Constructive conversations in the time of Duterte



Obviously, the reality is more complicated than this projected dichotomy. Yet, even among those who offer explanations, a dismissive tone frames the narratives. Some analyses express how the political energies of Duterte adherents are informed by flawed vision or distorted political agency.

However, we witnessed how, during the campaign period, grassroots organizations and individuals in poor communities pooled their resources together to produce tarpaulins for Duterte. This showed the level of investment that they put in his candidacy.

After the elections, it was unsurprising to witness the jubilation among those who worked hard for President Duterte to win. There seems to be a renewed optimism among those who are able to associate themselves with Digong; among those who have felt marginalized and muted by decades of elitist ‘imperial Manila’ rule.

At this point, it is important to acknowledge this euphoria, and probably the fleeting sense of empowerment, expressed by many Filipinos. We need to understand what animates the collective zeal and how it can lead to more productive conversations.

Recognizing this enthusiasm, however, does not mean giving up on the importance of articulating contrary views on extra-judicial killings and other policy issues. After all, principled opposition is vital in our fragile democracy. (READ: #NoPlaceForHate: Change comes to Rappler's comments thread)

“But how do we deal with the bullying tendencies of Duterte’s overzealous allies?” I was once asked.

Engaging with President Duterte’s followers is no easy task especially for those who consider their arguments as naïve or fallacious.

“A lot of Duterte fans resort to ad hominem attacks”.

This is a usual complain from people who criticize his supporters. However, online statements require some contextualizing in the larger social milieu.

At a time when paid professional trolls can dominate the social media, people with vested political interests readily sow confusion and create mass hysteria around certain issues and personalities. Every netizen has to be more critical of the information being received and shared through personal online platforms.

Constructive conversations

Being a reflective netizen also entails seeing online comments as a mediated public engagement. To an extent, there is a class dimension to how some people appropriate the cyberspace. One writer even noted a statement from a Facebook user during the campaign period, which illustrates a class-oriented angst.

“You know what, you cannot understand us. You cannot understand poor people because you're elite. You cannot understand...why we keep on bashing Mar and LP and Binay. Hey, it's all we can do. We don't have any weapon against your money or guns that's why we resort to cyberbullying. Para kahit papaano, makabawi kami.”

Yes, some individuals see cyber bashing as a conscious political act. We rarely see it that way. If and when we do, we tend to dismiss the hidden emotions and focus on the rants.

Perhaps, part of the challenge arises from the need to reflect on how our own ways of knowing and responding either facilitate or undermine an open and meaningful communication. Unless we are able to constructively engage with fellow netizens many of us would most likely remain vulnerable to demagogues who peddle black-and-white views about our intricate political conditions. (READ: Social media user react to #NoPlaceForHate campaign)

The social scientist Andrew Sayer explains the importance of treating humans as sentient beings. For him, this not only urges us to interrogate people’s capacity to act but to gaze at their vulnerabilities as emotional beings.

To understand someone, Sayer argues, is not necessarily to agree with her or him. In our diverse country, the effort to understand someone goes beyond discussing the (in)ability of one person to reason out or offer an intelligent opinion. It compels us to examine how our divergent ways of knowing are situated in a highly inequitable society with complex power relations. It entails rediscovering the sentiments and hopes that we share with the individuals we normally call "Dutertards" or "Yellowtards".

In revisiting our shared aspirations, it is crucial to intently listen to what others have to say. In the process, we ought to recognize the limits of social media and explore other spaces for constructive conversations. As we unmask the destructive character of online bullies and nameless trolls, we also need to analyze how the traditional media and other avenues can generate common goals or further intensify polarization.

Ultimately, President Duterte has a huge role in addressing the deepening polarization and in creating an environment where everyone feels welcome to express dissenting opinions. One can only hope that the President and his devoted allies realize that in democracy, governing demands a lot of listening to the varied voices in our unequal society.  –


Redentor Recio is currently pursuing a research on development planning and governance in contested urban spaces.