Cultural Modes of Address

In the Army an E-5 is a Sergeant. An E-6 is a Staff Sergeant, and an E-7 is a Sergeant First Class. All may be referred to as Sergeant ****.

“Sergeant Smith, where’s the whatever?”

That’s a perfectly acceptable polite form of address for SGT Smith, SSG Smith, and SFC Smith.

In the Marine Corps, it’s different. One calls the NCO by their specific rank.

“Segreant Smith, where’s the whatever?”

“Staff Sergeant Smith, where’s the gadget?”

“Gunnery Sergeant Smith, what’s the contraption?”

You pick the appropriate one. This is cultural.

The bounds of these cultures are well defined. The Army does is one way, the Marines do it another, etc. Joint forces often specify this in formal doctrines of address, though arguments ensue. Off duty servicemembers fight about this a lot. But off-duty fights are, of course, off duty and not professional anymore.

There is absolutely no chance of a formal doctrine of address in the civilian world such as what exists in the military. There are merely conventions, and these are subgroups of cultue.

Right now, the president-elect’s wife has a PhD. There’s a brewing culture clash over the appropriate form of address for her: is she Dr. Biden or Mrs. Biden? (In the US, we put the period after Dr. and Mrs., in the UK and most other commonwealth countries, they don’t)

The WSJ published an op-ed to the effect that only MDs should be addressed as Dr. Twitter reacted Twitteresque. No one impressed me.

WSJ has consistently reserved the address Dr. for medical doctors, so they take refuge in that, but the article is pretty sanctimonious, bordering on trolling. Joseph Epstein was clearly instigating. But the NYT and others wasted no time in rising to the bait. Obscenity and accusations of sexism followed like light bulbs coming on after a switch is flicked.

Two cultures are colliding, and the bounds of these cultures are nebulous. People exist in both, and the bounds of them are not well limited. My old rule, call people what they want to avoid a fight, is merely my rule. Should the WSJ writers be impelled to alter their terms of address in the WSJ? Should the First Lady accept not being called her preferred term of address?

Again, I go back to the military. You call a Marine E-6 Sergeant ****, and you’re going to get an earful. But when we’re sitting around in our hootch, trying to figure out who to go to to get something resolved, we fell back on traditional modes of expression if that Marine wasn’t there.

I don’t think anyone has any moral high ground. Bush got called a terrorist. Obama got called a terrorist. Trump got called literally Hitler (which was weird because he’d be, like, a hundred and thirty something). No one’s given the other side enough respect to demand it in turn.

Furthermore, there’s an odd bit of cultural imperialism at play. People are demanding others do things their way. Now the First Lady is clearly part of one culture, and she’d gone on the record as establishing her preference in address. But she’s also part of American Culture, and there isn’t one American Culture. There’s a ton of them. Most are arguing with each other. What’s weird is that the anti-imperialists, generally the left and Democrats, are demanding that others adopt their culture and their modes of address. They have anointed themselves the correct culture, and fight to compel others to adopt their ways. You can follow the Twitter threads if you want; they’re basically codified in the NYT (though the more overt obscenity and threats of violence are not included).

The right, WSJ, and Republicans, which complained bitterly and relentlessly about the lack of respect for Trump, are indulging immediately in the same. Now there’s a little less hypocrisy in this side as both sides have been utterly vile to each other for years. But Epstein starting picking before Biden even got inaugurated. Of course, this was an opportunity for WSJ to play to its base (stick it to the libs!) even while criticize the Biden administration for playing to its base. That’s pretty stark hypocrisy too.

The way I see it, both sides are quarreling over how many imaginary jerk-points the other side has.

The Republicans say, “You have twenty jerk-points and we only have ten, so we’re better!”

The Democrats rebut, “No, no. We have twenty, but you have fifty! We’re better.”

I don’t care. You’re both jerks.

The imperialism thing is odd. It makes the Democrats seem like strangers in their own land.

I am certainly a stranger in my own land. I don’t get this place.

Stay safe, everyone. We’re in September, 1918. Some safety is coming, and we’ll have to live with each other in the morning.

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