Justice Leonen on democracy and stereotypes

Last Aug. 20, 2016, Justice Marvic Leonen delivered a remarkable commencement speech to the graduates of the Ateneo School of Government. It would be a mistake to interpret Leonen speech as anti-Duterte. In fact, it is a systematic reflection on democracy, on the universality of human rights, on the rejection of stereotypes (doing so kills people), on the ultimate significance of politics and the challenge to all of us to build a good society. If you cheer or like it because you think he is only talking about Duterte, then you have not learned and profited from such a wonderful text from a great thinker.

See for example these excerpts on democracy and on avoiding stereotypes as that causes enormous suffering and injustice.

According to Justice Leonen: “Authentic democracies are not solely equivalent to elections. Democracy, reduced to the elections, becomes a recipe for entertainment, with eventual disappointment as dessert. It is only during the electoral exercises that candidates attempt to resonate their views with the opinions of the masses. Often, these views are in terms too general to be of any use for concrete assessment of credibility and workability. General statements are passed on as profound political platforms. They grab our attention almost as much as the song-and-dance numbers performed on a political stage.

Leonen then points out how, during elections, citizens are reduced to become mere spectators: “We imbibe a culture of learned helplessness. We surrender our ability to do collective action after the elections. After the elections, we endow the winners in an electoral contest with undeserved entitlement. We create kings and queens rather than public servants. We succumb to the narrative that the votes cast in an election legitimize their every program even before these winners have articulated their plans and implemented them. This should not be the case. Public officers who win elections are not our masters. They are our agents.”

On why we must avoid stereotypes in governance, politics and law, Justice Leonen begins by citing Antonio Gramsci, the Italian Marxist philosopher. Recognized for developing and elaborating the concept of hegemony, proposed that certain individuals are “subalterns”. As such, subalterns “are unable to participate in the creation of ideas that can dominate a particular culture because they are politically and culturally forced into the margins.”

Leonen then asserts: “Successfully caricaturing a group leads to their dehumanization. Stereotyping another human being is itself an inhuman act.”

The Justice gives concrete examples from our history: “We are familiar with these stereotypes: those who belong to non- Christian tribes are uncivilized and have a low level of intelligence. Muslims are terrorists who believe in a religion without ethics, always the legitimate subject of privacy violations and law enforcement. Communists are godless and, therefore, legitimate targets of fundamentalist religious crusades. A sexually active woman is a slut who could be publicly shamed and shunned. Drug pushers are dogs. Drug addicts are beyond redemption.”

Leonen comments further about drug pushers and addicts: “If drug pushers are dogs then they can be killed at the slightest provocation. If drug addicts are beyond redemption, then it is acceptable to segregate, marginalize, and shun them from society. Thus, they can be ferreted out through searches of homes and private spaces without warrants. If drug pushers are dogs and drug addicts are wasted homo sapiens, then those who coddle them are worse and, therefore, can be named and shamed without first assessing the testimony and the evidence of those who have provided their names in an impartial proceeding, which would afford them with the opportunity to be heard.”

Leonen warns that society unfortunately “will be blind to the fundamental human and constitutional rights of those who are dehumanized by stereotypes if those of us who can fail to critically assess these assertions.” This should motivate us to be vocal against acts of government based on these false ideas.”

I agree with Justice Leonen: “We are complicit when we are not critical. We are part of the conspiracy of the powerful if we remain silent.”

Justice Leonen is right: “Stereotypes are dangerous. Stereotypes should be stopped.”

I agree with Justice Leonen: “Intolerance grows on fertile ground when the public ceases to be sensitive to the humanity of others. An intolerant society is breeding ground for violent secular fundamentalists. Death squads—for whatever cause—are valorized and protected rather than condemned and arrested. Impunity legitimizes abuse. Fear, not good governance, will become the foundation of our government.”

Like Justice Leonen, “I also believe that government should direct its efforts to understanding the complexity of addiction: not simply the effects of drugs on our bodies, but the effect of marginalization, oppression, and poverty on the psyche of those who choose to be addicted.”

Justice Leonen is right, that: “to fully unleash the coercive, violent resources of the state without ensuring effective and efficient means to address the weaknesses of our law enforcement, prosecutorial, and judicial institutions is a recipe for disaster. Impunity for public officers at any level—from former Presidents, to prosecutors, to judges, to tax collectors, to police officers—will cause untold abuses when state violence is unleashed and encouraged.”

I agree with Justice Leonen: “Due process of law should be respected. The State cannot claim divine omniscience. Deliberate killing is a universal moral wrong. In our jurisdiction, it is a crime. One who deliberately takes the life of another without the required legitimate and legal provocation assumes an undeserved superiority over the victim. The perpetrator assumes that the acts of the victim define his or her whole humanity. Never mind the conditions under which he or she lived. Never mind if, in the soul of the victim, there still exists the possibility for rehabilitation. Never mind if he or she is capable of atonement. Never mind his or her role and relations with family, friends, and community. To those who kill deliberately, the grief of others is irrelevant. One who kills deliberately judges with irreversible finality. It is without appeal. It is the exercise of unsanctioned absolute power. It is my conviction that a policy of deliberately taking human lives—no matter what the justification—is not sanctioned by our laws.”

Justice Leonen is absolutely right: “Murder is murder.”

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Topics: Tony La Viña , Justice Marvic Leonen , democracy and stereotypes
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