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News-Sentinel.com Your Town. Your Voice.
Opening Arguments

They call me Mister Morris

Not here, of course. We're all just good buddies, right? But elsewhere in our life, we could do with a little more formality:

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.

And, of course, in the deepest sense we are all equal: equal before God, equal in moral worth. C. S. Lewis, the Christian apologist, wrote that “you have never talked to a mere mortal.” And you haven’t. All people, as Lewis put it, are “immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.”

But equality in the deepest sense does not mean equality in all things, especially on this side of eternity. Equality in all things is, indeed, frightening. (Do you remember how Robespierre’s égalité worked out?) And not only frightening, but boring, as well. Our differences make us interesting.

And, ultimately, equality in all things is false. A PhD has added to the stock of human knowledge; an undergraduate hasn’t. A priest can transform bread and wine; a layman can’t. Chancellor Merkel can affect the near course of history; I can’t. My friend’s father has successfully raised four children; I haven’t. The way we address each other should reflect these differences because these differences are real and material, and obvious.

[. . .]

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?”

Of course if any country in history was likely to suffer from the "we're all just pals" syndrome, it is this one: coming from the rigidly stratefied structure of Europe, we could hardly do otherwise than to overreact in the oppositer direction. Being too formal and atttentive to protocol would be neither possible noe desirable here.

But I think his point is well-taken. First-name familiarity is so common here that I'm actually starttled on the rare occasion when someone addresses me as "Mr. Morris." And whenever I lapse into formality, I get the same reaction.

We could specially benefit from a lidttle more formality in the upper reaches of politics. Thwe writer's rant was triggered by the joint press conference of President Obama and German Chancellor Merkel, whom the president referred to as "Angela" nearly two dozen times. As one of the most important heads of government today and an invited guest of the United Startes, she deserved more respect than that. But dignity is something we've come to expect less of from the White House. I blame JFK's hatless walk, or maybe it LBJ was the real villain for showing off his surgery scar.

I also like his point about how ubiquitous informality robs us of the ability to signal a change in the relationship. One of the charming things about Spanish is that it actually has different tenses for addressing someone else, a formal one (which, for example, a younger person uses when speaking to an adult) and an informal one. Sliiping into that tense signals to the other person that you think a certain level of familiarity has been reached.