the harrison review
thinking inside the box
December 22, 2020
fine with 'Dr.'
Recently the Wall Street Journal published an opinion piece by editor and writer Joseph Epstein, wherein Mr. Epstein generously proffers advice to incoming First Lady, Dr. Jill Biden. The views in this piece, "Is There a Doctor in the White House? Not if You Need an MD," were, for my money, ~90% on target. If polled, I could see myself endorsing the core sentiments of the article. But there is a delightful rubric we teach youngsters to use when choosing whether or not to say something. First, we encourage them to ask themselves: Is it true? And second: Is it helpful? The net effect of the penning and publishing of Mr. Epstein's article was, it would appear, decidedly unhelpful, and both Mr. Epstein and the WSJ should have known better.
Mr. Epstein's opinion piece encourages doctorate-holders--viz. Dr. Jill Biden, the holder of a Doctor of Education degree from the University of Delaware--to forebear referring to themselves by the title 'doctor' and to discourage others from addressing them as such. The arguments that Mr. Epstein levies in support of this conclusion include the custom of reserving 'doctor' for medical doctors, the declining prestige of advanced degrees in recent decades, and the apparent potential for confusion that might ensue during medical emergencies in public places ("Is there a doctor in the room!?").
So, you don't like to call anyone 'doctor' besides a medical doctor? Fine. I'm probably of that persuasion myself. You don't care for honorary doctorates generally, and particularly their being conferred on non-academics, or you feel that doctorates in general are of vastly lower value than some other age gone by? I'm with you. But measured against the additional disquiet we have now endured in the Twitterverse and elsewhere in the media, surely Mr. Epstein's topic of choice earns a massive response of "Who cares?!," despite his claim that the issue is "not unimportant." And besides all this, I'm still of the persuasion that there's something to be said for addressing others in the way that they prefer to be addressed, as a furtherance of general graciousness among the species. (As it happens, there is another significant present-day conversation where this topic is brought to bear as well, though admittedly with its own trickier context.)
There's 'poking a sleeping bear,' and then there's 'poking a bear that's fully conscious and rampaging across our land.' The sleeping bear here is every political and social camp maligning and demonizing every other camp, and generally wishing for their being wiped from the face of the planet. The pile-on by Mr. Epstein's supporters is perfect evidence of this prevailing mood. If Mr. Epstein didn't go so far as to 'attack' Dr. Biden--which he didn't--some of his supporters were certainly prepared to, with Kyle Smith's National Review article "Jill Biden’s Garbage Dissertation, Explained," and Tucker Carlson concluding that she "can't write and can't think clearly." Mr. Epstein isn't responsible for others' actions, but he did provide the requisite setup.
What was Mr. Epstein's goal, and the editors of the WSJ as well? Was there a problem that needed solving? Perhaps he was merely trying to guide Dr. Jill Biden in the general direction of 'better taste.' Whatever their goal, assuming that 'goals' were at any point in the front of their minds, the damage has been done. They may not have lowered the level of our national discourse (I'm not sure how possible that even is at this point), but they unquestionably reinforced the status quo.
So the takeaway for me here is pretty straightforward: A lot of the time it doesn't matter that you're right; it matters whether you're helpful. For the Epstein/WSJ article, this was just more noise that the world could have done without.
As a side note, a brief word about the charge of sexism: It does not follow (just as it *never* follows) directly from the mere fact that his target example was a woman, that either Mr. Epstein's argument or his motive were sexist. The arguments and attitudes outlined by Mr. Epstein were manifestly gender-neutral, so the claim of sexism/misogyny has no grounds, as far as I can tell. But of course, when one's mission is to 'cancel' someone, slapping the sexist/racist label on someone is certainly a handy fast lane to that destination.
I couldn't help but think further about what precisely was behind Epstein's use of 'kiddo' in his opening address, which did not go unnoticed. Obviously there's some attempted humor there, but I don't feel like I have a complete handle on how it's funny. Maybe it's just not funny and I'm not missing anything. ■