As public opinion begins – just begins, mind you – to turn against America’s ruling oligarchy, it seems like a good time to raise questions about a convention that contributes to what is now one of the most rigid class systems in the West: the dubious habit of awarding elected officials with the honorific, “Honorable” and other superlative indicators of their privilege.
I’ve spent a good number of years around elected officials. I was blessed to work for some of the best and most responsible. The late Texas Gov. Ann Richards and former Texas Lt. Gov. Bill Hobby come to mind. We’d be hard pressed to find their kind around anymore. I admired them, respected them and worked for them, but I found it hard to be deferential. And they didn’t ask for deference. They just asked for hard work and commitment to the public they served.
Again, why must we continue to preface the name of an elected official (in letters, etc.) with “Honorable?” Shouldn’t it be the other way around? Shouldn’t elected officials address those they serve with such a title?
It seems like a small thing, and in truth I mean to use it as a symbol of America’s complacency in the face of hardening class distinctions. And that is not a small thing. Unearned honorifics are vestiges of ancient hierarchy and social control. They are linguistic tics that aren’t just simple polite behavior. They maintain class distinctions and subservience to authority.
For one thing, there are very few elected officials today who come close to deserving such deferential treatment. In a political sphere dominated by money, there’s little but access to cash required of candidates for office. And most of their public service careers are spent in pursuit of more of it. That hardly seems the stuff of honor.
Think of this convention juxtaposed against the Medal of Honor. The latter is earned through extraordinary courage and sacrifice for others. Yet, a hack politician can have that word – honor – attached to him or her for nothing but the cost of a campaign.
I’m not arguing for some kind of dull flattening of society. Excellence should be rewarded in all fields. We need experts. We need leaders. I am, however, suggesting that we modify our language and conventions of etiquette to better reflect our founding ideals and a mutual respect for one another.
We are, after all, committed to the proposition that all are created equal. It is not immediately clear why we should pepper our language with words that mean a lucky few are more equal than others.
These little conventions help persuade officials that they are indeed better than those they serve. They believe they deserve private jets, limousines, free tickets and VIP status at any and all public events. Sooner or later many of them come to resent ethical and legal limits on their behavior.
It’s annoying when an elected leader in pursuit of his own ambitions claims to be making some kind of sacrifice on behalf of the people. Can anyone point to a politician in America today who will leave office less wealthy than when he or she entered it?
Suck-up lobbyists persuade them that their ridiculous self-assessments are true. So much so that if we were to pick a group of people who feel themselves “entitled” it is our politicians. It’s galling to hear them complain that the program that helped create America’s middle class – Social Security – is an “entitlement” undeserved by those who spent their lives investing in it.
Maybe there will come a time when we can by mutual consent return to such linguistic conventions. That time will be marked by a return to something like authentic democracy. When that time arrives, leaders will sacrifice on behalf of those they serve. They will want the people to succeed in life even if it means less for themselves. That kind of leader would deserve to be called honorable.
We are some distance from such a time in America today. And while I’ve picked a single little convention to illustrate a generalized deference to unearned authority, it’s time we took on that authority in small and large ways.
We need to occupy the language we use to describe those who today serve only themselves at our expense. If they want us to honor them, they should have to earn that honor.