Terrorism by another name

“Do not bully anyone. Just because you’re in power doesn’t mean you have the right to insult others… the bully who uses power to belittle others is the most cowardly and most insecure person of all.” (Translation from Filipino mine)

Manila Archbishop Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle did not name anyone in his Dec. 16 simbang gabi(dawn mass) homily. Although Presidential Spokesperson Salvador Panelo said that the cardinal was not referring to President Rodrigo Duterte, on Dec. 19, the President himself apparently felt sufficiently alluded to declare that “to get back at them” — the cardinal and a priest whom he falsely accused of wishing him dead — he would tell those listening to “kill all the bishops who are inutile.”

No one can be blamed for concluding that the tirade itself qualifies as bullying, which is commonly understood to mean the stronger or more powerful individual’s or group’s threatening, insulting, coercing, humiliating, or degrading those who are weaker or more vulnerable, as well as inciting others to violence. Bullying is terrorism by another name.

Previous to that call to kill bishops (which can be interpreted as a form of intimidation directed at Cardinal Tagle as well), Mr. Duterte also threatened to behead another Catholic prelate, and, as everyone knows by now, also made a number of profanity-laced rants that similarly qualify as bullying against other groups and individuals, among them his insulting and humiliating journalists, threatening human rights defenders, and persecuting regime critics.

It might even be argued that the use of State power to extrajudicially kill suspected drug users and pushers, Lumad leaders and teachers, and lawyers and judges among others is the worst form of bullying of all. Extrajudicial killings (EJKs) are extreme forms of intimidation meant to further a political purpose. One of the key elements in bullying is, after all, the use of superior power against the weak, as research on the subject has long established — and it doesn’t happen only among children and minors, but also among adults.

But whether a child, minor, or adult, and whether a king, emperor, prime minister or president, the bully is a narcissist moved by an imagined sense of superiority that, if challenged or not acknowledged, provokes insults, threats, even assaults. The bully resents criticism and, in retaliation, subjects those responsible to verbal or even physical abuse.

Days after the Tagle homily and Mr. Duterte’s heated reaction to it, a video of an apparent bullying incident at the Ateneo de Manila Junior High School in Quezon City which involved threats and a physical attack on the victim went viral over social media, and almost immediately made it to the newspaper pages and the news programs on radio and television as well.

Oddly enough, the offender was himself subjected to a barrage of online abuse, including calls for him and his family to be subjected to the same verbal and physical violence he had inflicted on his victim, to which those who use their power to brutalize others are not. A minor, he has since been expelled from Ateneo — without, however, satisfying some of his more fervid and self-righteous detractors.

The statements of Malacañang spokespersons following his expulsion sounded as if his was the only instance of bullying to ever happen in this country. The reality is that bullying, whether in school, in the workplace or in society at large, has always been such a fact of life in this land of inequity that only when it is patently obvious and named as such does it get noticed.

It won’t do to look at it as something new, rare, or even as merely a Duterte era phenomenon. As seemingly valid as the latter view may be, given Mr. Duterte’s rants, threats, and profanities against a veritable legion of targets, bullying is nevertheless a phenomenon endemic in societies of vast inequality — in social status, wealth, privilege and power — such as the Philippines.

But it isn’t exclusive to the children of the wealthy and powerful alone. It is also embedded — because they learned from the example of their upper-class models — in the children of the middle class and the poor, among whom being weak or somehow different also invites humiliation, threats, insults, and abuse. Children and minors who bully others become bullying adults themselves, but can also be the victims of others more powerful, thus the never-ending cycle of fear and intimidation.

Implicit in the bully’s assaults is the belief in the use of power and even violence as a means of dominance over others. But as Cardinal Tagle points out, bullying is too often the resort of the weak. Although they are thought to be cock-sure of themselves, bullies are in reality the exact opposite. They need to dominate those whom in their heart of hearts they suspect to be their betters to convince themselves of their own worth.

Across all classes is the will to feel above, and even to rule over, those who are poorer, less gifted, different in physical appearance, “unusual” in their sexual preferences, of ethnic origins other than lowlander, are darker or smaller, are from minority religions, have different political beliefs, or are “too intelligent” (masyadong marunong) for their own good.

It helps explain why Mr. Duterte and his kind are admired and even elected to public office: they represent in words and deeds the sexism and misogyny, the bigotry, intolerance and hatred of “the other,” as well as the instinct for violence as the first and only solution to disagreements, conflicts and criticism, rather than reason and logic, that ails the benighted millions.

Mr. Duterte’s rise from provincial despot to the national office that is the presidency has added to, rather than detracted from, bullying as a part of, and rooted in, Philippine culture. His misogyny — itself embedded in the machismo that persists in these isles of woe despite feminist efforts — is applauded, his jokes about rape met with laughter, and his threats against the clergy shrugged off by the Sunday Catholics of a country trapped in the equivalent of Europe’s Dark Ages.

It is clear enough why: he is, quite simply, one of them. Because he’s the highest official of the land who is presumed to be wise, and whose every word is law to those who have yet to understand democracy, his threats, insults and rants invite emulation as a strain of the “propaganda by the deed” that the anarchists of the late 19th and early 20th century understood only too well could so terrorize others it could compel them to submit to the worst tyranny.

Conventional wisdom condemns the bully for inflicting fear, depression, self-hate, and low self-esteem among his victims, some of whom are even led to take their own lives, while sustaining among the offenders themselves the belief that they alone matter, and others unworthy of respect as human beings and even of life itself.

As true as that is at the level of schoolboys and their peer tormentors, bullying writ large has also become the political norm and the chosen means of the few to dominate the many in the archipelago of our afflictions. It drives the violence that reigns in both city and countryside, where power without reason rules and the lives of the poorest among us and of those who dare to be different and to imagine an alternative to the terrors of the present are in constant peril.


Luis V. Teodoro is on Facebook and Twitter (@luisteodoro).


Published in Business World
Dec. 27, 2018

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