Duterte has a dirty mouth, but he didn’t really insult Obama

Yonden Lhatoo takes a closer look at the Filipino leader’s spat with the US president, and argues that Rodrigo Duterte is not exactly calling people nasty names

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 08 September, 2016, 2:43pm
UPDATED : Friday, 09 September, 2016, 12:14am

The Philippines’ notoriously foul-mouthed president bit off more than he could chew this week when he insulted his American counterpart. But did Rodrigo Duterte really hurl abuse at Barack Obama and his mother?

His exact words were: “You must be respectful. Do not just throw away questions and statements. Son of a whore, I will curse you.”

Duterte was venting in his usually obnoxious manner at the prospect of a human-rights lecture by Obama, at a regional forum, on his murderous, vigilante war against drugs.

It’s not only in the Philippines that the ubiquitous phrase insinuating that one’s mother is involved in the oldest profession in the world is often used as an exclamation, like “dammit”. It’s liberally applied to punctuate sentences for added impact, rather than single out anyone for a direct personal attack.

You can apply the same rationale to explain why Duterte seems to be constantly insulting everyone and their mums, literally, in this manner. And why his devoutly Catholic electorate didn’t find it particularly sacrilegious when he reserved similar language for Pope Francis after being stuck in a Manila traffic jam while the pontiff was visiting.

Of course, when the president of the US takes personal offence at your words, whether you meant them or not, and cancels a meeting with you, which is what happened to Duterte, you back off. The Filipino leader issued a statement regretting that “it came across as a personal attack” on Obama.

But think about it. Many Hongkongers habitually garnish their conversations with liberal doses of another universally popular phrase implying carnal knowledge of one’s mother.

You hear it used all the time, everywhere in this city, and often it’s an expletive aimed at no one in particular. If everyone insisted on taking deep offence, we’d have Mong Kok riots every day.

Going back to Duterte, there’s another interesting angle to his spat with Obama. If you watch the full video of that media session in which he put his foot in his dirty mouth, it’s quite obvious that the outburst was actually directed at a reporter who provoked him.

I say provoked because the reporter’s questioning goes along the lines of Duterte being the errant schoolboy and Obama the teacher who’s coming to punish him.

Look at his response before he starts swearing: “[Columnists out there are writing headlines such as] ‘Wait until he meets ...’ Who is he? I am president of a sovereign state and we have long ceased to be a colony. I do not have any master except the Filipino people.”

He’s right, you know. If only every world leader would display that kind of guts and stand up to Washington’s selectively targeted, double-standardised rebukes.

Now, having said all that, I’m not for a moment condoning the man’s uncouthness. Whether Duterte is directly insulting people or not, the kind of language he uses in public is unacceptable.

And far more damaging is his frightening vigilante campaign against drugs. What does it say about the rule of law in a country where the president goes on the record to boast that he has been personally involved in multiple extrajudicial killings?

Even more alarming is what a man like this can do to the fragile balance of peace in a minefield of regional tensions over conflicting territorial claims in the South China Sea. That lack of gentlemanly comportment on the global stage and dirty mouth of his may well be the trigger for a far more disproportionate response by an aggrieved party than just a cancelled bilateral meeting.

His mother should have washed out his mouth with soap. Lots of it.

Yonden Lhatoo is a senior editor at the Post