Saturday July 21, 2018

Maglana: Institutionalized bullying

I CHANCED on this definition of bullying “…unwanted, aggressive behavior… that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. The behavior is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time. Bullying includes actions like making threats, spreading rumors, attacking someone physically or verbally, and excluding someone from a group on purpose” ( and it seemed an apt description of developments concerning key Philippine institutions in the past months.

By institutions, I refer not only to formal bodies like the Commission on Human Rights (CHR), but also to people who wield influence, like the chief justice of the Supreme Court, the Ombudsman, the Commission on Elections chairman, and legislators like Senators Leila de Lima and Risa Hontiveros.

By bullying acts, consider as examples the decision championed by 119 members of the House of Representatives to allocate only P1000 to the CHR for 2018, the House Justice Committee action finding sufficient in form and substance the impeachment complaint filed by lawyer Lorenzo Gadon against Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno, the impeachment proceedings against Comelec Chairperson Andreas Bautista, the drug-related charges leveled at Sen. de Lima, and reported efforts of the Secretary of the Department of Justice to press charges against Sen. Hontiveros.

In a functioning democracy, legitimate cases should be pursued against erring officials, and justice effectively served through due process.

However, the dysfunctions in Philippine Government have made this a pipedream. Many offenders have gotten away with nothing worse than public chastisement, thus further fueling citizen frustrations and disenchantment with government. Some, like the Marcoses, have even managed to rehabilitate and reinstate themselves in government positions with the aid of allies.

But when politicians manipulate issues and public frustration to neutralize institutions that they consider antagonistic to their own agenda, it manifests as a case of grand bullying. For rarely is it a principled struggle about issues, and more about aggressive behavior to wield power in their favor.

In more recent developments, the House restored the budget of the CHR. But the message has been served: cross us and the interests we are aligned with, and we will mess with you thoroughly.

There are those who argue that discrediting institutions help create conditions for genuine change. But as developments around the world show, “change” is no longer the exclusive language of earnest reformers and revolutionaries, and has been hijacked by a range of forces, particularly the demagogues that dominate the global stage today.

Demagogues often are firebrands whose main exercise of power it seems is to destroy institutions that stand in their way, and who offer no real alternatives that promote social justice and democratize power. They are also adept at stage-managing situations to play at the worst fears of people.

Avoiding being hoodwinked by demagogues can be a real challenge in societies historically beset by complex problems, where structural weaknesses like undifferentiated political parties constrain citizens from finding satisfactory and effective alternatives from the mainstream.

Assuming that these latest attacks against governance institutions in the country would soon blow over, there is no guarantee that the shake-up will not happen again in the future.

Unless effectively confronted, bullying behavior tends to get repeated. Those who have been careful to toe the line of the party-in-power may be motivated to do so to avoid being excluded, and thus bullied.

But this is equivalent to standing on a slippery slope because given shifts in interests, and the shrinking of the proverbial pie, bullies can quickly turn against their own.

The tiff between former allies Pantaleon Alvarez, Speaker of the House, and Representative Antonio Floirendo Jr, seems instructive of how unities among political bullies can rapidly sour and escalate into conflict.

Timely and firm interventions by adults can make a difference in dealing with bullying among the young. However, in the current Philippine context, who can we look to for help in dealing with the bullies in the House and Senate when it is Malacañang that has signaled, through deeds of commission and omission, that it is ok to bully those who criticize your policies?

The bullying of institutions sends wrong signals. Aside from the approbation accorded to bullying itself, it says there are kinds of people that are ok to be bullied. In that sense, bullying behavior gets institutionalized.

But the bullying of institutions in countries that have fragile States is particularly problematic. Undermining institutions perceived to be contrarian may be an easy strategy to disenfranchise them, and ultimately ensure that the powers-that-be unchallenged. But it also undermines citizens’ confidence in government institutions and processes—the fundamental problem of the country identified by President Rodrigo Roa Duterte in his inaugural speech.

The Philippines is not among the top fragile states based the Fragile States Index (FSI) Annual Report 2017. But there are signs of worsening that put the country in the same “high warning” category as Sierra Leone. Among the FSI indicators are social and cross-cutting indicators that include evacuees, and political indicators like human rights and rule of law.

President Duterte’s mandate and what he is trying to accomplish could end up being destabilized by those who think support for legitimate authority equates to absolute and unopposed leadership.

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