the administration of justice. A claim that the economy is doing well is countered by numbers showing a slowdown in economic growth. Glowing economic figures, they maintain, do not put food on the table of the poor, especially our rice farmers. On this and many issues of performance, we are bound to descend to more partisan bickering.
By now, acute observers have seen a pattern behind the crude language and behavior exhibited by some public officials. These are not simple public tantrums but well-designed events, they say. They are either trial balloons — meant to probe the limits of power and approval — or precursors of official action. A storm of invectives against a government official or agency is almost always followed by the firing of the official or a major shake-up of the agency. The same applies to perceived critics and political opponents. High-level attacks against them usually precede a police investigation followed by the filing of charges. More often, observers would say that the crude words are diversionary tactics to shift public attention from a major policy gaffe, an embarrassing situation, or a controversial decision.
The high volume of coarse rhetoric we are now witnessing may also have a longer, more strategic goal: it can be seen as positioning or framing for the next elections. The intent is to gain forward momentum for the 2022 polls, to create a demand for a national leadership cut from the same cloth as the current one. This would explain the outrageous statements and bizarre behavior of some national personalities.
If this is a correct assessment, this poses a challenge to all of us: will 2022 be a course correction, or will the country continue on the same route we are being taken by our leaders?
We have become a nation divided along partisan lines. Our mores and values are being debased. Coarseness in language and behavior seems to have afflicted the populace, or a portion of the populace. Consider recent social media videos — viral enough to be carried by mainstream media outlets — of a group of men cursing and assaulting a TNVS driver over a simple misunderstanding. A close-circuit camera captures teenagers throwing rocks at each other for no apparent reason. A cellphone camera records a police officer in civilian clothes menacingly pointing his firearm at a motorist. Such conduct is clearly encouraged, protestations to the contrary, by the examples set by national leaders. Instead of talking, citizens readily turn against each other. There is no room for reason or for sober discussion. Politically, citizens are made to choose between being DDS and “dilawan,” with no middle ground.
Pardon me if I keep repeating myself, but the past three years may well be considered as the years we began losing our civility, both in public discourse and even our private conduct. Do we want our children and grandchildren to live in a country of bullies and hotheads? That is our moral challenge.