On Formality

Dec 29, 2017

My resolution for the new year is to become more formal. As a professor, I have to decide whether my students should call me Professor Chaney, Dr. Chaney, or just plain Joe. My bias has been toward informality. I came up in the profession in California, where informality is the rule, and when I first arrived at IU South Bend, many of my students were actually older than I. There were many non-traditional students in those days. Now my students are much younger, and they seem to need and want the formal distance, along with the idealism that it can foster.

As I approach old age, I can see that formality not only is good for old people, but also can inspire virtuous striving in the young. Middle-class kids today grow up with parents who act as friends. They’re on a first-name basis, and they’re hooked up constantly by voice and text. School teachers once commanded respect, but they’ve been bullied, demeaned, and vilified by politicians. Certain kinds of politicians thrive by discrediting public service, treating government itself as fraudulent. Too many religious leaders have become their lapdogs. Meanwhile, reality TV and social networks level the field of debate. Everyone claims expertise but no one is respected as an authority. Public discourse is a contest in which the most outrageous and violent win the prize. The ease of social media invites carelessness. Even the President of the United States takes to Twitter habitually to spill out his passing emotions like a middle school teen.

A greater formality can’t cure all of these ills. In fact, an empty, automatic formality originally promoted many of them, so that what I’m proposing may seem counter-intuitive. The problem with traditional society was its forced formality. The shell of respectability could and did shield all kinds of dishonesty and abuse. With the rise of the #metoo movement, Black Lives Matter, gay rights, greater protections for children, and animal rights, the last vestiges of an old order are being washed away. But after we’ve erased all forms of automatic respect and disrespect, we’re still stuck with the problem of authority. We want our children to develop an inner sense of authority based on self-knowledge and outward achievements. Public authority should be earned continuously. Just as crucially, it should be viewed as an endless ladder, not a platform. This means that in our roles as authority figures, we need to live up to high standards ourselves. At the same time, we need to make clear why the ideal we strive for is worthy of our efforts and exists independently of our persons.

In the new world I’m describing, leadership involves demonstrating authority transparently, through words and deeds. This kind of undisguised performance has been the reality for women and people of color for decades, because they could never effectively wrap themselves in the protection of a title. But they also had to prove themselves to white male judges who were not subject to the same evaluative regime. What I’m proposing is not a return to the mystery of titles and offices. Respect for an office-holder should depend not on tradition, but on performance. But at the same time, we should respect the office itself by investing our idealism there rather than in any fallible person who holds the title. We have to make this distinction clear to our children so that they learn to respect the potential of our laws and traditions and not be fooled into discarding what is great about America – namely, it’s democratic forms.

Call me Professor Chaney, if you’re my student; but this morning, for WVPE, I’m citizen Joe Chaney, wishing you a happy New Year.

Music: "Trumpet Fanfare" by Mouree