A simple way to break down social barriers: courtesy titles
In mid-April Mark Zuckerberg, the founder and chief executive officer of Facebook, made a much-anticipated appearance on Capitol Hill, where he was questioned by members of Congress for more than 10 hours about the company’s improper handling of the personal data of Facebook users. Throughout the nationally televised inquisition, reported The Washington Post, both Democrats and Republicans “took turns swiping at Zuckerberg, holding him to ‘yes’ and ‘no’ questions and frequently cutting him off.”
Yet Mr. Zuckerberg largely kept his cool and displayed a sense of decorum that seemed almost anachronistic. Several commentators, in fact, said that Mr. Zuckerberg might have been too polite, or at least excessively deferential, because he prefaced every response with “Senator” or “Congressman.” Heather Schwedel of Slate wrote that “Zuckerberg sounded like he was overdoing it, at times coming off as not just a try-hard but pedantic too.” I did not hear it that way. His sense of decorum was a welcome respite from the freewheeling, indecorous rhetoric that passes for our public discourse.
His sense of decorum was a welcome respite from freewheeling, indecorous rhetoric.
Mr. Zuckerberg’s appearance certainly stands in sharp contrast with the squeamishly inappropriate performance of Michelle Wolf, the comedian who was center stage at this year’s annual dinner hosted by the White House Correspondents’ Association. There is a difference between funny and mean, which Ms. Wolf struggled to discern. While allowing for the fact that Mr. Zuckerberg and Ms. Wolf had different roles at different events, one delivering formal testimony, the other playing the part of court jester, Ms. Wolf’s performance by contrast showed just how coarse the contemporary political discourse can be. That is not entirely her fault, of course. As the conservative commentator William Kristol observed, while “the half hour performance of Michelle Wolf was vulgar, unseemly and damaging to our civic discourse,” the entire “three-year performance of candidate and president Donald Trump has been vulgar, unseemly and infinitely more damaging to our civic discourse.”
That much is true, but the lack of decorum in our public affairs is not entirely the fault of President Trump either. For years now, Americans have been jettisoning the formal, social customs that have traditionally governed our public interactions, tossing overboard the social niceties that were once thought to be essential to the smooth sailing of the ship of state. Our bemusement at Mr. Zuckerberg’s use of traditional honorifics and courtesy titles is evidence of this. And as with so much else, the justification for breaking down these social “barriers” is some seemingly egalitarian notion of inclusion.
The lack of decorum in our public affairs is not entirely the fault of President Trump.
Yet abandoning such social customs tends to benefit elites by reinforcing social barriers rather than removing them. I am loath, for example, to address people by their first name unless they have invited me to do so, or we have a familiar relationship that makes it acceptable to do so. In much of everyday life, however, we have done away with such formalities. And it is people in positions of power who have benefitted. Now, upon being introduced to Agnes Murphy of Ottumwa, Iowa, housewife and grandmother, most of us would feel perfectly entitled to call her Agnes from the get-go. But what about our doctors or the local judge? And if we met Pope Francis for the first time, would we think it was appropriate to address him as Jorge? If we met the president of the French Republic, would we think it was acceptable to call him Emmanuel? Certainly not. Most of us would probably address him as Mr. President, yet he would probably feel free to call us by our first names. This is levelling the playing field?
One could argue that we should use honorifics and courtesy titles in one case and not the other out of respect for the office the person occupies, rather than the person per se. Yet that is precisely my point: Basic social customs, including how we address each other, should account for what we owe each other as human beings, not what we think we owe someone by virtue of the power he or she possesses. Forms of address can change depending on the office someone inhabits, but the fundamental respect we owe each other, which is reflected in these formalities, does not change. It is not a coincidence, moreover, that our discourse became more coarsened just at the moment we collectively abandoned these formal social customs.
All of this is to say that America will continue to use honorifics and courtesy titles, whether it is “Mr. Trump,” “Mrs. Clinton” or “Sr. Margaret, a nun from Albany.” It does mean that our prose is occasionally cumbersome and that our authors sometimes have fewer words with which to work. But such formalities personalize the discourse in the only way that ultimately matters, by signaling the basic respect we owe people simply because they are persons. To put it another way: I think Mrs. Murphy of Ottumwa, Iowa, is owed the same mark of respect as the highest- ranking president or prelate. Even more, perhaps, but at least that much.