Lost in translation?

SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan - The Philippine Star

In the first weeks of Rodrigo Duterte’s presidency, our Davao-based reporter, who has covered him since his days as mayor, advised our news desk not to take everything he said seriously. 

And since those first weeks of the Duterte presidency, our problem in the news desk – like much of the rest of the country, I guess – has been when to tell if he’s joking or not, and whether certain topics are no joking matter, especially for the leader of the republic.

Growing up surrounded by slum communities in the city of Manila, and having covered the crime beat and local governments in several Metro Manila cities, I’m used to men’s rough, dirty jokes, many bordering on sexism and misogyny. When I was just starting out as a reporter, there were few women in the crime beat; there was a time when I was the only female reporter in the Manila police. Male cops and reporters liked to see if I would be shocked by their dirty talk and cussing. They stopped only when I could cuss and talk dirty like the worst of them.

Self-restraint, however, is what differentiates Homo sapiens from beasts, so to this day I keep the cussing and dirty talk out of polite conversation. But I can say with certainty that Dirty Rody’s sex jokes and lewd actions are pretty common among politicians in our society. 

The bar for civilized behavior, of course, has to be set higher for the president of the republic. The president is the person most covered by mass media, and his actions and utterances are often broadcast live, with even children watching. What do the kids say when they hear the president of the Philippines saying he is ready to exchange saliva (eew!) with beautiful women, and he doesn’t like ugly women with big teeth? 

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His defenders, however, say that Duterte never promised to be Mr. Nice Guy. In fact he promised to be Dirty Rody, cussing and making sexist remarks and killing and all – and he won by a landslide.

So perhaps lawyer Bruce Rivera is realistic enough, and knows Duterte well enough, to say that it’s too late at this point for this President to change. The lawyer, a staunch Duterte supporter, says it even endears the President to his loyalists, since they know that with him, what you see is what you get.

Younger generations are more sensitive to sexist jokes, Rivera points out, but Duterte belongs to an older generation with its own definition of machismo.

Attorney Bruce faced The Chiefs on Cignal TV’s One News last week, together with former Commission on Human Rights chair and martial law torture victim Etta Rosales and, from outside the studio, Gabriela party-list Rep. Arlene Brosas. Naturally, the two women are not amused by the foul mouth and sex jokes of this President, which Rosales finds “disgusting.”

It’s doubtful though that there can ever be a meeting of the minds between the two camps. Rivera, who speaks Cebuano, says they can be rough in their jokes in the dialect, but these can sound even rougher when translated into Filipino. 

But offended women point out that it can’t be a simple case of lost in translation. And what about that slo-mo lips-to-lips kissing on stage with a married Filipina in Seoul, South Korea? 

Duterte himself has admitted that his Tagalog vocabulary is limited and he isn’t good at articulating his ideas. He uses certain Filipino and English words, such as “corny,” differently from the meaning in the dictionary. So maybe Attorney Bruce is right: the President can’t always understand the impact of his words, especially the jokes.

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There’s also that other aspect – most worrisome for women’s groups ­– about the reaction of many audiences to the jokes. We see it on TV: Pinoys laugh at the ribald jokes, just as many of us do in private conversation. And they’re not just public officials, government employees, politicians or businessmen trying to suck up to a still immensely popular President – sumisipsip, as Etta Rosales told The Chiefs. We saw the overseas Filipino workers in Seoul cheering during that kissing scene, with many even recording the incident with amusement on their smartphones.

Of course video footage also shows people who are not amused. Sometimes we see stony silence – especially when Duterte takes on God and religion (and his ratings plummet). 

But because the more common reaction to his ribald jokes is laughter, it reinforces the behavior. Rape jokes pa more!

Rosales and women’s groups worry that such statements from the President and commander-in-chief sends the wrong message. She blames the culture that greets such behavior from the President with a wink-wink for the case of the Manila policeman, for example, who raped a 15-year-old in exchange for the release of her parents whom he had arrested on drug charges. Publicly berated by Metro Manila police chief Guillermo Eleazar, the cop, Eduardo Valencia, explained that it was the “kalakaran” or SOP in the police. Which made Eleazar go even more ballistic. I was a crime reporter for four years and I can say with certainty that it wasn’t the kalakaran at the time.

I asked Rosales what she thought of those who argue that Davao City has some of the best regulations and measures to promote the welfare of women (although rape cases are also high), and that Duterte should be judged by his actions rather than his words.

Rosales fumed that words constitute actions. The President’s words are demeaning to women, she stressed, and worse, they can encourage sexual harassment and violence against women – as Valencia has done.

I believe Rivera speaks for many Duterte loyalists when he rolls up his eyes and says, in so many words, that people should lighten up and see a joke for what it is.

Until after our TV show, Rosales and Rivera were still discussing their points of view.

It is said that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. But we’re not dogs. And after interviewing senatorial candidate Juan Ponce Enrile, still sharp and spry at 94, I don’t consider the 73-year-old Duterte too old to learn. As long as we’re alive, humans are capable of change. Especially the leader and role model of the nation.

Perhaps this President can still surprise us.

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