In/Justice Symbol: The Iconography of Duterte

By Marius Carlos Jr.

To say that President Rodrigo Roa Duterte (hence, PRRD) has managed to capture the Filipino imagination would be a gross underestimation of his populist prowess. PRRD has managed not only to convince 16 million Filipinos here and abroad to vote for him, but he has also unwittingly created an unshakeable cult following, despite his frequent media explosions and current impasse in the West Philippine Sea issue.

There should be no mistake about it: PRRD has firmly embedded himself in our collective psyche, for better or for worse. Like Ferdinand Marcos, Nur Misuari, Joma Sison and other colorful personalities in the Philippine realpolitik arena, PRRD has managed to carve a unique niche for himself. Whether this niche will be met with more support in the six years of his presidency remains to be seen, as Philippine politics is anything but stable. Alliances shift, people change. But for now, he enjoys a wide base of support that other heads of state can only dream of. As a power representative of Mindanao and other sectors that he appears to be supporting with executive orders (EO) and funding, he’s here to make a permanent impression on Philippine political history.

But how did he do it?

There is something about the tough-talking Davao mayor that made people want to be part of the Duterte social movement that gained momentum everywhere — in the streets and even on social media, which has become an ideological battleground for various political camps — pro-Duterte, anti-Duterte, pro-Liberal party, and so forth. The networked nature of digital information contributed to his rise as a Filipino icon, certainly. And it’s time that we understood the process of symbolization that created the in/justice symbol that we now see, hear and read about daily.

Hitting the ground running

The majority of Filipinos didn’t even know about PRRD in 2015. He made a few appearances in print and TV a couple of times, mainly because of his seemingly unorthodox methods of governing Davao City. What he made clear from his stance was that he dealt things his way, whether you liked it or not. “Tough-talking mayor” was simply his façade — a way of grabbing your attention so that his voice will linger in your head. PRRD is widely considered “pro-masa” leader who befriended everyone — including the CPP-NPA and the MILF, two insurgent groups that have spent decades warring with the State in Mindanao.

Before and during the campaign season, PRRD’s tactic was to position himself as a lady-loving gentleman underdog among powerful enemies that were possibly allies of the current administration. Filipinos love underdogs. Our cinema and TV histories are filled with beloved characters that were essentially underdogs — the “probinsyanong pulis,” the high school dropouts, the office aide (Enteng Kosme) and even Darna (who represented the masa in superhero form).

PRRD’s projection of humility, of being strapped for cash and his belief that he would eventually lose because of lack of national political machinery endeared him not only to the masses, but to the vocal members of the middle class who, along with others, chanted “Change is Coming” on Twitter and Facebook. Political sorties were no less fascinating — at one time, PRRD was filmed wiping his sweat off with face towels and throwing them to the cheering crowd. Such antics created a countercurrent, an opposing narrative of the man in Malacañan. He, along with his supporters, were mocked for the seemingly cult-like orientation that had sprung from his popularity. The mocking continues today, as his base of support continues to back most of his decisions, through thick and thin.

PRRD can be seen as a multi-levelled local in/justice symbol that is now enjoying global resonance through international media. The life of symbols is audience-dependent and now that global actors are referring to him in news articles, a part of the Duterte narrative is now evolving from beyond the boundaries of the Philippine nation-state. The perceived unevenness in the way he has wielded his power as President has been taken by some media outfits as prelude to something horrible and murderous. We will come back to this point in a moment. Suffice to say, Duterte’s iconic re-presentation has captured not just the Filipino imagination, but also American, Australian and even European sensibilities.

The concept of an in/justice symbol satisfies the current conditions of the president’s universalization as a political icon. He is not a unitary, crystallized symbol of justice or injustice. He has come to represent both sides of the justice coin, in equal measure, through social validation and popular support. Understood from the context of universalization in global politics, Duterte the Punisher is as valid a take as Duterte the Father of the Philippines. To some, there is no distinction — PRRD is the “father” of the country precisely because he is likened to the comic book character, the Punisher. Ironically, the way “the Punisher” has been appropriated in popular discourse has little to do with the original comic book character. Filipinos have created their own appreciation of what “the Punisher” is like: the enemy of criminals, the protector of the nation and so forth. A superhero politico, if there ever was one.

The genuine tensions and contradictions in Philippine society, from poverty, criminality and lack of opportunities were absorbed by Duterte the Symbol. His name became a bond, a promise — or a threat to those who opposed what can only be described as Utopian visions of Philippine society in an era of neoliberal bifurcations and threats to the integrity of our national maritime territory. Thomas Olesen, in the book Global Injustice Symbols, explains how icons like Duterte are created and how they gain global resonance: “As the concept [of injustice symbolization] clearly indicates, this subset of symbols are forged through a moral-political identification of acts and actors that are unjust. Injustice symbols are well-suited to illustrate this dynamic because they entail a complete integration of the particular and the universal… Injustice symbols are based on events and situations that entail some element of human suffering and unjust behavior towards others.”*

The President cannot be considered wholly an injustice symbol against the status quo, because he is in a position of advantage and power. He is the head of the State and under him are agencies, institutions, the police and the army. His popular support only forms a small portion of the power he wields now. However, the popular sentiment of the day is he contributes to the emancipation of the country by powering down the oligarchy (the elite private sector) and by initiating processes that will bring long-term peace and economic gains in Mindanao. While Duterte the President does belong to a political family and has no shortage of social, political or financial capital, he is an aberrant formation — a politico who seems to have gone out of his way to oppose the very class that he belongs to, for the “good of the nation.”

Duterte’s wars on everything

When Duterte announced that he was going to go after drug pushers and drug lords, people did not expect that the new president would engage in an actual war against the Philippine narco state. More than three months into the Philippine drug war, Duterte the Symbol has undergone several shifts, each time seemingly burying the former image of the Filipino All-Father even more deeply into the thick cobwebs of the past.

A seemingly irreconcilable rift has emerged between some groups of Filipinos and local journalists and media. For whenever Duterte speaks, journalists report what they hear — largely to the disdain of consumers and netizens who are looking for daily validation/confirmation that the country is headed in the right direction. The anger and vitriol that should have been aimed at the political actors of the current dispensation is being sublimated to the local media and lately, international media. Why this happens constantly and seemingly to no end can be understood within the context of an emergent political religion: the religion of Duterte the Philippine All-Father. Like other religions, the object of the new political faith is elevated above all else and cannot be criticized too much, for what one criticizes is not simply Duterte (the man) or the Duterte (the in/justice symbol), but one’s faith in the truth and righteousness of the current administration and what it has come to represent: the struggle of the masses and the individual dreams of every Filipino who has aligned himself with PRRD’s trope of “Change is Coming.”

The president speaks constantly of waging war on things. As of the moment, he is preoccupied with his war on drugs. With almost 4,000 deaths attributed to the Philippine drug war, his detractors have create a counter-symbolization that appears to dislodge PRRD’s old promises of peace and order. Duterte has been re-casted in international media as a human rights violator and one French newspaper, Liberation, even called PRRD a “serial killer president” because of his hardline stance against drug pushers, drug lords and the entire distribution network of illegal narcotics in the country. In the wake of Duterte’s drug war, Duterte the Symbol has transitioned from a mere beacon of national hope to a potentially dangerous head of the state with zero tolerance for opposition. While PRRD tempers the accusations through calculated press conferences where he encourages people to speak out against him when the need arises, the powerful narrative of the drug war, where men, women and even occasionally children are harmed or killed, is powerful enough to keep him chained to negative political glosses.

Why are people divided over the death toll of the drug war?

Since we are all participants in the realpolitik of the nation, it comes as a surprise that even in the realm of life and death, our politics takes precedence over our appreciation of human life. It has become increasingly clear in recent months that thousands of Filipinos are unwilling to see drug war deaths as human deaths. In fact, there is always a strong current of appreciation when accused drug pushers or peddlers are killed in police operations. This ‘appreciation’ is justified along the lines of “they are not humans, for so and so reasons.” Obviously, this is merely an echoing of PRRD’s own pronouncements against drug users, drug pushers and other agents of the narco state.

The oppositional discourses come from individuals, fulltime activists and organizations that support a more humane and pro-human rights position in relation to the drug war. While opposing groups are often branded “yellows” (a throwback to PNoy’s administration), we must see the opposition as exactly that — a means of checking the State’s power so that it does not exceed what is constitutional and at the same time, pressure the government to apply a more humane solution to a problem that was driven mainly by local and international narco-profiteering and not by the Filipino masses themselves. The narco state will always represent business interests of drug lords, barons or whatever they like to call themselves, but it will never be representative of the downtrodden — of the masses who were essentially robbed of opportunities by largely uneven economic policies and increasingly drastic austerity measures.

The Filipino people, for all its faults and misses in deciding for itself politically, collectively deserves heightened protection from any militaristic and police abuses. And there should be no distinction when it comes to upholding universal human rights. Everyone, including those accused of using or peddling narcotics, should not be unduly exposed to threats of mortality and violence if such individuals are cooperative upon interpellation of the State.

While the shrill noise of local politics seems to have shaken the true relevance of human rights discourses from people’s memories, let us jog our collective memories: when any State bears down on its citizenry through enforced disappearances, torture and outright murder, the only way to make it accountable to the truth of its atrocities is by invoking international law and human rights. While each country’s judicial stability is tested whenever the government had engaged in repressive practices, the citizenry still holds the power of human rights in their hands. It is our first and perhaps last line of defense, one that we should never relinquish, lest we lose our final foothold against the state as ordinary citizens.

*Olesen, Thomas. Global Injustice Symbols. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015 pp. 6, 8-9,

First published in the Philippines Graphic 7 November 2016 issue.