The Dark Side of Righteous Anger: Talking about Corruption After Alan García’s Suicide

Two weeks ago, former Peruvian President Alan García shot himself when authorities came to arrest him on corruption charges. Garcia’s suicide provoked a diverse range of reactions. Among these, one of the most disturbing was a vulgar tweet from Major Olimpio, a right-wing Brazilian politician who tweeted: “The ex-President of Peru committed suicide upon being arrested. Hopefully this trend catches on here in Brazil. It would big a big savings for the country.” Olimpio, of course, is referring to the dozens of politicians in Brazil implicated in the Car Wash (Lava Jato) scandal.

Olimpio’s tweet taps into the white-hot anger and resentment that continues to sweep across Latin America in response to the revelations of high-level corruption throughout the region. That anger is understandable. Investigations growing out of the Lava Jato operation—particularly those involving the Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht, which has admitted to paying more than $800 million in bribes across 11 countries in Latin America—have exposed pervasive corruption reaching the highest levels of government. Ten former Latin American presidents (including García) have been or are currently being investigated for corruption, along with dozens of other high level officials in multiple countries, and possibly hundreds of rank-and-file officers who were a part of these schemes. But while popular fury over corruption is justified, it should never be okay to mock suicide or make implicit death threats. And while Olimpio’s tweet about García is a particularly extreme case, this sort of hostile, callous, violent rhetoric is becoming disturbingly common in the public dialogue about corruption and its perpetrators in Latin America. For example, the current President of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, and his son both tweeted menacing threats to Bolsonaro’s opponent, Fernando Haddad, during the campaign saying that he was “nursing on the teat of corrupt politicians in jail” because he had visited a jailed politician, and that it was “good that he already knew what it was like to go to prison.” Since Brazil is still a country where you are innocent until proven guilty, and Haddad himself had not even been accused with corruption offenses (though several of his political allies had been), these comments were deeply disturbing.

This needs to stop. The anger over corruption is understandable, and to a certain degree a healthy development, given that for so long grudging or cynical resignation was the norm. But rather than channel this anger into violent threats, everyone—especially those in positions of power—needs to temper their anger with more civility. There is a wrong way and a right way to talk about corruption. Crude violent rhetoric is the wrong way.

So what’s the right way? Let me suggest two more appropriate ways to harness the fury over corruption and channel it in a more productive direction.

  • First, rather than deploy the language of violence and vengeance, leaders should adopt a tone of strong moral reproach when talking about the individuals—“naming and shaming” the perpetrators of corruption, and using this as an opportunity to reaffirm the community’s commitment to morality and ethics through condemnation of transgressions. Such moral reproach need not and should not lapse into vengeful or hateful rhetoric, which can be both dangerous and counterproductive. Those who care about fighting corruption should constantly emphasize and re-emphasize the importance of holding leaders—and all people—to a high standard of conduct, a posture that is incompatible with crudity, mockery, or threats. And the language of strong moral reproach may be useful in reminding leaders that by engaging in corruption they risk tarnishing their historical legacies, whereas angry violent rhetoric is more likely to make the targets of that rhetoric seem like victims, even martyrs, rather than criminals.
  • Second, those with the ability to shape the public conversation should try to shift the focus to the details of what actually happened—how and why the corruption occurred—and channel citizen anger into a conversation about policy solutions and reform, rather than stoking a rage-filled conversation about punishment and retribution. For example, in discussing the late Alan García, politicians, public officials, and scholars should be shaping the conversation about (1) how and why Odebrecht made a $200,000 campaign donation to García’s 2006 Presidential campaign and why it went undetected for so long, (2) the complicated corrupt machine of the bid-rigging system for the Lima subway lines that were constructed by Odebrecht and other corrupt partners, and (3) what could be done about it. Likewise, in Brazil, though many citizens know that Lava Jato was a corruption scandal and they are angry about it, they do not really know what happened, who was involved, or what sorts of policy or institutional reforms might help address the underlying problems. There are serious ongoing efforts, including by the Lava Jato prosecutors and civil society groups, to educate the public and turn the focus to the need for broad-based reform. Violent rhetoric impedes that process.

While Internet trolls and angry individuals will surely write and post offensive and vulgar content, professionals and those in the public eye should not stoop to participate in this violent rhetoric. And while most of us in the anticorruption community would never dream of writing something as grotesque as what Olimpio tweeted after Garcia’s suicide, all of us should pause to consider the rhetoric we use. We can and should denounce and hold accountable those who abuse their power for their own private gain, but we also need to be mindful that we frame our moral condemnation in a way that reaffirms our highest aspirations and ideals, rather than stoking hate, and we must find appropriate ways to harness citizen anger into a policy-oriented, forward-looking conversation.

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