2020年1月10日 星期五

The Interpreter: On mustard and Megxit

A taste of British social norms

Welcome to The Interpreter newsletter, by Max Fisher and Amanda Taub, who write a column by the same name.

On our minds: Harry and Meghan’s big announcement.

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On Mustard and Megxit

British newspapers on a newsstand in London on Thursday.Facundo Arrizabalaga/EPA, via Shutterstock

After a week of anxiety over the conflict between the United States and Iran, all of London’s attention turned on Thursday to another major rupture with international implications: Megxit.

The Duke and Duchess of Sussex, formerly known as Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, announced on Instagram Wednesday that they planned to step down from their posts as “senior” royals, and would be splitting their time between Britain and North America.

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Though the British tabloids breathlessly insisted that the announcement had come as a shock to Queen Elizabeth II, it cannot have been a surprise to anyone who has been paying attention to the Sussexes, as they are commonly known, over recent months.

Prince Harry has referred to media coverage as “relentless propaganda” that is sometimes “knowingly false and malicious” and said he feared it would damage his young family the same way it had hurt his mother, Princess Diana. And Meghan has been candid about how difficult she has found the “unfair” media coverage, particularly after the birth of their baby last year.

“I really tried to adopt the British sensibility of a ‘stiff upper lip,’” Meghan said in “Harry & Meghan: An African Journey,” a documentary of their time in Africa that came out in October. “I tried. I really tried. But what that does internally is probably really damaging.”

Reactions to the Sussexes’ announcement of their new, stepped-back role were notably different on each side of the Atlantic.

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Americans reacted with joy. Twitter exploded into jokes about successful missions to rescue the young royals and congratulations to Harry and Meghan for carving their own path.

Britons … not so much. The reaction here, at least within the media and consumers thereof, can be summed up as: “How COULD they? And more important, how DARE they?”

It stands to reason that North Americans are excited; Meghan has been tremendously popular in the United States and Canada since she and Harry went public with their relationship. But we can’t help but think that the reactions also show a crucial difference in the ways that Americans and Brits think about institutions and personal agency.

Americans often assume that any institution or set of rules exists solely to serve their stated purpose, and that it is therefore just common sense to tweak and change things to achieve the best results in any particular situation.

Brits, on the other hand, are more likely to see the institutions as, at least in part, a worthy end in and of themselves: a source of stability, continuity and trust. If individuals tweak and change them to suit their personal comfort, that could undermine those goals.

Consider restaurants. Americans who go out for dinner tend to assume that everyone involved shares the goal of helping them to get a meal they enjoy. That means that it’s not just reasonable but in some ways the whole point of the enterprise to request that the food be prepared to their liking. If the chef’s famous burger comes with housemade mustard, and you hate mustard, then it is to be expected that you will ask that it be prepared without mustard. You enjoy your delicious mustard-free burger, the restaurant satisfies a customer, the server gets a tip. Everyone is happy.

So, for Americans, just as you should ask for your burger without mustard, if that’s how you want it, if you are the Duke and Duchess of Sussex and can support the crown and your charitable goals without being hounded by cruel British tabloid coverage, you should do that.

In England, by contrast, people are more likely to see the point of going out for a meal — at least outside the realm of fast-food and fast-casual establishments — as an opportunity to enjoy the chef’s expertise. If the famous burger comes with special mustard, that must be because the chef believes it ought to be eaten with mustard. And so although it is not necessarily rude, exactly, to ask for a mustard-free meal, it is somewhat at odds with the object of the endeavor. Ordering one without it diminishes the restaurant experience you are there for.

So for traditionally minded Brits, if you don’t want all that comes with being a royal, you should quit entirely. Don’t expect the institution to be flexible and modern for your own comfort. If you want your burger without mustard, make one at home.

It isn’t just stubbornness. Many fear that if royal duties become optional, the monarchy could lose its most important asset: the ability to be simultaneously the best example of and argument for centuries-long traditions. Inflexibility to the point of unreason in the face of modernity’s demands is, in that view, kind of the whole point.

But then again, the monarchy’s great challenge over the last few decades has been to find a balance between the demands of tradition and modernity, changing just enough to hold its place in modern, multicultural Britain while still symbolizing the ways some things can stay the same. The Sussexes are offering a new view of what that could mean

What We’re Reading

  • “We didn’t necessarily reach a point of agreement, but we cleared up misconceptions.” What happened when a museum director in Dresden, Germany, spoke with people who sent her hate mail.
  • Lawfare, a legal affairs site, convened five prominent experts for a podcast discussion on the legality, and legal implications, of the American strike that killed Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani. We referenced the podcast in our story on debates over whether Mr. Suleimani’s killing constituted an assassination, but the whole thing is worth listening to in full.
  • A study by the economists Philip Oreopoulos and Uros Petronijevic tested the effects of sending students gentle reminders that more studying would be necessary to achieve their desired grades. It worked, sort of: The students, instead of studying more, lowered their academic ambitions. The paper is titled “The Remarkable Unresponsiveness of College Students to Nudging and What We Can Learn From It.”

How are we doing?

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