I recently heard someone who’s obsessed with honorifics opine that we should never mention Martin Luther King Jr. without his full titles. I think I understand the reason, but I was reminded of my wife’s experience in Edinburgh. Being Americans we assumed that “Doctor” was the preferred title of academics. While tying up a letter for one of the higher ups in the medical school, she saw he’d signed himself “Mr. Gordon.” She corrected this to “Dr. Gordon.” When she gave it to him to sign he lamented that she’d demoted him. The highest honorific, beyond the exalted “Professor,” was the humble “Mister.” I’ve never forgotten that story. University folk are all about titles.
I made the mistake of addressing my advisor as “Doctor” when we first met. “Professor,” he corrected me. In the British system, at least at the time, a department had only one “Professor,” the rest being “Lecturer” or “Senior Lecturer” or “Reader.” The latter three were all addressed as “Doctor.” The Professor alone had that singular title. As my wife discovered, on beyond Professor lay Mister. I’m a pretty informal guy. When I was teaching I did insist that students call me “Doctor,” in part because I was young (I finished my doctorate at 29), and I’m small in stature. And soft-spoken. So that students didn’t take to calling me “son”—some at the seminary were old enough to have been my father—I kept the boundaries clear. If I ever get a teaching post again I’ll insist students call me by my first name.
This day is about Martin Luther King, Jr. He was a remarkable man who accomplished amazing things in the horribly racist America in which he was raised. Unfortunately Trump has ushered in a renewed era of racism and our Black brothers and sisters find themselves still having to fight for fair treatment. This reflects badly on the white man, as it should. Still, to rely on titles is to play the white man’s game. We honor each other more deeply, it seems to me, when we recognize that titles are, by their very nature, means of asserting superiority. We offer our personal names to those closest to us, to those who humanize us rather than seeing us as an office. Honor is important. Titles can lead to better jobs (but not necessarily). They can lead to higher pay (but not always). We honor Martin Luther King, Jr. today by recognizing his great accomplishments and by realizing we all still have much work to do before we all really have names.