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On being bobotante: Do we have the monopoly of intelligence?


On the outskirts of Makati and Pasig, there lies West Rembo, a barangay characterized mostly by small commercial structures and drab houses with colorful laundry hung outside their open windows to dry. Close to the city’s boundaries, the Pasig River’s murky waters are tense, winding north-westward.

“This is the Makati we’re not used to,” I told my colleague as we found ourselves at the intersections of narrow roads leading to places we know not, our common markers being the tarpaulin and paper advertisements on lampposts and walls, bearing the words “WE ❤ BINAY.” We were still a few months before campaign season, but knowing this was Binay’s stronghold, none of this came as a surprise.

My colleague and I were on a trip to interview people from the barangay regarding their food consumption patterns and preferences when it comes to the meat market. Upon meeting with our informant Lorna (not her real name), we were taken to the second floor of a wooden apartment, a rented 15-square meter place where we were greeted and ushered by her three children to sit down next to the staircase. After asking the necessary questions and taking field notes, we put our pens down and became more casual and personal, off the record.

“Siyempre si Binay (Of course, Binay),” when asked about her choice of president.

It was interesting to hear this, given that her presidential choice is the symbolic representation of the catastrophe of power and greed. In my eyes, at least.

“Lahat naman yan sila corrupt. Pero at least dito sa amin, talagang may nagagawa naman siya. Tingnan mo ang mga anak ko, nakakapag-aral (All of them [candidates] are corrupt. But at least here, [Binay] is able to do something. Look at my children, they’re able go to school),” she added.

Fast forward to where we are today, just a day before the national elections, I’m often reminded of this West Rembo story and the similar ones I’ve kept to myself for the most part during the election season. It would be easy for many people I know, comfortable in our middle-class environs perhaps, to label Lorna and others like her as bobotante – or stupid voter – for her political preferences. Sifting through the noise, I’ve observed that my personal feed has also rearranged itself in a comparable fashion, forming two major cliques: the Duterte camp and the Liberal Party camp, in which the latter labels itself as the disente (decent) ones for siding with continuity while the former is also often labeled like Lorna, the bobotantes, for wanting an unconventional and sexist man to be seated in power.

These characteristics are not absolute as there are those who fall between the cracks of the definitions of such cliques. But there are a few loud ones, those that bother me with their pronouncements along the lines of:

“This May 9, we can choose to stand in the light or in the dark. Be decent enough to stand up for what is right! Wag maging bobotante!”

In the tedious process of sorting out the people that we think should be put in power, we often forget that as we weigh the good and bad and put our faith in individual choices, we rely on our own experiences and interpretations of reality. As such, we become blind to other possible interpretations and realities. This election season has been seen as a particularly polarizing one, which many blame on the presence of the Duterte and the LP “camps.” However, it may also be that the elections divided the country because those with the power to have their definitions prevail – the educated elites – refuse to recognize interpretations that do not agree with theirs.

And we are guilty of this. We consider our opinions to be correct, oftentimes condoning or rationalizing those actions of individuals or institutions that violate our principles so long as they favor our position. For instance, we play the moral card when it comes to discrediting candidates because of extrajudicial practices but turn a blind eye when these same acts are committed, albeit in other ways, by candidates we support. We see ourselves as intelligent voters because we have MAs or PhDs and get disappointed when those who are supposed to be smart like us choose candidates we abhor. If people who prefer the “wrong” candidate happen to be of a lower social class, we label them “bobotante,” undermining their lifetime of experiences and the circumstances that have led to their choices and ways of thinking.

Sociologist Pierre Bourdieu calls these experiences and circumstances “habitus.” Habitus may be defined as the structure of the mind characterized by acquired sensibilities, dispositions, and taste. In other words, it’s the collection of the internalized experiences that shapes our attitudes towards society, impacting the way we interact with the world. Habitus is complex; it is affected by many things such as social class, sex, family, religion, educational attainment, and ethnicity, among others.

We bring her back, the woman named Lorna from West Rembo. We found out more about her during her quieter moments, in between needed queries for our study. She grew up poor and never finished schooling, blocking her access to certain opportunities and forcing her to learn the rough ways of West Rembo. To her, Binay came in with his agenda at a time when she had very little, paving the way for her to construct him as the best choice despite his corruption issues. He was their rescue; he would enable them to secure a future. I would normally disagree with her choice, but only because I come from a background different from hers, one that puts me in a more comfortable position in the very middle of the middle class.

Which is precisely why I can’t bring myself to label people as “bobotante” or any other word that’s the opposite of “disente.” Boxing them in such categories encourages competition between whose voice rings louder and whose views matter more, ultimately pitting binary ideas of right and wrong when an individual’s thinking is structured in complex ways that go beyond the shades of black and white. Voting is a practice of one’s habitus. Casting one’s vote is not simply an act of choosing candidates – it is a culmination of our past and present social location, the lifelong conditions informed by our class, education, family, and religion that make us who we are and that allow us to arrive at a particular judgment of what is “best.”

As the tiresome act of filtering my newsfeed continues, I’m also brought back to the contesting camps therein. It seems that some of those under my radar who have chosen to wage their war under the word “disente” say that it is their democratic right to say what they will, to call certain people ill-advised or stupid for consciously choosing the “wrong” vote. But, lest we forget, labelling involves power relations. It creates exclusionary measures against people that are tagged, thinking that they deserve less because of their choices – choices that reflect habitus and are shaped by forces that are often beyond their control. If we do think that our political preferences are for the greater good, resorting to name-calling and labeling not only destabilizes the democratic process we claim to enjoy, but also goes against this greater good, this humanity, that we are advocating for.

As the country holds its breath until tomorrow’s election and the new chapter after that, Lorna in West Rembo, and many others like her in places far beyond our reach, will continue to grapple with conditions that will shape their interpretations and realities. Instead of employing exclusionary measures to marginalize the voices of people who do not share in our contexts, we can choose to be more reflexive, to deepen our engagement with people on the ground, with people whose suffering is removed from us. We can choose to listen to them more closely.

Featured image taken from this site.


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