Going prematurely bald leaves one open to all sorts of insults.
Especially on the sports field.
My twin brother and I both duly followed the long and honourable line of men on both sides of our family by losing our hair in our early twenties.
While playing soccer, a sport renowned for on-field put-downs birthed in the mean streets of England (also renowned for players rolling shamelessly in agony at the slightest ankle tap), my brother was hit with this shouted line from an opposition player:
“Hey, someone man up on Slaphead.”
To which my academically gifted twin pointed in his opponent’s face and shouted back:
“That’s Professor Slaphead to you, sunshine.”
…before going on to score three goals in a dazzling display of silky football, the likes of which has not been seen since the great Brazil sides of the 70s. Or at least that’s how he recalls it.
His sassy reply is of an altogether different tone to that portrayed in the recent Twitter storm that erupted over an academic’s rebuttal of a QANTAS attendant’s ill-fated decision to call her “Miss” instead of Doctor, as it stated on her ticket.
Academic, Doctor Siobhan O’Dwyer issued this retort:
More chippy than cheeky.
It met with a chorus of approval from the academic world, before things turned somewhat sour when a number of academics took to pillorying the “trolley dollies” who had gotten beyond their station, and dared to call her Miss.
You know, the same trolley dollies that, when you’re shaking in fear during a particularly harrowing flight, are subduing their own fear in an effort to allay yours.
There’s much to make of the tweet, tapping in as it does to the suspicion that no one would assume the good doctor is a good doctor because she’s a young woman. That’s a tenuous argument to build a case with, but some tried. And there may be something to it.
And unless her doctorate is in the area of mind-reading, then quite how Dr O’Dwyer determined that the offender had merely concluded that the title was a typo, I’m not really sure.
But it’s the line “I did not spend 8 years at university to be called Miss.” that gets me. And that is the most revealing.
Really? You spent eight years at university to be “called” Doctor?
One would think that the academics who populate our universities spend those eight years “becoming” Doctors, in order to serve a greater agenda; the promulgation of knowledge for the benefit of the wider community. That’s what universities are for, right?
But eight years to be “called” by an academic title?
Ironically it looks like her sense of “being called” has disappeared altogether. The idea of a role such as an academic being “a calling” for a higher purpose is completely absent from her tweet.
And if her higher purpose is that she gets to be called “Doctor”, and perhaps get a seat at the front of the plane, then that’s all too sad. Though perhaps at this point I am reading more into what she said. Her subsequent retreat from her original position indicates as such.
But let’s not simply blame Dr O’Dwyer. She’s simply swimming in the social fish bowl, and she can’t discern the cultural water.
In the wealthy West the high point of our careers, of our lives, is to reach a position where we get to be served, and not to serve. To be served says we have made it to some degree.
And we have various ways of letting people know it. Being served becomes our reward for how hard we have worked to get to the actualised self we have undoubtedly become. And if no one will serve us here in the wealthy West, then there’s a cheap holiday package to somewhere in the rest of the world where someone darn well will.
So we get the “trolley dolly” comments, just to make sure people know where we are in the pecking order. As the narrative goes, something has gone desperately wrong if all we do is end up in the service industry. How can that be vocational? How can that be something that gives me meaning?
We have “arrived” when the stewardess greets us by a nomenclature or title that few own. We have “made it” when we get to sit somewhere and eat that is not self-serve, and is more than happy to highlight the gulf between the servant and ourselves. We’ve outsourced service to others.
I noticed this as my ailing, demented father drew close to death while in his nursing home. The role, or calling, of a nursing home assistant is the most outsourced role in our nation. Almost without exception such staff are new migrant Africans, Indians or South East Asians. The older ones are often Eastern European.
Why is this so? Because it’s too humbling a role for many of us to take.
Once upon a time humility was a vice and hubris was a virtue.
Then Jesus came along and upended that idea – and practice – just as surely as he upended the tables in the temple.
And for centuries in the West, that Jesus factor elevated humility to the highest virtue, not simply because it was expedient to be seen as humble, but because of the understanding that “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble” and did so supremely in Jesus, and through Jesus.
Granted the Christianised culture did not always get it right, but as we observe in that magnificent series The Queen, the point of coronation is not the point at which the Queen became the ultimate ruler, merely the penultimate one. And when we lose sight of God, we become much bigger than we actually are, for nature abhors a vacuum.
Now, without that central idea of God as ruler in our culture, hubris is making a comeback. Humility is once again scorned, because without any eschatological hope of a great role reversal, we need to grasp all we can, and do so now.
And of course this is not confined to the so-called secular frame. As we sadly note among the church there is always a move towards titles that reflect the status of the day.
Once it was “reverend” or “minister” because those things carried weight in the culture. Now it is increasingly titles that align with business and academia. The church is often guilty of sniffing the cultural breeze and going with that, and this area of work status is no exception.
And I still get a little chill down my spine when religious leaders require the use of their honorific outside official functions.
On the Last Day Jesus will announce one of two vocational titles over humanity: “good and faithful servant”, or “workers of iniquity” (Matt 7:23). If we chafe at the use of the idea of being a servant in this age, then we will crave it on that day as we are ushered into the age to come.
Oh, and here’s a picture of two slapheads, one of whom is a professor and the other who is me. Can you tell which is which?