‘Murder is murder’

Associate Justice Marvic Leonen
‘Murder is murder’
We need to publicly speak against government action founded on false ideas. We are complicit when we are not critical.

Below are excepts from the commencement address delivered by Associate Justice Marvic Leonen before graduates of the Ateneo School of Government on August 20, 2016.

The recognition you will receive today is well-deserved. To the Ateneo School of Government, its officers, faculty, and staff, I applaud you for your good work and entertain no doubt that you will continue to do more for our country.

Yet, my congratulations are with hesitations. I am aware of the grave responsibilities with which we all need to live with. I am aware of the patient and deliberate critical thinking that you will need to deploy and the courage you will have to muster to meet these responsibilities.

Let me clarify by starting with a controversial thought: unless we do something about it, we, as a people, are on our way to capitulating to a concept of democracy that does not empower.

Slowly, we are losing our collective power as sovereign. Powers entrenched in the status quo pay lip service to bedrock principles that have been paid for with the blood, sweat, and tears of our heroes. Fundamental sovereign prerogatives and protections are incrementally becoming shibboleths: enshrined in normative text, but devoid of true promise.

It is time that we revisit our culturally ingrained preconceptions. We have to act, individually and as a people, to reclaim and retain our empowerment. We cannot just succumb to things as they are. Human dignity cannot be had only because it is solemnly pronounced. That it is lived requires patient work, consistent advocacy, and vigilance. Our actions will surely cause discomfort for us and for others. But it is time that we discover the courage to do more what is right.

Let me explain further.

I start with a fundamental principle in our most basic law: the Constitution of the Republic of the Philippines. Article II, Section 1 pronounces:

Declaration of Principles and State Policies

SECTION 1. The Philippines is a democratic and republican State. Sovereignty resides in the people and all government authority emanates from them.

The worst thing that we have done to the spirit of this principle is to reduce its normative substance by considering it hortatory. In the words of some of the opinions of our Court: it is one of those provisions that are “not self-executory.” 

In my view, all the words and phrases in the fundamental law are effective. All are “self-executory.” It may not have the civil-law form of a prestation: that is, it does not prescribe what to do, not to do, or to give. Thus, it may not pass the Hohfeldian concept of an enforceable right. Nonetheless, it is, in my view, a powerful frame of reference that disciplines the various standpoints that can be taken in an actual case. Frames are as binding as prestations. They color and animate the construction or the search for meaning in legal provisions, given the facts established in evidence. Frames are powerful tools that fertilize interpretation. These are not trivial tools. They occasion points of view that inspire the Constitution’s motive power: a state that is socially just.

To consider the concept of democracy as too broad or hortatory is to surrender to the dominant view of the essence of democracy that seems common but lacking in critical analysis. This view is often powered by a folk view of the fundamentals of the political philosophy of liberal democracy. In that received and dominant view, the casting of ballots, as well as its correct count, represents democracy. The seeming autonomous act of choosing as we complete our ballot in electoral exercises is not only the representation of the existence of an authentic democratic space. Casting a ballot is considered, in itself, the epitome of democracy. The complexity of democracy is, thus, principally reduced in the excitement of regular elections for political offices.

Viewed this way, democracy thus consists only as the political drama between personalities who are powerful and have the resources to engage in electoral contest. We track their every move, become fixated in their controversies and life stories. We are easily embroiled into meaningless chatter revolving around their reputations.

Trivializing our citizenship

This unfortunate preoccupation buries our fundamental duties as a citizen. It trivializes our citizenship. We fail to discern the ideologies they represent. We mistake conviction for the eloquent sound bite calculated with the proper spin by experts in propaganda. We do not critically evaluate the detail of the programs the candidates propose. The political drama dominates our attention and, thus, conceals from us the true nature of our relationship with our public officers. We lose out on fundamental agents of political programs and ideologies.

The framework with which we view elections reduces the complexity of our people. The electorate is not considered in its individual capacity. We become only a supporting cast. We are not considered in nuanced and historical collective groupings and identities that matter. Rather, we become the stuff that make the numbers, atomized and presented as statistical percentages of voters or demographics of voters. We are not our nuanced selves with strong convictions about various aspects of identity or public policy. Rather, we become categorized as among the A, B, C, D, or E crowd. We are particles reduced to being voters in Metro Manila or its surrounding environs in a survey. We are Luzon, Visayas, and Mindanao in the statistics of polling pundits.

Authentic democracies are not solely equivalent to elections.

Democracy, reduced to the elections, becomes a recipe for entertainment, with eventual disappointment as dessert. It is only during the electoral exercises that candidates attempt to resonate their views with the opinions of the masses. Often, these views are in terms too general to be of any use for concrete assessment of credibility and workability. General statements are passed on as profound political platforms. They grab our attention almost as much as the song-and-dance numbers performed on a political stage.

During elections, we become mere spectators. We imbibe a culture of learned helplessness. We surrender our ability to do collective action after the elections.

After the elections, we endow the winners in an electoral contest with undeserved entitlement. We create kings and queens rather than public servants. We succumb to the narrative that the votes cast in an election legitimize their every program even before these winners have articulated their plans and implemented them.

This should not be the case.

Public officers who win elections are not our masters. They are our agents.

Democracy can be viewed in other ways.

Tolerance of dissenting views presents a more powerful view of democracy.

Dissent not a lonely project

Dissent takes many forms.

Dissent can take the form of the uncouth and impolite slogans shouted by those who take to the streets. It can take the form of the chants and the effigies burned in a manner that may challenge cultural conventions. There is no lack in passion among the mobilized. After all, they speak about their felt lives, their dissatisfaction, and their hope that things can be better. Their alternative may simply be a vision, and this may lack articulation. It may not yet take the form of a pragmatic workable program.

Still, it is dissent.

Dissent can also take the form of the uncomfortable single dissenting opinion expressed in a board or council meeting or written as a separate judicial opinion. In this form, its logic and rationale may be legible, transparent, and cogent. Usually, a dissent does not square with the premises of a majority view. It is uncomfortable when it challenges the status quo.

Dissent in this form is temporal. It is a suggested idea at its inception. It is a seed of subversion. For the time being, it is a view that may not capture the dominant view. It is a relevant idea tentatively articulated and waiting to be fully accepted.

However, there is the danger of putting dissent in the context of a very traditional liberal view that regards it only as a romantic symbolism of democracy.

Traditional liberal theory valorizes the radical individual. It is premised on the idea of the self as separate and autonomous from all others. It sees the dissenter as a lone wolf, a cry in the wilderness. The dissenter is the stranger. His or her ideas may sound different, but they are to be celebrated because they make this person human.

Characterized this way, dissent is marginalized as a curiosity. It foists a weak conception of democracy. It is subterfuge for the maintenance of the dominance of those who are already powerful. In a way, it legitimizes the victory of the status quo in the contests of ideas.

Political action is relevant only when done with others. Ideas become powerful when they can articulate the views of an identity or a community. Thus, ideas are relevant only when they find acceptance within a group.

Also, views become radical not by themselves but only in contrast to those that are considered conservative. Feminism is defined mainly by the patriarchy. Socialism becomes salient against the rugged individualism of liberal societies. The other – one who does not share our views and our identity – substantially also defines who we are.

Dissent is not a lonely project. It is a social one. It does not presuppose the absence of community. It requires mobilization.

Thus authentic democracies assume pluralism.

Pluralism is not a fixed descriptive fact. Allegiances for identities, groups, and communities constantly change as leaders emerge and positions become more articulated. The subversive idea evolves, and at some future time, it can become hegemonic.

Pluralism leads to common action within groups of individuals. Identities, groups, and communities sponsor different ideals, and many of these ideals and ideas contradict each other. Pluralism, therefore, makes conflict and intellectual antagonism inevitable. Contestation is necessary in a pluralistic society.

Communities for agrarian reform, or indigenous peoples, or the fundamental rights of women, or the special consideration given to children, or those who consider themselves human rights practitioners rather than ordinary lawyers, used to be marginalized by their numbers. Advocacy, mobilization, debate, and contestation moved their ideas into the forefront of social consciousness. They became politically relevant. In the past, their views might have been contained only in their speeches. Later on, however, they would become points of debate in legislative forums. They would find themselves congealed into law.

Later, the cogency of their ideals would be contested in the crucible of judicial cases. An interpretation of law emerges in jurisprudence. It is cited and used again in several cases and eventually becomes doctrine. Its genealogy becomes fixed and consistent; hence, it creates a canon of legal interpretation waiting to be dislodged again by more contemporarily relevant ideas, which may later win application in proper cases.

At any point in our history, ideas of some groups are subordinated. The comfort of a majoritarian social perspective or a dominant understanding of our culture can seemingly make the subordination of some ideas as natural and inevitable.

For example, the majority may believe that divorce may be immoral. Same-sex marriage is trumpeted as unnatural. The discomfort of those who believe otherwise is of the same nature as the discomfort in past ideas, such as: the woman’s place is in the home, or indigenous groups are uncivilized. The veracity of these ideas was, for a while, uncontested, until those who were affected were able to politically challenge the powerful who continued to sponsor the contrary ideals.

Dominant hierarchies or the hegemony are never permanent. Authentic and open democracies always have space to provide critical pause. Critical pause is essential to maturity.

The likelihood that this will happen lessens when we consider ourselves only as spectator voters or radically individual dissenters. Maturity in a democracy will not evolve when we choose to remain silent either due to apathy or the fear of being bullied in public discourse. In doing so, we lose the potential that we will matter to those who do not benefit the status quo.

Being silent, succumbing to bullies, or failing to work with others will not contribute to the struggle to achieve human dignity, less poverty, less corruption, and better leadership.

Every form of political consensus found in law, policy, or political decision is an offshoot of power. Power shapes culture as well. Power therefore entrenches the dominant narratives in our history.

Thus, conscious, organized, and effective collective action representing a subordinated standpoint is important, especially when the dominant ideas of those in power do not result in achieving human dignity or social justice.

Conscious, organized, and effective action should exist well beyond the politics of elections. Democracies should tolerate those who dissent. Public debate best shapes programs of government into their more rational, effective, and relevant forms. Meaningful dissent contributes to a collective longer view and a bigger picture.

Meaningful discourse

Mature democracies are not caused by the level of a society’s economy. Rather, it emerges as a result of meaningful discourse demanded by its citizens. Imagine if, instead of the focus on the drama of politician’s alleged adulterous or other scandalous behavior, our focus would turn to issues more relevant to the majority.

Allow me to present a sampling of these issues:

Should our economy graduate beyond low-skilled services modeled after BPOs and call centers? Instead, should we evolve stronger skill sets through an educational system that incubates critical and creative thinking? Should we focus more on manufacturing rather than services: factories rather than fast foods? Should we go beyond the extraction of our raw minerals? Should we require that we evolve the industrial base that follows the extraction of the raw products of our natural resources? Should we jumpstart our science and technology sectors through incentives towards finding energy and food security solutions, sensitive to the impact of climate change?

Should we go beyond colonial mendicancy and participate in the global dialogue in order to shape responses to impeding climate change as well as to recreate trade rules that will not benefit only large transnational and corporate interests but communities in emerging economies such as ours? Should we rebuild our agricultural base to produce real food for our local communities with the least carbon footprint?

Should we find solutions to a more responsible democratic space where serious voices and competing points of views are not drowned out by corrupted media or numbing internet discussions? Should we encourage critical – even dissenting – discussion that will be able to create leaders who can contribute to political maturity? Should government present a genuine public agenda to be debated by the public, and not be too focused on the slant and public relations stunts that trivialize the real problems? Should we encourage media not to be too reactive, not to be captured by the narrow, parochial, and personality-based concerns of those in power?

Should we reframe our understanding of the threats to our conception of national security? How should our foreign policy be recalibrated in order that we succeed in asserting the rule of law at the international level so that all international arbitrations, including those that take place under the aegis of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, are respected? How should our internal policies be recast so that we take advantage of our multi-cultural environment? How do we retell our national history without precluding the other experiences of colonial oppression as well as cultural and economic marginalization in other geographical spaces?

Should our government constantly find answers to the question: why are our people perennially poor?

Fostering intolerance

Instead of examining our social problems in all its complexities, regimes that fear democracy foster intolerance. Our history—through colonialism, post-colonialism, and martial law—teaches us that an effective means to stifle dissent is for the powerful to make false ideas part of the dominant culture. In many ways, this entails creating caricatures of target identities or articulate dissenters.

Iris Marion Young described phenomenon of cultural power imbalance vividly, thus:

“The culturally dominated undergo a paradoxical oppression, in that they are both marked out by stereotypes and at the same time rendered invisible. As remarkable, deviant beings, the culturally imperialized are stamped with an essence. The stereotypes confine them to a nature which is often attached in some way to their bodies, and which thus cannot easily be denied. These stereotypes so permeate the society that they are not noticed as contestable. Just as everyone knows that the earth goes around the sun, so everyone knows that gay people are promiscuous, that Indians are alcoholics, and that women are good with children. White males, on the other hand, insofar as they escape groups marking, can be individuals.”

Antonio Gramsci, known for his work on the concept of hegemony, suggested that certain individuals are “subalterns.” They are unable to participate in the creation of ideas that can dominate a particular culture because they are politically and culturally forced into the margins.

Successfully caricaturing a group leads to their dehumanization. Stereotyping another human being is itself an inhuman act.

We are familiar with these stereotypes: those who belong to non-Christian tribes are uncivilized and have a low level of intelligence. Muslims are terrorists who believe in a religion without ethics, always the legitimate subject of privacy violations and law enforcement. Communists are godless and, therefore, legitimate targets of fundamentalist religious crusades. A sexually active woman is a slut who could be publicly shamed and shunned. Drug pushers are dogs. Drug addicts are beyond redemption.

If drug pushers are dogs then they can be killed at the slightest provocation. If drug addicts are beyond redemption, then it is acceptable to segregate, marginalize, and shun them from society. Thus, they can be ferreted out through searches of homes and private spaces without warrants. If drug pushers are dogs and drug addicts are wasted homo sapiens, then those who coddle them are worse and, therefore, can be named and shamed without first assessing the testimony and the evidence of those who have provided their names in an impartial proceeding, which would afford them with the opportunity to be heard.

On the other hand, those who do not belong to these categories are endowed with the social privilege of being seen as complex human beings enduring within nuanced contexts and endowed with precious souls.

Non-Muslims – especially Christians – within our dominated culture cannot be reduced to a single essence. They are privileged and complex human beings. Those who do not belong to non-Christian tribes are civilized. They are capable of complex thought. Those who are not drug pushers or drug addicts may commit mistakes. They can sin but their sins do not define the totality of their person. They can atone for their sins and can be redeemed.

Dangerous stereotypes

The public will be blind to the fundamental human and constitutional rights of those who are dehumanized by stereotypes if those of us who can fail to critically assess these assertions. Not only should we contribute our critical faculties; we also need to publicly speak against government action founded on these false ideas. We are complicit when we are not critical. We are part of the conspiracy of the powerful if we remain silent.

Stereotypes are dangerous. Stereotypes should be stopped. Intolerance grows on fertile ground when the public ceases to be sensitive to the humanity of others. An intolerant society is breeding ground for violent secular fundamentalists. Death squads – for whatever cause – are valorized and protected rather than condemned and arrested. Impunity legitimizes abuse. Fear, not good governance, will become the foundation of our government.

So that I am not misunderstood, let me be absolutely clear: I do not condone criminal acts. It is my duty as a lawyer and an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court to uphold the rule of law. Conviction of an accused should follow when there is evidence that can occasion the inference that a crime has been committed beyond reasonable doubt. Crimes should be rooted out aggressively, professionally and with due process of law.

I have taken very definite positions in recent cases. Those who commit the crime of plunder should not be easily pardoned. When the evidence is clear, those who conduct raids of the public treasury should not be easily acquitted. Those who peddle prohibited drugs should likewise suffer the penalties provided by a valid law. Most of the resources of government should be focused on dismantling the cartels that make it possible to import and manufacture prohibited substances rather than on the lowly street retailer.

As a citizen, I also believe that government should direct its efforts to understanding the complexity of addiction: not simply the effects of drugs on our bodies, but the effect of marginalization, oppression, and poverty on the psyche of those who choose to be addicted.

I am of the belief that to fully unleash the coercive, violent resources of the state without ensuring effective and efficient means to address the weaknesses of our law enforcement, prosecutorial, and judicial institutions is a recipe for disaster. Impunity for public officers at any level – from former Presidents, to prosecutors, to judges, to tax collectors, to police officers – will cause untold abuses when state violence is unleashed and encouraged.

Due process of law should be respected. The State cannot claim divine omniscience.

Deliberate killing is a universal moral wrong. In our jurisdiction, it is a crime.

Murder is murder

One who deliberately takes the life of another without the required legitimate and legal provocation assumes an undeserved superiority over the victim. The perpetrator assumes that the acts of the victim define his or her whole humanity. Never mind the conditions under which he or she lived. Never mind if, in the soul of the victim, there still exists the possibility for rehabilitation. Never mind if he or she is capable of atonement. Never mind his or her role and relations with family, friends, and community. To those who kill deliberately, the grief of others is irrelevant.

One who kills deliberately judges with irreversible finality. It is without appeal. It is the exercise of unsanctioned absolute power.

It is my conviction that a policy of deliberately taking human lives—no matter what the justification—is not sanctioned by our laws.

Murder is murder.

Today, you will accept the titles and academic degrees that will set you apart from others. Today, you too will accept grave responsibilities expected from you by your society. You will carry the burden of ensuring a meaningful democracy because your titles signal the potential for critical analysis. Your degrees will be platforms for you to achieve positions of leadership. I have faith that your institutions, the Ateneo School of Government and the Ateneo de Manila University, will always serve as your conscience. It will insist that you should not be silent when you learn of violations of the humanity of others. It will insist that you should not be complicit. It will insist that you contribute to our collective search for social justice and meaningful freedoms.

Your people have suffered intolerance in the past. The suffering from that intolerance is part of our collective history. Learn from history. Never again.

Be critical. Find compassion. Be passionate about everything there is about being human and living a meaningful life. Be passionate that every human being should have that hope and potential to define meaning in their own lives. Find the courage to dissent when necessary so that we can truly enjoy genuine freedoms.

Live with what is enough and no more. Thrive on less if you can. Dare to speak out in defense of others.

Always, serve the people. – Rappler.com


These are excepts from the commencement address delivered by Supreme Court Associate Justice Marvic Leonen before graduates of the Ateneo School of Government on August 20, 2016.



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