WHEN Russian thinker Mikhail Bakhtin thought of the resistive nuances of a carnival, he was referring to the clown who can get away with insulting tyrants simply because he should not be taken seriously. Since then, satire, parody and humor have been used as effective means by which people fight back against modern-day tyrants.
Filipinos have had an excess of skills in turning our tormentors into comic relief. We have turned presidents into material for comedians. Once we even turned Gloria Macapagal Arroyo into a funny ringtone. We populate social media with memes even as satire and comic relief are used in street protests where activists condemn human rights abuses and in comedy bars where gay hosts make fun of straight people onstage.
Bakhtin never thought that the time would come when it is not just the weak or the ordinary citizens who would use parody as a political device to resist oppressive power. He obviously failed to anticipate that we would not only be electing comedians as senators, but worse, that there would be politicians who would eventually turn politics into one big parody. These are people bearing powerful positions as presidents and senators, now transforming politics into one big satirical performance that, had it not been for the seriousness of the implications, would have been perfect material for late night comedy shows.
We have a president, in the person of Rodrigo Roa Duterte, who has effectively launched his biggest legacy as the bully who commits outrageous acts that are unimaginable and at other times utterly despicable, but which draw laughter from his loyal political base.
Let it not be said, however, that we are the only country with politicians who have the predisposition to commit acts that turn politics into some kind of carnival show. India may have to compete with us there for a podium finish. But eventually, we may end up winning gold since Indian politicians are only known for using humorous, if not crazy antics, from training mynah birds to become campaigners, croaking their names urging people to vote for them as they fly around to painting the hides of cows with their campaign slogans and setting them loose to roam in the muddied streets of remote villages and slum areas in inner cities.
What we ended up in the Philippines is the most atrocious violation and diminution of decency in politics to a point that even the word “decent” has been diminished and turned by the diehard Duterte supporters into a pejorative adjective, which they attach to the political enemies of the President that they blindly worship.
This has effectively corrupted our natural sense of humor, our ability to turn our tragedies into comedies and turned laughter into a logical reaction even when Duterte turns his speeches into occasions to heap insults upon his political enemies.
Duterte has turned Philippine politics into a carnival in ways that Bakhtin never imagined. He has also practically undermined the role of humor and laughter as our ways of coping with tragedy and hardships. This is something that we have celebrated, that is even so uniquely descriptive of how we survive as noted by CNN news anchor Anderson Cooper who marveled at the smiles and laughter he saw being evinced by people in the middle of the death and destruction brought by Typhoon “Yolanda.” This is our weapon as we cope with natural disasters and political crises.
But Duterte has practically corrupted this when he effectively turned the horrors of assaulting women, even of wanting to rape a dead nun, into material for laughter by his loyal audience and apologists who kept reminding us that he was actually just joking. What enabled this travesty were government bureaucrats as sane as a health undersecretary rationalizing his unscientific prescription to use gasoline to disinfect face masks before using them again as merely a joke (even as he insisted that he was not joking) or as sycophantic as his spokesperson who used to be a rational law professor incessantly justifying his misogynistic moments as just jokes.
When history will judge this President, there are two fundamental destructive legacies that he will be remembered for. First of this is his legacy of divisiveness and hatred where he effectively polarized our social fabric, where political animosity is no longer just among politicians, but now manifested among strained families and erstwhile friends. Families and friendships have been torn asunder with many being banished, blocked and unfollowed and where unwelcome presence has turned gatherings and reunions into tense moments if the other party with a different political line is even invited at all.
And the other legacy would be that Duterte has destroyed the fundamental logic of our sense of laughter and parody, which we used to deploy as a weapon to survive the challenges of life. Now, laughter is used to rationalize his assaults on decency and his abuse of power as he breaches the boundaries of good conduct expected of his office and transgresses the constitutional parameters of his authority.
Mikhail Bakhtin thought of the carnival and the use of parody as weapons to survive tyranny. He saw the clown as a resistive figure who can use comedy to insult tyrannical rulers and get away with it. For generations, we have owned our laughter as our coping mechanism to survive natural disasters and political abuse.
Sadly, this has been negated by the behavior of our President.
Threatened by Mayor Francisco “Isko Moreno” Domagoso’s performance in Manila, President Duterte responded by making fun of Moreno’s half-nudity and many among Duterte’s loyal apologists laughed. Threatened by the ongoing investigations in the Senate, he responded by fat-shaming Sen. Richard “Dick” Gordon and insulting the hairstyle of Sen. Panfilo “Ping” Lacson and his enablers thought these were funny.
While using humor to resist oppressive power makes people less prone to political violence, the exact effect of turning laughter to rationalize and hide abusive power remains to be seen.
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