Tag Archives: mayor duterte

Duterte Makes Peace While Robredo Prepares for War

While President-elect Duterte and his team are busy with forging a peace agreement with the communist party of the Philippines and ending a decades-long insurgency that has claimed thousands of Filipino lives, the team of in coming Vice President Leni Robredo and their allies in the media are preoccupied with making a fuss over the separate inauguration ceremonies for the two newly elected officials.

In trying to make a mountain out of this molehill – or more appropriately a shit pile – Robredo and her cohorts are showing just how petty and small-minded they are in the face of the greater socio-economic challenges facing the nation. It is no wonder then that her running mate was soundly trounced, and she herself barely scraping enough votes from vote-buying to get a win in the recently held elections.

And while the media wants to paint the decision of Duterte in political colors, the fact of the matter is really much more mundane – there just aren’t enough seats in Malacanang to hold all the guests if both the President and Vice President are inaugurated at the same time.

This information was already conveyed to Mindavote a few days before the formal announcement of the inaugural arrangements. According to our source the President-elect stuck to his original pronouncement of wanting to hold the event in Malacanang. This of course posed several logistical problems, not the least of which was the limited – only 500 seats – capacity of the venue. This meant that after all the mandatory invitations have been sent out – to the diplomatic core, the senate president and speaker of the house, cabinet secretaries, etc – there were only a little more than 100 invitations left for the President and Vice President, and their families and personal guests. 

This is why it was decided to hold the event separately, to allow each of them to celebrate it in a way that was both significant and meaningful to them. But of course, this kind of simple and sincere reasoning does not fit the narrative that the media wants to portray – that of a divisive and dictatorial President Duterte. 

Then again, this isn’t like the old days when all the news and information had to pass, and was controlled by the traditional media. People can now get the truth from other sources and make their own informed opinion.

A Vulgar Politician

By Sass Rogando Sasot

Guestwriter for Mindavoices

 

“A VULGAR VILLAGE POLITICIAN”

That was how Abraham Lincoln was called by The New York Herald in one of their articles that lampooned him. They couldn’t believe the Republicans favoured Lincoln over candidates who looked and sounded more like a respectable statesman, such as Seward and Chase. On May 19, 1860, a writer called Lincoln a “third-rate Western lawyer..who cannot speak good grammar.”  On May 20, another writer limned Lincoln as someone who represented “all that is brutal and bloody in Seward’s political programme.” 

The Atlas and Argus was equally disgusted by Lincoln. On May 21, 1860, they described him as a “slang-whanging stump speaker, of a class with which every party teems, and of which all parties are ashamed.” On the same day, the Boston Post predicted that Lincoln would only serve as “the tool of the fanatical host he will lead on.”

On May 24, The Philadelphia Evening Journal  asked why should Lincoln become President? His language was “coarse,” they said. His style, “illiterate.” And Lincoln’s “vulgar and vituperative” character couldn’t hold a candle to the refine and eminent personality of his opponent.

When Lincoln became president, a newspaper in Illinois said this about him: “His weak, wishy-washy, namby-pamby efforts, imbecile in matter, disgusting in manner, have made us the laughing stock of the whole world. The European powers will despise us because we have no better material out of which to make a President.”

In Unpopular Mr Lincoln, Larry Tagg shared what a “Carolinian correspondent” told his friend about Lincoln:

“Did you think the people of the South, the Lords Proprietors of the Land, would let this low fellow rule for them? No. His vulgar facetiousness may suit the race of clock makers and wooden nutmeg venders — even Wall Street brokers may accept him, since they do not protest — but never will he receive the homage of southern gentlemen..[because they would never submit to rule by a president who] exhibits himself at railway depots, bandies jokes with the populace, kisses bold women from promiscuous crowds.” 

In their 2012 Civil War issue, the Atlantic republished the 1904 article of Henry Villard, the journalist who covered the Lincoln-Douglas debates. 

Lincoln, Villard said, was fond of “low talk” and liked telling “coarse or  even outright nasty” stories and dirty jokes. “The coarser the joke, the lower the anecdote, and the more risky the story, the more he enjoyed them,” Villard explained.

Villard found Lincoln revolting.  “Again and again,” he said, “I felt disgust and humiliation that such a person should have been called upon to direct the destinies of a great nation in the direst period of its history… I could not have persuaded myself that the man might possibly possess true greatness of mind and nobility of heart..”

As he got to know more the man, Villard saw something more in Lincoln: “…in spite of his frequent outbreaks of low humor, his was really a very sober and serious nature, and even inclined to gloominess to such an extent that all his biographers have attributed a strongly melancholic disposition to him.”

And as the presidency of Lincoln unfolded, Villard witnessed how the vulgar village politician “proved [himself] to be one of the great leaders of mankind in adversity, in whom low leanings only set off more strikingly his better qualities.”

In Lincoln: The Biography of a Writer, Fred Kaplan offered this reflection regarding Lincoln’s nasty and dirty jokes:

“More genteel than Lincoln, [Henry Whitney, friend and colleague of Lincoln,] struggled to explain the president’s ‘filth,’ and to be sparing with his examples. ‘The great majority of [his] stories were very nasty indeed. I remember many of them but they do us no good.’ Apparently they did Lincoln good. They helped him politically and professionally. And rather than displacing his “ideality,” they expressed an element of his personality and experience inseparable from his moral idealism. Like Mark Twain, he had a genius for pithy narrative, and a sense that his stories and obscenities expressed something crucial about the underlying flaws in the universe and the inexplicable darkness of the human situation. And often the darkness found its best expression in humor.”

 

Will Duterte become a Lincoln or a Qaddafi? Only time will tell.

A REALIST CRITIQUE OF VICENTE RAFAEL’S DUTERTE’S HOBBESIAN WORLD

By Sass Rogando Sasot

Guest writer for Mindavoices

 

By projecting himself as a strong authority, Duterte is presenting himself as the Hobbesian solution to the state of nature. Duterte wants to bring back order, so that the rule of law can work its magic.

 

Filipino historian Vicente Rafael recently published a commentary in Inquirer entitled “Duterte’s Hobbesian World” (http://bit.ly/1PoLTfe). In that article, Rafael points out the seeming non-existence of the idea of “universal human rights…in the local-regional world of Duterte.” And in Duterte’s world, these principles, Rafael argues, are “abstract impositions by the West that infringe on the sovereignty of nations.” 

It’s a thoughtful piece that contextualised Duterte’s vision of justice. Duterte, Rafael said, was shaped by a “Hobbesian world,” i.e. the Davao of the 1990s. A world of various violent groups and corrupt journalists. A world where “human rights are translated into highly particularized notions of honour and revenge where my freedom depends on my right to take yours away.” The last paragraph ends with these stirring words:

“But what about those who do not share the same notion of honour and the desire for revenge? They are left vulnerable and unsafe. Human rights, as contradictory and hegemonic as they are, remain our best hope for protecting each other from this parochial world of revenge and the spiralling fear and violence they bring forth. Doing so requires that we claim those rights and insist on their protection, not by a strongman or a tatay, but by the laws that we ourselves agree to abide by, however imperfectly and unevenly their enforcement might be. Otherwise, it’s back to Hobbes. Or forward to Stalin.”

 

HOBBESIAN WORLD?

I’d like to begin my critique by questioning Rafael’s use of “Hobbesian World.” What does he mean by that? Thomas Hobbes is the author of The Leviathan, one of the canonical texts in Political Theory. In the Leviathan, Hobbes envisioned two kinds of states: the state of nature and the state of civil order. 

The state of nature is an anarchic world, no higher authority exists to impose and maintain order. Since there’s no order, no law is possible. Everyone is equally free to do what they want to do. It’s a world full of rights but no obligations. The latter is absent because there’s no authority that would “constrain those that would otherwise violate their faith.” The state of nature is not the mere absence of the rule of law but the absence of an enforcer of the law: the hand that maintains order. As a way out of this anarchic world, Hobbes recommended that individuals submit themselves into a central authority that would regulate their rights and enforce their obligations. Thus, the Hobbesian solution to the state of nature is the presence of a strong central authority that can “keep everyone in awe.”

Rafael cautions us about devolving into a Hobbesian World. However, it’s not clear which world is that: The state of nature or the state of civil order? 

By projecting himself as a strong authority, Duterte is presenting himself as the Hobbesian solution to the state of nature. Duterte wants to bring back order, so that the rule of law can work its magic.

But Rafael doesn’t see the significance of what Duterte is trying to do. Rafael’s article is about a world of rights. He said that we will escape the state of nature, of war of all against all, if we “insist on their protection, not by a strongman or a tatay, but by the laws that we ourselves agree to abide by, however imperfectly and unevenly their enforcement might be.” The question is WHO will enforce those laws?

The rule of law is not self-enforcing. The rule of law only becomes effective if it’s obeyed. Obedience doesn’t come cheap: you obey the law either because you believe in it or out of fear of punishment. However, that fear only works if the law is strongly enforced and the punishment is harsh. Without strong enforcement, following the law, as Duterte would say, becomes optional. You cannot do away with a strongman, if by strong man you mean someone who has a strong political will to enforce the law. Even the darling of political science, i.e. institutions, needs leaders with strong political will in order to be effective. Institutions are only as strong as the people helming them.

Even if we live under the regime of human rights, strong political will is necessary because our rights aren’t just contradictory, as Rafael acknowledged, they are also “not compossible, that is, the implementation of one human right can require the violation of another, or the protection of a human right of one person may require the violation of the same human right of another” (Michael Freeman, Human Rights). Institutions need leaders with strong political will in order to enforce laws that would protect the rights of some people at the expense of others. That is an inescapable political reality.

 

ILLUSION

The problem for me is not the contradiction of rights nor that they are hegemonic, as Rafael called it. Rights require order and every order is hegemonic, as Mouffe said. The problem for me is characterising “human rights” as our “best hope” to anything. In Rafael’s article, it is “our best hope for protecting each other from this parochial world of revenge and the spiralling fear and violence they bring forth.”

First of all, the doctrine of human rights cannot protect you in the face of an attack from someone for whatever reason. Period. That is the point Duterte wanted to convey: How can the Constitution or the notion of Universal Human Rights protect a journalist from the moment that s/he is being killed? The constitution and the lofty notion of humans rights only work after the fact OR they might be effective if the constitution and human rights doctrine arouse enough fear that could deter your attacker from committing violence against you. 

When I was still living in the Philippines I was almost killed. One night, while I was on my way home from a speaking engagement, a gang of teenagers who were hanging outside a 7-11 convenient store saw me and started debating among themselves whether I was a girl or a boy. One of them settled it and shouted, “Putang-ina walang suso! Bakla yan! (Fuck! No breasts! That’s a fag!)” Then they started running towards me, shouting “Bakla! Takbo! (Run faggot!)” Terrified, I ran as fast as I could. I screamed for help but there was not much people in the road, only cars and jeepneys speeding by. Luckily, I saw an empty cab. I immediately hailed it. I locked all the doors and asked the driver to drive fast. Then I saw that the teenager closest to me was carrying a steel pipe. He banged the trunk of the cab with it. The driver was furious and tried to stop to confront the guy. But I pleaded for him to just go and hurry up. Only fate knows what would have happened to me if I had been too slow or if there had been no empty cabs that happened to be there.

How could the UN Human Rights Commission or the Philippine Commission on Human Rights protect me at that moment when I needed my right to life be protected? These institutions would come after the fact, sometime after the sad fact. But, as how we say it in Tagalog: Aanhin pa ang damo kung patay na ang kabayo? What exactly do I need during that time? It’s not the absence of human rights that was on my mind at that time but the absence of police officers with strong political will that could face my attacker. Yet the police cannot be everywhere. I also have a duty to protect myself from these attacks and to avoid places where these attacks are likely to happen. I cannot debate with my killer and stop him with an eloquent speech about human rights. If someone would kill me, they would kill me. 

This is the reason why I understood what Duterte meant. I’ve been in a lot of situation where my life was in peril. I can preach that killing is wrong, but people will still be killed; I will still be killed. If preaching could stop violence, we would have been living in paradise already with all the preaching against violence that has been going on since time immemorial.

It is not human rights that is our best hope “for protecting each other from this parochial world of revenge and the spiralling fear and violence they bring forth,” as Rafael put it. Our best hope is the cultivation of self-restraint. 

We are at the receiving end of revenge because we did something worth avenging about. And some people, a hell lot of them, find their dignity, yes the wellspring of human rights, worth killing for.

The Maranaos in Mindanao have this concept called “maratabát.” As Robert Day McAmis explained in Malay Muslims: The History and Challenge of Resurgent Islam in Southeast Asia, maratabat guides the “life and conduct of the Maranao in his daily life. A Maranao will go to great lengths to build a ‘good’ maratabat. Having a bad community image is considered ‘having dirt on his face,’ and this will provoke a Maranao to go to any extreme to remove any ‘stain’ from his maratabat.” It’s a very compelling sense of dignity; when it is ruined by somebody else, it “demands retribution that often takes the form of violent retaliation” (Thomas McKenna, Muslim Rulers and Rebels: Everyday Politics and Armed Separatism in the Southern Philippines).

If you mess with their dignity, destroy their reputation, you effectively ruin their lives. Human rights will never ever protect you from someone avenging their dignity that you destroyed. Your best hope from being at the receiving end of a violent retaliation is to stop ruining people’s dignity. It’s not more rights that can help you from someone’s revenge but the maturity to restrain yourself from destroying their dignity. Your best hope is not some lofty principle but yourself. Yes, your killer would be sent to jail, but what’s its use to you? You are already dead.

 

BETWEEN HOBBES AND STALIN

Certainly, political will can be excessive and destructive. But this risk doesn’t mean we should strive for a “rule of law” doing its magic without strong authority enforcing its content. Rafael identified the polar ends of excessive political will: Hobbes and Stalin. As he used it, Hobbes refer to the state of nature while Stalin to the state of excessive State authority. 

But why these two non-Asian choices? Why not Lee Kuan Yew? If one would carefully study Duterte’s rhetoric, one could hear Lee: the cruel stance against drug lords, the frank attitude towards the press, the boldness against international institutions, including the UN, and human rights organisations. It’s not a surprise: Duterte has repeatedly mentioned Lee as one of the statesmen he considers as his mentor.  

It’s interesting to note that the Philippines has consistently ranked higher than Singapore in the Press Freedom Index of Reporter’s Without Borders. In  2016 the Philippines’ rank is 138, while Singapore’s rank is 154. Unlike the Philippines, Singapore isn’t a signatory to the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights or even the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Singapore doesn’t even have its own Commission on Human Rights. Singapore has repeatedly received a bad press, criticised by international human rights organisations, portrayed as a repressive regime.  But which country has a better quality of life?  However, it’s not because of the absence of a strong human rights culture that made Singapore as what it is now but the presence of leaders who have the political will to do what’s needed to be done in order to create a safe, prosperous, and disciplined society, which could serve as a fertile ground for the cultivation and flourishing of one’s self worth.

Who’s Afraid of Duterte?

This is an excerpt from an article written by Sara Soliven De Guzman for the Philippine Star (http://www.msn.com/en-ph/news/opinion/the-yellow-submarine/ar-AAgX7tJ?li=BBr8Mkn&ocid=SL5MDHPwhere she exposes the efforts of groups and personalities identified with the previous administration to prevent President-elect Rodrigo Duterte from taking office.

Duterte, who won by more than six million votes over his nearest rival (with allegations that it was actually much higher if not for the vote-shaving done by the administration party), was elected to implement a wide variety of changes starting with a crackdown on criminality and corruption in government. In her article, Ms. De Guzman echoes the feeling of many observers that there are those who are afraid of Duterte, seeing in him an end to their lording over the Philippines. 

“There is a very strong crusade to stop president elect Rody Duterte from becoming the President of the Republic. Many sectors of society are out there for the kill. They continue to lambast him and threaten him for one reason or another. If you carefully study the background of these groups or individuals, you will clearly see a connection to the so-called “yellow mafia.”

Why is there a conspiracy to destabilize the new government? In the past, new presidents are welcomed. I have not heard nor read of a president elect being excoriated this way. We usually wait and see and give that leader a chance to prove himself or herself for the first 100 days. What is strangely happening now?

This is also the first time we see a president elect working right after the pronouncement of his winning the election. He started telling the public what he wants to happen as if making those in government hear his message in a subtle way. This is the first time I see police manning the streets, drug busters out for the kill, government working heeding the calls of the president elect unaffected by the presence of the former who still maintains his seat of power until June 30.

Amidst his roughness and nonchalant ways, president elect Duterte is giving us a head start of his presidency. He is a no nonsense guy. He is tough and rough and whether conservative citizens disdain him, the majority is looking forward to the “change” he will bring in.

If you watch the news on major networks, you will sense a strong campaign against Duterte. If you read the news, you will observe several newspaper journalists and social network sites taking a turn against him. Many in media have joined the bandwagon especially after Duterte called their bluff on boycotting him: Go ahead, boycott me. I’m urging you. Make this trip your last to Davao City. I do not care if no one is covering me. By the way, many politicians (mayors, congressmen and senators) have jumped off ship and are now swimming to Davao. Some are even riding a “yellow” submarine. Susmariosep!

Many of the top corporations and networks in this country are run or have been affiliated with the ‘yellow race.’ Believe it or not, they are anxious of what might be. This is precisely why they are all out there to destroy the “terminator.” Yes, Duterte if clear with his decrees will swipe all of them to do what is right thus, leaving a small chance for any hunky punky which many are used to in running conglomerates. Enough is enough and come July 1 all hell will break lose as we watch Duterte walk his talk.”

The Truth About Corruption in Media

President-elect Duterte has called the attention of the Philippine media to address the issue of corruption within their ranks

Now that President-elect Rody Duterte has let the cat out of the bag and called out the Philippine media for the rampant corruption that is happening within their ranks, we need to look further into this practice – not because we want to take sides in this debate – rather, as the guardians of our civil liberties, the media must be held to a standard higher than the one we hold all the other institutions of society by.

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The Truth About Media Corruption in the Philippines

The irony of the Philippine media is that it is one of the free-est in the world in being able to express its opinions, and at the same time it also has among the highest number of media practitioners killed while supposedly pursuing their job.

These conflicting realities – a free and independent media able to talk about any matter under the sun and a culture of violence that has resulted in hundreds of their number killed – is almost impossible to understand using western models of the role of media in society.

Conventional wisdom says that media is the fourth estate, the guardian of the people’s welfare against the abuses of those in power, an incorruptible pillar of truth, justice, and integrity. Under this ideal concept, the tools of repression (i.e. the rampant media killings) cannot co-exist with the almost limitless freedom of expression enjoyed by the Philippine media. Either one is free or not.

In order to better understand this phenomenon, one has to look deeper into the roots and role of the Philippine media in the society. In many cases, media companies are run as a business first and an advocate of truth a far second. In these instances, bottom lines carry more weight in the boardroom than by-lines and the policy of “bank balance news, pay-first views” becomes the norm more than the exception.

From top to bottom corruption is rampant in the media industry, but none more so than in the unregulated community radio stations that proliferate throughout the Philippine countryside. In many of these outfits, any person can walk in, buy airtime for a few thousand pesos a month, and basically broadcast whatever they want.

While on the surface this may appear to be the very model of democracy and freedom of expression, the lack of regulation and even the most rudimentary training on journalistic ethics has turned these radio stations from a platform to expose wrongdoing into a tool for blackmail and extortion. 

The way these “block-time” broadcasters practice “journalism” resembles a mafia shakedown more than anything else. Typically they would start by picking a target – a local government official or a businessman – and launch an attack against some alleged wrongdoing (real or otherwise) that they have committed. This continues for a time until either the victim sends an emissary to the broadcaster or the broadcaster himself visits the victim with a proposal to air his side of the issue. This method of double-dealing is what is colloquially known as ACDC or Attack-and-Collect, Defend-and-Collect journalism.

Sadly, this is also the root cause of many of the the killings of media practitioners in the Philippines. In a country were pride and social standing is paramount, an attack on a person’s integrity – particularly on such a public scale – often constitutes a killing offense. While this can never justify a murder, it does go a long way in explaining how these crimes come to be.

From this perspective, much of the blame should be placed squarely on the media industry itself for failing to clean up its own ranks of scalawags and crooks. By insisting on painting all media killings as an attack on press freedom, they are failing to address the real and rampant illegal activities of those criminals who are hiding under the convenient mantle of “media.” Not only does this oversight protect the guilty, it also demonizes the victims, and endangers the legitimate journalists. 

Billion peso blunder Part 2

In addition to their penchant for fudging the fiscal details of the Sasa Port Modernization project, Department of Transportation and Communication Secretary, Joseph Abaya and the rest of his team are also guilty of ignoring local realities, not to mention sensibilities, in drawing up the plans for this wet dream of a project. 

Harping on the fact that this is the first and only PPP project in Mindanao, Abaya – with the enthusiastic endorsement of Mindanao Development Authority Secretary, Lualhati Antonino seem to be under the impression that Davaoeños should be jumping for joy simply because the national government in Manila has deigned to bless us with its attention. Antonino articulated it best when, while lecturing the stakeholders on what is good for them, she said “eh di kung ayaw ninyo  sa Davao, sa Gensan na lang…

Not to sound like the ungrateful brats that these people make us to be for voicing our concerns, an appreciation of local know-how should be a paramount consideration when undertaking a project that threatens to disrupt the lives of so many people. More than the tyranny of their calculators, those who drew up the plans for this monstrosity should respect how people feel – no matter how capricious or illogical it may appear to them. This is even more true, as is the case in this hot mess that they insist on foisting on the people of Davao, when the supposed facts and figures being presented flies directly in the face of common sense.

One clear example of this conflict between theory and practice is in the over-hyping of the supposed benefits that will be derived from the increased efficiency in loading and unloading after the Sasa Port if modernized. According to DOTC, the current rate of unloading in Sasa Port of two days will be reduced to just three hours once the new facilities are put in place. On paper it is hard to argue with such empirically advantageous data. 

But if you are a Davaoeño who has passed through that one and only road in front of the Sasa pier – if you are familiar with this narrow, over-crowded stretch of highway where traffic comes to a complete stop at every intersection – from the Lanang all the way to Panacan and beyond. Then you would instinctively know that there is absolutely no way that the current road network can handle the sudden flood of container-laden trucks, which the DOTC gleefully predicts will be spewing sixteen-times faster than they do now. 

Maybe as a way to show that they did have some foresight and anticipated this problem, they now promise to build wider roads to accommodate the increased traffic volume. But without explaining where and how they will go about it doesn’t really add up to much of anything beyond more of the same empty words. I am particularly curious as to how they intend to expropriate all those private properties along the highway extending north and south from the port. Huwag na po tayong magbolahan, the principle of Public Domain be dammed, there is no way in hell that the government will be able convince those thousands of Davaoeños to sell their homes and businesses for the making of a highway. And without these crucial pieces of real estate, the much ballyhooed increased efficiency of the new Sasa Port might as well be flushed down the toilet for all it’s going to do for the city.

And as if ignorance of the local road network wasn’t bad enough, the plan is also riddled with assumptions such as the idea that banana exports out of Sasa port will continue to be a viable option and one of the prime reason for its modernization. While I am all for positive thinking, the DOTC, NEDA, MinDA, and all these other alphabet soup agencies are clearly delusional when the choose to see this particular glass as being half full, instead of what it really is – a half-empty vessel that has rapidly lost half its value because its bottom has fallen out. 

The simple and irrefutable fact is that the banana plantations are in Panabo, and it will always be more efficient for plantations to ship their products as near to the source as possible. This is why, despite having been in operation for only a couple of years, the Davao International Container Terminal (DICT) has already siphoned off a large chunk of the market that the Sasa port still dreams of. Worst still, this is a situation that only promises to become more acute once the Hijo International Port Services, Inc. (HIPSI) in Tagum City is completed. That the DOTC still insists on locking the barn door long after the horse has escaped illustrates a lack of imagination and the built-up inertia of incompetence that afflicts government institutions.

But most egregious of all their shortsightedness is the DOTC’s failure to incorporate the clear and unequivocal clamor coming from many of Davao’s leading citizens for a berthing place for passenger cruise ships in any plan to modernize the Sasa Port. This oversight, which Sec. Abaya dumps on the lap of his colleague, Sec. Mon Jimenez of the Department of Tourism, is a clear-as-day indication of the planners inability to think beyond their cubicles. Making matters worse, they tried to justify their deliberate omission of the passenger berth that everyone wanted, by citing the concerns of the shipping companies that no one welcomed. 

In the end, after all is said and done, I go back to councilor Dayanghirang’s assessment that the biggest failure of Abaya, Antonino, and all those pushing for this project has little to do with their ability to explain the technical aspects of it, rather it is simply in their inability to communicate with the kind of respect that the people expect and deserve. 

Honey, Do I Look Fat in This Dress?

The ability to communicate is one of the most fundamental aspects of our being human and the foundation on which much of our civilization is built. Yet it is also one of those things that we take for granted in our daily interactions with other people. 

Simply because most of us learned to talk when we were still toddlers, we automatically assume that we’re already good at it. Unfortunately the history of human conflict shows that this isn’t exactly true. Most wars are the direct result of some form of breakdown in the communication process at the highest – and presumably the most responsible – levels of government, leading to incalculable misery and suffering for everyone else.

All communication happens on two levels, the Object and the Relationship. Object-level is when you make statements about things, such as when you say a ball is round, or a girl is beautiful. While Relationship-level conversations happen when you discuss the same things in relation to something else, as in the ball being rounder than another ball, or the girl being more beautiful than another girl. 

But because most people are unaware of the existence of these levels in communication, misunderstandings on even the most harmless comments can easily deteriorate into arguments. Take the case for example, of a wife asking her husband if she looks fat in the dress that she’s wearing. On the Object-level, this is just a simple yes or no question, something that any observant 3-year old can easily answer. 

However, on the much deeper Relationship-level, where whatever the husband says has a direct relation to his wife’s sense of well-being, things can become a bit more complicated. If he thinks that she isn’t fat, then he can genuinely say so and she would be happy. But if he does think she looks fat and fears that saying so might hurt her feelings, then a simple yes or no isn’t so simple anymore. 

Now before we talk about how we can resolve their dilemma, let’s leave the happy couple for a moment and look at how the same situation can occur in other areas of our lives. Whether it’s at work or with our family and friends, we don’t really have to look far for examples. The fact is, for most of us miscommunication has become so commonplace in our relationships that we don’t even notice it – much less put in the effort of trying to understand its underlying causes.

But then, if we are serious about wanting to improve our lot in life (as we should), we need to lose the blinders and really start looking deeper into this particular aspect of how we live. We need to understand the process of communication and the reasons it goes haywire so we can fix it when it does.

On this, one of the more important concepts we need to learn is that, while communicating at the Object-level can be a zero-sum game – that is if one person is right, the other is necessarily wrong – this cannot be applied at the Relationship-level. If even just one of the parties involved in the communication process does not get this, and insists that any outcome must be framed within the context of total victory or defeat, then a successful resolution of the conflict would not be possible.

What is worse is that, while individuals may be afflicted with this zero-sum communication bias, tragically it is more common – and much more magnified – among groups of individuals. This is the reason why nations go to war over issues that should have been perfectly solvable if only people understood that we can communicate peace just as easily as we can make war.

Former US President George W. Bush famously illustrated this kind of mentality with his “if you are not with us, you are against us” position at the start of the second Gulf War, and we continue to see the same in the South China sea stand-off, the debate on same-sex marriage, and a million other complex issues that are being presented in shades of just black and white. 

So now, going back to our earlier example, the solution to the husband’s problem – and other similar problems – depends on the kind of relationship he and his wife have built over the years. And this in turn has a lot to do with how they have learned to communicate with each other. Escape from a zero-sum game is only possible when all parties learn how to show respect, trust, tolerance, and fairness.

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