I’m also suspicious of titles as a device. In calling one another by titles, we reinact the 19th and early 20th c. literary technique of almost naming characters or places with letters and dashes. Like when Dostoyevsky’s “Notes From Underground” misanthrope supposes, “An artist paints a picture of s—-.” Or when Jane Austen nearly discloses that George Wickham “was to have a lieutenant’s commission in the ____shire.” When we’re addressed as Mr. or Ms., part of our name – the first part even, the part that is most us – is replaced with a placeholder. And a name disappears entirely into Sir or Ma’am. More than honor us, titles threaten our individualities.
I’m suspicious of this kind of partial nom de guerre. Leaving off parts of names suggests we’re hiding or we’ve something to hide. Like the underground man, like Lieutenant Wickham. In eliding names with titles, we are like Freud, sort of discretely documenting patients like Dora: “she admitted that she might have been in love with Herr K. at B____.”
Or, we’re trying to imitate Kafka. But winding up more like Josef K. Titles just smack of bureaucracy and confusion. In the workplace, employees traditionally address their so-called superiors with Mr. or Ms. Almost everyone’s over someone else. Or at least they think they are. In corporate culture, titles are as ubiquitous as suits and ties. It seems that commonality would cancel out distinction.
Titles lend themselves to fascism, really. We like to look alike. We like to be called alike. There’s a uniformity in being a Mr. or a Ms. and a place, too. Titles uphold pride and prejudice. They sustain structure and signal our clear positions in the order of it all. Sir, yes, sir.
Titles play with power and, like power, they tempt abuse. They’re as often used to signal not power as power. Supervisors, police officers, judges, teachers, and parents might call their prey Mr. or Ms. to remind them of their powerlessness. Here, I hear The Matrix’s Agent Smith threatening “Mr. Anderson.”
I suppose titles can signal respect. It sort of makes sense that my daughter Eve calls her teacher Miss K—-. But then two-year-old Eve is 3′ tall. It must be apparent to her that the 5’6″ Miss K—- is to be respected. The teacher is, at basic, bigger. As much as I abhor Social Darwinism, in the natural world – including at Parents’ Day Out – there’s something to might.
Similarly, I’m an instructor. I design syllabi, plot course trajectories, moderate discussions, and sometimes bring more academic experience than students to the conversation. I assign grades. It’s obvious I’m the instructor. Why would I ask to be addressed with a title?
Kind of like a nickname shouldn’t be self-assigned, a title shouldn’t be requested by individuals or expected by the cliché of custom.
Anyway, I don’t want to diagnosed by Freud, as the Underground man might be. I don’t want to be Kafkaesque. George Wickham’s not my type. Like The Matrix’s hero replies when the always antagonizing Agent Smith calls him Mr. Anderson, “My name is Neo.”