Roach: Smoke and Mirrors

"Life experience has made me quick to recognize when the theater of authority is being employed, specifically titles and goofy costumes."

Back in my Chicago days, I was a rookie producer for a television show that became “Oprah.” It was the experience of a lifetime.

A recent, remarkable piece by Wisconsin State Journal investigative reporter Kelly Meyerhofer reminded me of that era. Meyerhofer detailed staff abuse by a tenured University of Wisconsin–Madison professor. It is the second case of its kind in the last few years at UW–Madison, and part of a series by Meyerhofer.

Here is why Meyerhofer’s work took me back.

As a young producer, I had a public relations person pushing a book by a Saint Louis University professor. The professor wanted to use our show to hawk his work. During a pre-production call, I referred to the author by his first name. In a huff he demanded that I refer to him as “doctor” because he had a Ph.D. He went on to describe how hard he had worked for such an honorific, a title used to infer status. I thought he was imperious and condescending.

Imagine my delight when I informed the professor that we were taking a pass on him, his book and his title.

Meyerhofer’s work about the unpleasant professor reminds me of how time has made me leery of authority. I grew up in a Catholic church that used theater, smoke, music, incredibly elaborate wardrobes, and honorifics like Father, Bishop and His Holiness, to elevate the status of too many men who used their authority to behave abominably toward children.

Life experience has made me quick to recognize when the theater of authority is being employed, specifically titles and goofy costumes. I am leery of police officers and generals with overdone uniforms, medals and sunglasses they never remove. Professors in wild caps, gowns and stoles. Bishops with big hats.

Because of this vibe, I began calling people with titles by their first name. Now, instead of “professor,” I call him Bill. Instead of “Father,” I call him Ken. Calling titled folks by their actual names is a casual, human way to dilute pomp and the inequity of power. It’s not meant as disrespect. It’s just their name.

Authority theater is also used to flip the transactional reality. When we speak to those with titles it is most often in situations where we are compensating them. Police and the military are trained and paid with our taxes. Professors and coaches are paid via our tuition fees and more taxes. Doctors are paid with our wages and health insurance. Yet authority theater tries to flip things and make it feel as if we are working for them.

The theater in question is also employed to suggest that those with titles are always right.

It is true that trained professionals are tremendously helpful. They keep us safe, cure cancer and teach us wonderful things. But they are not absolutely and eternally correct.

When I was a high school athlete, coaches had unquestioned authority. But for years those men told us that it was unhealthy to drink water during a two-hour practice in August. Huh?

Doctors used to tell patients never to get water in our ears or nose. Now they irrigate them.

For safe travels we were told to pray to St. Christopher. Then some guy in a cubicle at the Vatican discovered that he never existed.

And it is not just old school tales that give cause to question authority. Within the last decade, all sorts of educated doctors with titles and white coats told patients that OxyContin wasn’t addictive. How did that work out?

With my practice of calling the titled by their first name, I have discovered a touching thing: The professionals most comfortable with themselves and their skills aren’t bothered by it. Sometimes I even sense relief. They smile when I call them Ken or Debra or Bill.

It’s as if their jobs are hard enough without the imposition of infallibility. And our relationship is better as a partnership than inferior to superior.

After all, most folks with titles are just like us, good people working hard to do their best every day.
Maybe we should create a title for that.

John Roach, a Madison-based screenwriter and producer, writes this column monthly. Reach him at johneroach@mac.com.


This piece appears in the May issue of Madison Magazine. This opinion editorial written by John Roach does not reflect the opinions of Madison Magazine or Channel 3000.

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