Monday, June 06, 2011

Knight and day

It’s the Queen’s Birthday holiday in New Zealand, and that means the release of the annual Queen’s Birthday Honours List in which various people get honoured, some with knighthoods. Honouring people for their achievements or good works is a good idea, but to me the heraldic titles seem anachronistic and too flawed for the modern world. Even so, I have potential solutions to reform it.

The National/Act government restored knighthoods in 2009, after the previous Labour-led government had abolished them in favour of a purely New Zealand honours system. The system National reinstated requires royal approval of top honours because they carry a heraldic title. To me, that kind of seems like asking mummy if you can go out to play.

Still, New Zealanders are said to have a kind of nostalgic feeling for knighthoods, even though it’s wholly inconsistent with the country’s otherwise egalitarian nature. Yet I can’t find any polls that show what the level of support for knighthoods actually is—how do we know that “most people” support them? Whether they do or not, there are ways to fix some of the problems.

The first problem is with who is honoured. National tends to use the honours system to reward National politicians/supporters and leaders of big business. Many of them, arguably, don’t necessarily deserve recognition ahead of others. But that’s an argument based in part on ideology; National supporters would be just as dismissive of Labour’s favouring community leaders, academics and labour leaders.

The solution to that problem is to have an honours system taken entirely out of the grimy paws of politicians: A completely non-partisan commission of esteemed New Zealanders who would seek to honour people exclusively on merit. If the political parties want to acknowledge their supporters, let them do their own party honours without sullying the national system.

Another problem is with titles: A man made a knight gets the title “Sir” and a woman “Dame”; odd, but traditional. The wife of a male knight has the honorary title of “Lady”, providing she uses his last name, as in Mary, Lady Smith. She’d never be called “Lady Mary Smith” because that would make her sound like a peer (an entirely different topic). If her husband dies or they’re divorced, she can continue to use the honorary title unless she changes her last name (if the male knight is married many times, it’s possible for there to be several women called “Lady” running around). To me, this all seems not just sexist, but downright loony.

The husband of a female night, however, has no honorary title because apparently no one has been able to come up with one (they won’t call him “Sir”, because that would imply he’s a knight). That’s pretty stupid and lame.

That would also be a problem if a gay man is knighted someday. Because there’s no honorary title for the male partner of a Dame, there would be none for a male partner of a gay male knight, either. I don’t know how a lesbian’s female partner would be treated; would she be called “Lady”, like the female partner of a male knight?

I’m sure that this conundrum must be the reason no openly gay or lesbian person has been knighted yet (however, the title Witi Ihimaera received under Labour would now be a knighthood; he declined to convert his title to a knighthood when National changed the system back to a heraldic one).

I have two solutions to this. First, and most obviously, don’t give the partners of knights any honorary title at all. Very often, the support of one’s partner is at least part of the reason one was able to do whatever it is that’s being honoured for, but the partners aren’t the ones being honoured. If people feel that the supportive partner should be acknowledged, why not come up with a new honorary title to be used for either male or female partners of knights? English has plenty of words, I’m confident we can find one to use as a nice new title that can be applied to either gender and won’t be confused with actual honours titles. Hey, we could even have a competition to come up with one!

I would prefer a totally New Zealand honours system like Labour put in (though it, too, wasn’t perfect). I wrote about this back in 2009 when National announced the reinstatement of knighthoods (and the discussion of titles above is based on that post). In that post, I summed up my feelings about knighthoods this way:
"Personally, I don’t think that anyone needs a title to be a hero, and granting titles doesn’t make heroes out of people who aren’t. To me, knighthoods seem quaint and old-fashioned, like the little old ladies who keep crocheted antimacassars on their chairs. Neither is particularly offensive, but they’re not necessary, either."
I still feel that way. But if I’m truly in the minority on that—and I don’t know whether I am or not—then let’s at least reform the system to reduce the problems with it. It’s the honourable thing to do.

No comments: