I was delighted to read Michael Strain’s article about “the tyranny of informality.” Not only did Strain articulate the question with great intelligence and verve, but now I know that I am not alone in being appalled by this cultural habit.
You might know that certain people—like George Clooney—become seriously torqued when anyone refers to President Obama as just plain Obama. Surely, Clooney would fly into high dudgeon if he heard someone refer to our dear president as Barack.
For his part Strain was shocked to see President Barack Obama violating protocol by referring to the Chancellor of Germany as: Angela. You heard that right, Obama went before the cameras, standing next to Chancellor Merkel and kept calling her Angela… as though they were buddies, and as though they did not bear august titles and serious responsibilities.
Truth be told, he was insulting her to her face.
And you were wondering why our relations with other countries are not so good.
One is not surprised that Obama would descend to this level. After all, Obama has long trafficked in down home idioms, the better to make it appear that he is one of the people. Of course, he isn't just plain folks. He's the president. Thus, his locutions signal his arrogance.
Strain described the scene at the news conference:
[Obama’s] opening paragraph alone is littered with informality. “Angela, of course, has been here many times.” “Well into her third term, Angela is now one of Germany’s longest-serving chancellors.” “As we all saw in Rio, Angela is one of her team’s biggest fans.” (After a barrage of unseemly familiarity, the chancellor’s first sentence was “Thank you, President, dear Barack.” I would like to think that she decided it polite to respond in kind, but couldn’t stop herself from including two terms of respect before uttering the president’s first name. The name “Barack” never returns in the transcript. Even still, she erred.)
“Angela” is one of the most powerful and important heads of government in the world today. And she was a guest, not only of the president but of the United States. Even if the president and the chancellor are on a first-name basis in private, she ought to be given respect by being accorded some distance through formality. Using her first name in public is beneath her station — and yes, station is the right word.
Ah yes, there’s that word: RESPECT. The chancellor of Germany deserves respect. And that means, using the proper terms of respect. If you feel it but don’t say it, you are not showing it. And if you don’t show it, your feelings are a sham.
Unfortunately, Barack Obama has made a habit of disrespect. He seems to be opposed to the rules of propriety and decorum.
If the culture has coarsened during the past six years, one reason might be that our president disdains good manners.
It didn’t start with Obama. It has culminated in Obama. In today’s America, fewer and fewer people respect authority. They do not respect the authority of teachers. They do not respect the authority of law enforcement officers. They do not respect the authority of those who are older and wiser than they are.
Of course, it is also fair to say that some of those who hold positions of high authority, beginning with the president, do not seem comfortable exercising it. Their demeanor does not command respect.
They, as most of us, live in a youth cult.We worship youth and disdain the wisdom that comes with age and experience.
This implies that after we inevitably outgrow our youth, it’s all downhill from there. The young cult is a prescription for depression.
It also means that many people don’t know how to take advice. They would rather make their own mistakes than to accept the guidance of someone who is older and wiser.
“The tyranny of informality,” Strain argues, is rude. It is fake; it invites us all to live in an “egalitarian fiction.” It causes us to take leave of reality.
In his words;
Our society is suffering from a tyranny of informality. It is rude. It is false intimacy. It is a product of the utopian, egalitarian fiction that society is one big happy village. A friendship circle, where we’re all holding hands. Station and hierarchy should be leveled because they are so nineteenth-century. In the modern world, we are all equal — so we are all pals.
Titles, he continues, confer authority. They are granted by institutions and thus designate the individual as having been elevated to his position by something other than his own will. Thus titles inspire respect.
Individuals who bear titles will be respected, until proven wrong. Individuals who do not bear titles will be doubted until they prove their worth.
Surely, it is not always the case, but we do better when we have guidelines, especially those that have been established by tradition.
Authors whose works have become part of the canon of the great books of our civilization deserve and should be treated with respect.
Strain explains that respect resides in titles:
It’s easier to take moral instruction from “Father Suwalsky” than it is from “Dave.” “Father Suwalsky” has institutional authority reflected in an institutional title. It’s easier to accept knowledge from “Dr. Bean” than it is from “Jessica” — “Dr. Bean” has authority over knowledge. I’d find it a lot easier to undergo cancer treatment from “Dr. Hymes” than from “Ken.” It’s much easier to interact with people decades older than you if you address them in a way that recognizes their lived experience and wisdom.
The “tyranny of informality” also fouls personal relationships. If everyone is on a first-name basis, Strain notes, your language no longer defines your intimacy.
If every relationship begins on a first-name basis, then I am robbed of the ability to signal to someone that he has become a friend or close colleague by inviting him to address me by my first name. If the guy who comes to fix my cable calls me “Michael,” then what is left for my friends to call me? And isn’t it a little easier for the cable guy to give substandard service to “Tom” than to “Mr. Creal?”
Friendship is earned. Trust is earned. Even intimacy is earned.
When you treat all people the same way, you are conferring friendship to those who have not earned it. You are conferring trust to those who have not earned it.
This means that you are devaluing friendship. In some way it means that you are treating all people as equals, that is, as having the same relationship with you. This is consonant with the current mania about seeing all people primarily as human beings, as members of the species, as possessing a type of group membership that does not require good behavior and that does not punish bad behavior.
You belong to the human species no matter what you do.
The upshot is simple: defining human beings outside of all group membership makes of them an amoral species, people you would not want to hang around with.