The perennial “to Doctor or not to Doctor” debate about credentials and titles is with us again, this time thanks to a “Wall Street Journal” op-ed arguing that the incoming First Lady, Jill Biden should stop insisting on being called Dr Jill Biden (her postgraduate qualification is in education). Having committed the wrongthink, the author of the op-ed, Joseph Epstein, has been condemned by his former university, Northwestern (where he lectured until 2003), for his “misogynistic views” and has been unpersoned on its website.
For whatever it’s worth (again), here are my thoughts on the broad issue:
1) There is a consensus that medical practitioners of all kinds can and should be addressed as Dr (certainly in professional interactions) and can use their title in public settings, if only so we know who to tap on the shoulder if someone has a heart attack.
2) Academic titles like “Doctor” are best suited to the professional sphere, and so entirely appropriate to be used at work/university. You address most of your sub-Professor lecturers as Dr. Likewise, when you interact from the outside of the workplace/institution with someone for the purposes of relying on their expertise (such a journalist interviewing an academic about their specialty subject) it’s polite to refer to them by their title.
3) The up-doctorship – or trying to rank which doctorates are “real” or “hard” and therefore more deserving of recognition than others – strikes me as a rather barren and pointless exercise. It’s most likely true that a medical qualification is more difficult than a doctorate in philosophy. It’s also true that a doctorate by thesis is more of a personal achievement than an honorary doctorate (though an honorary doctorate often recognises some other, mostly non-academic achievements; whether that’s the best way to recognise them is another question). But apart from that – and in any case – refer to point 2 above and point 4 below.
4) If someone uses their title Doctor outside of the work context, I personally find it unnecessary. If they insist on being addressed that way, I find it precious. Depending on how polite I’m feeling at that particular moment, I might or might not address you as Doctor, but even if I do, I will likely think less of you thereafter.
5) To the criticism of misogyny and “denying/erasing” women’s achievement by not addressing them as Dr, I’m an equal opportunity denier/eraser; I apply the same standard to men and women. It’s great that more and more women have doctorates, but let’s not pretend it’s 1950s still and that women today face greater obstacles to attaining postgraduate degrees than men, thus making their achievement somehow extra special. Everyone has to work as hard as anyone else to obtain a doctorate. Your brain did it, not your genitals.
6) The common argument “I have worked very hard for my doctorate and I deserve recognition” I find rather underwhelming. Yes you have, and good on you. But why do you really need everyone around to know how smart/educated/credentialed you are? For me it screams vanity or insecurity and chips on the shoulders, or worse if your demand is directed in particular at the “plebs”, such as stewardesses or porters. In any case, lot of people work hard in their fields and disciplines and score some major achievements. Should a talented classical musician who’s part of a major philharmonic orchestra be addressed by everyone as “Maestro”? Should a small businessperson who builds their company from nothing to 100 employees and multi-million turnover be addressed as “Mogul”? Or an Olympic medalist as “Champion”? And if not, why not? Why should an advanced university degree be an exception in this case and entitle you to a special treatment?
7) The most amusing part of the whole controversy is that it is by and large the supposedly egalitarian left that’s most up in arms and most insistent that holders of doctorates should be Doctors to everyone. In reality, as we know so well now, some animals are always most equal than others; scratch most leftists and you reveal an elitist who thinks they are morally and intellectually superior to most other people and so should be in charge of things under the new, “better” system. Everyone wants to be a commissar, no one wants to slave at an iron smelter. Go on Twitter and check the bios of the most vocal advocates of their Doctorial privilege and more often than not you’ll find they also have their preferred pronouns there as well as a nod to #BLM and other virtuous causes.
8) Lastly, there is of course an element of hypocrisy, such as this story from three years ago from “The Washington Post” about whether to call Sebastian Gorka “Dr Gorka” or simply “Mr Gorka”. The article quoted many authorities: “ ‘My feeling is if you can’t heal the sick, we don’t call you doctor,’ Bill Walsh, The Washington Post’s late, great copy chief, told the Los Angeles Times in 2009″ or ” ‘We use titles,’ Oppenheimer wrote [in “a magnificent takedown of ‘Dr.’ usage in the New Republic in 2014″], ‘just to honor our supposed betters: Queen Elizabeth, Sir Paul McCartney. As an American and a democrat, I think this usage is stupid, un-American, and best left overseas’.” The article even went as far as to suggest that Gorka is not respected among his academic colleague, as if to underline that he really really shouldn’t be indulged. There was even this wonderful – and a timely – recollection:
Amy Sullivan, a religion writer for Time magazine, said she smiled when she heard the vice president’s wife announced as Dr. Jill Biden during the national prayer service the day after President Obama’s inauguration.“Ordinarily when someone goes by doctor and they are a Ph.D., not an M.D., I find it a little bit obnoxious,” Sullivan said. “But it makes me smile because it’s a reminder that she’s her own person. She wasn’t there as an appendage; she was there as a professional in her own right.”