Friday, August 14, 2009

The Machiavellian ways of some aspirants for my country's presidency

My Merriam-Webster’s 11th Collegiate Dictionary defines Machiavellian as “marked by cunning, duplicity, or bad faith,” but it doesn’t say if acts of that kind also constitute bad manners. In other words, it’s okay to do those acts on the Machiavellian principle that “the end justifies the means”—and so what if good manners are trampled upon if the plum is the highest position in the gift of the land?

This is obviously the justification in the minds of those who, on the flimsiest of pretenses, are now brazenly advertising themselves for the Philippine presidency in utter disregard of the law against premature election campaigning. Due to their vaulting ambition, they can hardly wait and don’t mind at all that their self-promoting TV commercials may be patently illegal and socially objectionable besides. How then, some of us might ask, can we trust them to be decent and trustworthy in exercising the great powers and prerogatives of the presidency?

But then, what’s happening now is simply history repeating itself. Way back in 2003, the so-called or self-appointed “presidentiables” of the time did the same preelection period campaigning as brazenly—and the fact is that they all got away with it with nary a slap on the wrist. Indeed, it was their shameless audacity in doing so that prompted me to write the essay below, “The Grammar of Manners,” in my column in The Manila Times in July of that year. Going over the piece now, I find that my observations then about the Machiavellian ways of Philippine politics are still resonant today—and at much higher decibel levels at that!

The Grammar of Manners

“Mind” is a very tricky English word, probably as deceptive as the statistical practice of equating popularity with fitness for the presidency. My dictionary defines “mind” in so many ways. As a noun it is “the seat of awareness, thought, and feeling”; “the intellect”; “memory and remembrance”; “one’s opinion”; and “the focus of one’s thoughts and desires.” As an intransitive verb, it means “to object to”, “to remember,” “to take care of,” “to take charge temporarily,” “to apply or concern oneself with something,” “to be obedient to,” and “to take heed or notice.” With such a profusion of meanings, it is no wonder that “mind” is among the most misused of English words.

The most embarrassing misuse of “mind,” I think, happens in the grammar of manners. I remember long ago my abysmal ignorance about this when I attended a party in Manila for the first time, one hosted by an English professor. I was the last to enter her living room among a batch of adolescent guests, and as I did so she called out with quintessential sophistication: “Mr. Carillo, do you mind closing the door? The wind and flies outside are so bothersome.” The remark was so incomprehensible to me that I could only stare at her for several pulse-pounding seconds. Finally I stammered: “Yes, of course, Mrs. Reyes!” And with that I gingerly closed the door.

Then, as I walked towards her to pay my courtesies, I noticed her staring at me as if she had seen a ghost. But she regained her composure quickly and became her professorial self. “Mr. Carillo,” she began gently, “You didn’t answer me right. You should have replied, ‘No, Ms. Reyes, not at all!’ That’s the polite and cultured way of saying that you didn’t object to my request for you to close the door. You see, the verb ‘mind’ in ‘Do you mind closing the door?’ doesn’t mean ‘please.’ It means ‘object,’ as in ‘Do you object to the idea of closing the door?’ It’s not the same as “Could you, please?’, which you can politely answer with a ‘Yes.’ Do you understand?”

“Yes, Mrs. Reyes, I understand,” I said, and made a motion to leave.

“Don’t you go yet, Mr. Carillo,” she said, gently taking hold of my wrist, “I’d like to give you a few more lessons in the grammar of manners. The food can wait. When I said that ‘No, not at all’ is the polite reply to ‘Do you mind?’, it doesn’t mean you don’t have the option to say ‘Yes.’ For instance, if I asked, ‘Do you mind not staring at me?’, you actually have the option of saying ‘Yes, I do mind, because I just love staring at you,’ but of course that would be impolite—not the answer, but the act of staring at me. If I asked, ‘Do you mind if I light my cigar?’, you can politely tell me, ‘Yes, Mrs. Reyes, I mind very much—I am terribly allergic to cigar smoke, and I don’t like women who smoke cigars.’ Of course, if the idea of cigar smoke or women doesn’t bother you, you can readily tell me, ‘No, not at all’ or ‘Go right ahead.’ Do you get the drift?”

“Yes, Miss Reyes, I do.”

“Great, Mr. Carillo! That means we’re off to a good start. You may go now and join the guests for dinner.”

That terribly humiliating lesson in the grammar of manners sent me on a weeklong search for the other meanings of the treacherous word. In fact, I was to discover so many other slippery idioms using “mind” and set out to internalize all of them: (1) “We’re of the same mind” means we share the same feeling or opinion; (2) “They can’t fool around with me if I just put my mind to it” means they can’t do any hanky-panky if I firmly don’t allow them; (3) “We’re not in our right minds if we elect overtly deceptive people” means we are crazy to do that; (4) “Mind to think out clearly who to trust” means we should remember not to trust the untrustworthy; (5) “Mind to figure out why these politicians are suddenly all over media endorsing commercial products” means we should find out what they really are up to; and finally, (6) “Mind what our conscience tells us” means to obey what we know to be true, ethical, and just.

Now that we have looked closely at the various meanings of “mind,” I’ll ask this question: Do we mind that some pollsters are foisting on us the deceptive art of equating popularity with fitness for the highest post in the gift of the nation? I pray that the answer is “Yes, we do mind and we’ll tell them to go practice their modern witchcraft elsewhere!” I do hope this is our answer, or else God help us all! (July 3, 2003)

From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, July 3, 2003 issue © 2003 by The Manila Times. All rights reserved.

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