“The learning and knowledge that we have, is, at the most, but little compared with that of which we are ignorant.” (Plato)
“I speak to everyone in the same way, whether he is the garbage man or the president of the university.” (Einstein)
I have always had a problem with the use of titles like “Doctor” or “Professor“. Not because I felt the need to be disrespectful, or that someone had not deserved such a title. But rather, I have had concerns that the use of such titles may inhibit the equal, respectful and mutually beneficial flow of information between people. Although I plan to write something in the future in more detail about this topic, a book I recently finished for one of my graduate courses in Spiritual Psychology has brought the topic to my attention again. That topic being the use of educational, political or professional titles and the role they might play in identity, ego and the creation (or suppression) of an equal-playing field for knowledge-sharing, collaboration, cooperation and team-building.
“There are dynamics in all kinds of institutions that deprive the many of their identity so the few can enhance their own…[w]hen we are insecure about our own identities, we create settings that deprive other people of their identities as a way of buttressing our own”. However, there are also leaders who “….possess a gift available to all who take an inner journey: the knowledge that identity does not depend on the role we play or the power it gives us over others.” (Parker J. Palmer – Let Your Life Speak)
For now, let’s start with one title, “Doctor”. Personally, I do not use titles. I do not call someone Doctor so-and-so and if someone introduces themselves to me as Doctor so-and-so I will ask for their first name if I don’t already know it. I am sure you can imagine how some doctors may react to this – like the new, young doctor I was introduced to at Squamish Hospital last week. The roots of where and when I started this practice began, I believe, when I entered the graduate program at UNBC back in 1997. But I will leave the details of that story for another time. Instead I will try to explain the logic, the motivation, behind not using titles such as “Doctor” when I communicate with medical doctors or academics with PhD’s.
In my opinion, the moment you either use, or are expected to use, such titles, this immediately elevates the “titled” person’s perceived status socially and intellectually, diminishes your own status and contribution and implies the one with the title is in control. This is not “communication”, this is not “collaboration”. The use of artificial, social and intellectual hierarchies is in my opinion, simply not conducive to creating an open, collaborative, equally engaged and mutually respectful dialog with anyone. Yes, there are always going to be people with more training, more knowledge and a better understanding of all sorts of topics and we should respect and consider their (valid and supported) opinions. In no way is my refusal to use a title, a sign of disrespect to the effort, education or knowledge in anyone. In fact my refusal to use titles is a sign of RESPECT for all those who may not feel adequate, equal or mutually respected when they are expected, or feel compelled, to address someone by their title.
My concerns around the use of titles is the role they may play in elevating some, while diminishing others, when in fact both are engaged in what should be a mutually respectful, egalitarian knowledge-collaboration process. What exactly is gained at the start of a communication process, many of which may require ongoing dialog, collaboration and sharing of knowledge, if we begin by artificially subjugating (fall under control) and subordinating (lowering) ourselves, thereby diminishing our status and our right to equanimity and mutual respect in a shared dialog? Other than artificially inflating the other person’s ego, what is really gained (as far as communication goes) by the use of such separating, polarizing, subordinating, isolating and self-diminishing titles? Some people also find it very difficult to engage in a conversation, a dialog with someone openly, honestly, expressively, sincerely and unapologetically if they believe their knowledge, their status, their ideas are somehow less than the person they are communicating with. How can this be good for communication? How can this foster the sharing, the development, the cumulative and mutually beneficial evolution of knowledge?
I believe the use of artificial titles can lower the experienced, and perceived, status of the person without such a title. How can one feel truly respected for their opinions, their intellectual contributions, if they are expected to begin a dialog from a subjugated, ignoble and lowered status?
Although some may quickly jump to the mistaken assumption that it is my own arrogance, my own self-inflated ego that refuses to use such professional or academic titles as “Doctor”, or that I am being disrespectful by not using such titles, the reality, the truth is very different. I refuse ( with some exceptions) to use titles like “Doctor” as a sign of RESPECT to all those who have been, or are, subjugated, lowered in some way by the elevation of another person above all others. I refuse to use titles as a sign of my recognition of, and support for,truly egalitarian forms of education, knowledge-sharing, community-building and mutually respectful interactions. I refuse to use titles as a show of support for my belief that EVERYONE has the EQUAL right to be respected and engaged for their opinions, perspectives and beliefs without fear of any form of artificially imposed intellectual, social, academic or professional hierarchy.
Is this a popular attitude? Is this a behavior which makes me friends in the academic community? No. However, the only people whom I have found that seem to take offence at my refusal to refer to them as “Doctor”, are the ones who’s sense of self appears inflated, who’s identity seems fundamentally attached to a perception of their own inestimable self-worth and a need for external validation, or recognition. And yes, I do arrogantly believe I am doing these unfortunate individuals a small service by knocking them down a notch. This is my weakness, my failing. But in my own defense, my intentions are sincerely not to knock anyone down, but rather to elevate others. I am a firm believer in showing respect for anyone who has accomplished something of great value either to themselves or their community. However, if we truly hope to build egalitarian communities of people where knowledge, wisdom and creativity are mutually shared and developed, we may need to equalize everyone’s status in order to level the intellectual and communication playing-field and foster a round-table style of interaction, without artificial titles that elevate some, and subordinate others.
“When we are insecure about our own identities, we create settings that deprive other people of their identities as a way of buttressing our own. This happens all the time in families, where parents who do not like themselves give their children low self-esteem. It happens at work as well: how often I phone a business or professional office and hear, “Dr Jones’s office – this is Nancy speaking.” The boss has a title and a last name but the person … who answers the phone has neither, because the boss has declared that it will be that way. There are dynamics in all kinds of institutions that deprive the many of their identity so the few can enhance their own, as if identity were a zero-sum game, a win-lose situation.…. look in on a hospital where the doctors turn patients into objects – “the kidney in Room 401” – as a way of claiming superiority at the very time when vulnerable patients desperately need a sense of self. Things are not always this way of course. There are settings and institutions led by people whose identities do not depend on depriving others of theirs. If you are in that kind of family or office or school or hospital, your sense of self is enhanced by leaders who know who they are.” (Parker J. Palmer – Let Your Life Speak)
“These leaders possess a gift available to all who take an inner journey: the knowledge that identity does not depend on the role we play or the power it gives us over others….When a leader is grounded in that knowledge, what happens in the family, the office, the classroom, the hospital can be life-giving for all concerned.” (Parker Palmer – Let Your Life Speak)