On Honorifics, Copy Editing, Patronizing Men, and Homosexuality
A rambling blog about Joseph Epstein
I know different stories resonate in different corners of the internet as we all build our own online bubbles. A couple of months ago, I asked my husband over dinner whether he thought what J.K. Rowling had Tweeted was transphobic and whether she should be “canceled” for it. I’d been reading Facebook posts and blogs and thinkpieces all day, and I was totally ready for a rigorous intellectual debate over meatloaf and wine.
“What the hell are you talking about?” he said. “The Harry Potter writer? What did she do?”
He had been on the internet all day, too, but he hadn’t heard anything about it while I had been completely inundated.
So in this case, I don’t want to assume everyone knows all about Joseph Epstein and his ludicrous and misogynistic Wall Street Journal op-ed.
In this piece (which I am not linking to for a variety of reasons), Epstein writes, “Madame First Lady—Mrs. Biden—Jill—kiddo: a bit of advice on what may seem like a small but I think is a not unimportant matter. Any chance you might drop the ‘Dr.’ before your name? ‘Dr. Jill Biden’ sounds and feels fraudulent, not to say a touch comic. Your degree is, I believe, an Ed.D., a doctor of education, earned at the University of Delaware through a dissertation with the unpromising title ‘Student Retention at the Community College Level: Meeting Students’ Needs.’ A wise man once said that no one should call himself ‘Dr.’ unless he has delivered a child. Think about it, Dr. Jill, and forthwith drop the doc.”
You may not have seen the piece or heard the resulting outrage, but if I have to explain to you why this is problematic and insulting, this probably isn’t the blog for you.
I do not hold a doctorate, but in a purely professional context, I will put an M.A. after my name because I worked for my master’s degree. I earned the right to use those letters. If I ever decide to go back and get a Ph.D., I will absolutely put “Dr.” in front of my name in any professional situation. And if I decide to use it socially, that’s my choice – and one that is 100 percent backed by any etiquette guide you consult.
Some internet sleuth pointed out that the Washington Post ran an op-ed in 2017 about the “mainstream news outlets” that wouldn’t call Dr. Sebastian Gorka “Dr.” because he had a Ph.D.
From the perspective of a copy editor, this is true. AP style says only physicians get called “Dr.,” which I don’t entirely agree with but always dutifully enforce. (The New York Times, which uses honorifics on second reference will say, for example, “Mr. Gorka” or “Ms. Biden,” and I don’t like that at all. If you don’t use honorifics, that’s fine – e.g., Gorka or … well, in this case, you have to just use her full name because there are at least two noteworthy Bidens, but I don’t need to go down that copy-editing rabbit hole – but if you opt to use them, I think you go with what people prefer. And if the New York Times will use Mx. – which I totally support – then I think they should use Dr. for Ph.D.’s if that is their preference.)
Regardless of esoteric editing rules, if Dr. Gorka wants to be called Dr. Gorka in a social context, I think it’s rude and disrespectful to ignore that. Likewise, if Dr. Biden wants to be called Dr. Biden, we need to honor that request.
Epstein seems to disagree: “As for your Ed.D., Madame First Lady, hard-earned though it may have been, please consider stowing it, at least in public, at least for now. Forget the small thrill of being Dr. Jill, and settle for the larger thrill of living for the next four years in the best public housing in the world as First Lady Jill Biden.”
The best part – and by “best,” I mean “most insulting and obnoxious” – is that Epstein himself only holds a B.A. Someone telling someone else who is more credentialed how they should refer to themselves is mind-boggling to me.
Some people with Ph.D.’s don’t like being called “Dr.” Great! Don’t call them that! Some people do! Fantastic! Call them that! The people who did the work get to decide how they want that work acknowledged. This shouldn’t be hard to understand.
Some people have argued that we’re being too hard on Mr. Epstein because he’s 83 and it was a different time. That doesn’t ring true for me because my father is also 83, also worked in academia, and definitely would never say anything like this.
Furthermore, cementing Epstein’s long history of reprehensible opinions, he wrote in an essay in Harper’s in 1970 called “Homo/Hetero: The Struggle for Sexual Identity” that homosexuality was “a curse, in a literal sense.” He went on to say, “If I had the power to do so, I would wish homosexuality off the face of the earth… nothing [my four sons] could ever do would make me sadder than if any of them were to become homosexual” before using the N-word to broadcast his distaste for both Black people and gay people.
Can opinions evolve? Sure. And maybe Epstein’s did. I hope so. But again, I know my father – Epstein’s exact contemporary – never used the N-word as a slur or had any animosity toward homosexuals. (In his 50s, my dad judged a drag show in the Quarter and got trashed on peppermint schnapps shots purchased for him by a drag show contender named Ms. Blanche.)
The only good thing to come out of this hate-filled essay was that Merle Miller, who had been an editor at Harper’s himself and was then at The New York Times Magazine, publicly came out and wrote his own essay in response: “What It Means to Be a Homosexual.” It was later adapted into a memoir called On Being Different. I bought it as a Christmas present for my lesbian daughter. (And for the record, her coming out didn’t make me even a little bit sad, and I can think of about a billion things that would make me much sadder.)
I can’t wait for a response to Epstein’s latest screed to be turned into an inspiring a rebuttal memoir by some brilliant female with a doctorate. I’ll buy it for both of my daughters.