Think hard now about the Filipino 'galang,' the root word for respect. What's in your mind's eye when you think of 'galang'?
I nearly jumped out of my seat when I was driving down North Luzon Expressway a few days before my Ateneo talk. There was a huge billboard with large letters: 'Ito ang tama' (This is what's right), showing a child making mano to an old woman. 'Mano,' the Spanish word for hand, is used in Philippine languages to refer to the act of respect where a younger person (most often a child) brings the hand of an older person to his or her forehead.
I took a picture of that billboard and used it in my Ateneo presentation.
The problem with 'galang' is that it has many qualifiers. Most of the time, we think respect is due only to someone old or older. Respect is also extended to someone who is of higher status, like a former teacher (but not the current teacher), or a member of the religious (but only males, as far as I know, and more often for bishops).
Then there's class. You do not normally give the mano to an elderly person from a class lower than your own, although people with proper upbringing do use po for anyone older, even of a lower status.
I also feel that our 'respect' takes on too much of form rather than substance. I see mano being extended only because it's required, given all too haphazardly.
I feel, too, that we overuse 'respectfully' in our correspondence, especially in government. When I first became chancellor, I was aghast at letters that would start 'Kagalang-galang na Chancellor,' followed by some of the most disrespectful language you can imagine, words like 'kinokondena' (condemning) or 'demanda' (demand).
We have all these contradictions because we think of respect with too many qualifiers, boiled down to whether one is equal or superior to ourselves. Even worse, we dehumanize people so we no longer need to think of respect. In times of war, soldiers are taught to demonize the enemy, making it easier for them to pull the trigger.
But it's not just during warfare where we have this 'othering.' For example, I was recently attacked, behind my back, together with a colleague, as 'p-inang Intsik.' I can imagine the spite accompanying 'Intsik,' all because my colleague and I were upholding certain rules... and had monosyllabic surnames. The people who heard the expletives came to me, almost in tears and with palpable anger, because they, too, felt assaulted.
We have to teach respect as a mindset that shapes what we say and do. Moreover, this respect must be based on recognizing dangal or dignity as inherent in all human beings.
The disconnect between galang and dangal explains why we have government leaders who can be venal, corrupt, violent, and yet be most respectful when it comes to using po and the mano. Not surprisingly, they are the ones most conscious about being called 'Honorable' and 'Kagalang-galang.'
Let's start at home teaching galang and dangal. I love the way we've started using po with children. Even if used playfully, and sometimes in protest when they order us around, the message is that we do respect their views and their rights (yes, children have rights).
Galang with dangal spells inclusivity and reciprocity. I respect you, and hope you can extend that respect to me as well.
When I have to deal with a problematic student, faculty or staff, including very angry mobs, I start out by asking, 'Ano ang problema natin?' adding a po when proper.
People are afraid to be respectful because they think it's a sign of weakness. My view is that disrespect displays fear and gross insecurity.
Active nonviolence means we can be respectful even when we speak and act against injustice and wrongdoing, holding the high moral ground by not descending to the level of the disrespectful, the bastos.
In the end, you'll find people becoming more responsible for their work and their actions, because you have extended respect for their dignity, rather than just for their age or status.