Rodrigo Duterte

[OPINION] ‘Ballot box,’ ‘salvage,’ ‘middle class’ and why language matters

Jefferson Lyndon D. Ragragio

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[OPINION] ‘Ballot box,’ ‘salvage,’ ‘middle class’ and why language matters
Language matters not only as a vocabulary of expression but also as an instrument to narrate historical facts

The rhetorical might of former president Rodrigo Duterte might have just found a compelling “deconstruction,” as language and cultural pundits call it, in Patricia Evangelista’s memoir Some People Need Killing (2023, Random House).

Duterte’s rhetoric to this day is impactful in a sense that the presence and words of the leader continue to dominate media reports and political discourse related to polling and election, the territorial and political independence of Mindanao, the gentleman’s agreement between Duterte and China’s Xi Jinping about the West Philippine Sea, and the hiding of Kingdom of Jesus Christ’s pastor Apollo Quiboloy who is in the wanted list of the Philippine and the United States governments.

These scenarios alone which problematically sustain the appeal of Duterte among some quarters of the public make the memoir a necessary and critical guide in understanding the way language and policy can unprecedentedly shake up the civil consensus on social justice, as seen in the havoc wreaked no less by Duterte’s war on drugs.

What this means is that, although the memoir cannot explain the gamut of factors and historical processes that nurtured Duterte and his drug war (see for example Kenneth Roland A. Guda’s review), Pat’s (and not Trish, as the author revealed in Chapter 9) journalistic and analytical depth can provide an innovative tool on how we can take more seriously the importance of rhetoric and narrative in Philippine culture (see for instance Jean Encinas-Franco’s work on Duterte’s gendered populism).

The memoir expounded a host of ideas that can convince us why language matters in literal and figurative terms.

I take note of “ballot box,” “salvage,” and “middle class” to illustrate the tension as to how these terms can shape up everyday politics. The hope is to show how convoluted, if not outrightly exploited, these three terms are when applied to a particular yet not necessarily distinct context of body politic.

Ballot box, salvage, and middle class collectively characterize some central features of the changing democratic polity. Yet under belligerent-partisan environment, these features or at least what they appear to represent are disfigured to suit a certain political agenda.

Of the three features, the ballot box is the most vivid symbol of democratic exercise where an individual can anonymously write or tick someone’s name on a paper on the basis of trust, representation and confidence. Voter A thinks Candidate X best represents his ideals and so he writes or checks the name X on the ballot. Whereas the term salvage, in its verb form, means to save something (a boat) or someone (a friend) from danger (sinking or drowning) and can be viewed as an expression of civil responsibility where one’s action is supposed to serve the general welfare. The middle class, on the other hand, represents an increasingly influential voice in many areas of public life including labor force, election and popular culture.

But as my following notes about the memoir showed, the terms “ballot box,” “salvage,” and “middle class” are much complicated than we often assume.

Ballot box. In a chapter about Lieutenant Coronel Domingo of Santa Ana, Manila (Chapter 9: My Friend Domingo) was a section about how a certain Buwaya (crocodile)’s death took place because of a ballot box. Evangelista recalled when the cops rounded up eight hundred residents of Santa Ana at a basketball court in July 2016, and asked them to line up so they can vote through a box on the table who they think are the drug dealers. The police then tallied the list of names and, by popular acclaim, found the name Buwaya topping the list. In August 2016, she said, twenty cops reported for duty in addition to an undercover cop who knocked on Buwaya’s door and bought drugs from him. But “Buwaya recognized the gun’s bulge and drew out a revolver. The cop was faster on the trigger. ‘They voted for him,’ Domingo said.”

Salvage. In Chapter 6: Salvation, Evangelista talked about Duterte who, immediately after winning the 2016 presidency, got out of Malacañang Palace and delivered a talk in Tondo, Manila. On his first day on the job, Duterte, in her words, “picked up the microphone and let loose the dogs of war” by reiterating his warning against illegal drug users. Within hours after Duterte’s speech, she covered how the first of the dead men officially labelled as Unidentified Male Person was abandoned somewhere nearby the Delpan Sports Complex where the president spoke. The killing has some qualifiers in the legal and political parlance such as extrajudicial killing and summary execution. But she elaborated on the word salvage, a contronym that means to rescue yet, as the use of the word has changed, would also mean to kill without trial.

Middle class. Evangelista, in Chapter 5: Defend the Mayor, introduced individuals who supported and voted for Duterte in 2016. Among them were Dondon, a dentist who posted on Facebook a smiling photo of the then-presidential candidate Duterte with the caption “Sir Rody Duterte…truly from the masses, for the masses!” and Jason, an overseas Filipino worker (OFW) in the Middle East who, because of the laglag bala or bullet drop scheme at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport during the Noynoy Aquino administration in 2015, got dismayed with the government’s policy about OFWs. To demonstrate their support for Duterte in 2016, Dondon used Facebook to promote Davao City even though he had never been to the city while Jason personally booked a flight from Abu Dhabi to Doha just to cast his ballot at an embassy where he was registered. Jason even told his parents that he would hold off sending remittances if they didn’t vote for Duterte, which Evangelista found out they did.

Under Duterte, the ballot box became an arbitrary exercise that decided the fate of the chosen one, that is, the victim. Salvage has intensified, if not further legitimized, the hideous commission of crime against humanity including the urban poor residents. And, the middle class stood at the receiving end of affectual and snappy appeals which eventually turned out to be plots that only empowered an authoritarian-populist rule.

Language matters not only as a vocabulary of expression but also as an instrument to narrate historical facts. –

Jefferson Lyndon D. Ragragio is an assistant professor of media studies at the Department of Science Communication, College of Development Communication, University of the Philippines Los Baños.

1 comment

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  1. ET

    I agree: “Language matters not only as a vocabulary of expression but also as an instrument to narrate historical facts.” Prof. Jefferson Lyndon D. Ragragio may add to his works by covering the words used by the Disinformation Machineries of the Marcos-Romualdez and Duterte Political Dynasties and China.

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