This is a guest post by Mike Ruff.
I know that folks have come to believe that the removal of hats in a courtroom is merely a gesture of respect. And chances are, that’s all most folks mean when they do it. This is, however, not the origin of the practice, nor the reason it is practiced and enforced in courts today.
The origin is as an act of submission. The act of removing one’s hat is an attempt to make ones self seem smaller than the person to whom one is rendering the gesture. There are a number of other gestures based on the same intent, e.g. bowing. The military salute is derived from the act of touching the cap, which was itself derived from the act of tipping the cap, which was derived from removal of the hat to demonstrate submission.
These gestures of submission were often seen in societies in which there were strong and well-defined class divisions. Although the more dramatic of these gestures has largely disappeared from these societies, an astute observer can still see the signs of these divisions today—in the tone of voice, forms of address, and more subtle body language.
Despite America having been (supposedly) established as a “classless” society, and despite the US Constitution forbidding titles of nobility (Article 1, section 9), the government has, especially in court, granted the form without the name. Judges require that, in addition to the powers granted them by the government, the general populace must grant them the gestures of submission formerly rendered to Feudal Lords; i.e. standing when they enter the room, removal of hats, addressing them as “Your Honor,” etc. They wear robes which owe their origin to the robes worn by Feudal Lords, and sit in a raised position and have barriers to prevent the “regular folks” from approaching beyond the accepted distance. And, should a member of the general populace refuse to grant them these gestures of submission, the judge will order his enforcers to clap the individual in irons and imprison them for “Contempt of Court” (the latter day term for “lese majeste”).
Does anyone really believe that this farce is necessary to maintain order and decorum in a courtroom? Does anyone really believe that this sort of thing furthers the cause of Truth and Justice? Does anyone truly believe that this sort of thing is proper in a society that is supposed to be based on Equality Before the Law?
Personally, I have always found people who demand these gestures of submission, and depend on them to prop up their authority, to be sad little people who do little to deserve respect, let alone submission. Salutes in the military are generally reserved for officers who are “REMFs” (Rear-Echelon Mother…). Real officers, those who’ve led men in combat, know that a salute is really a “sniper check”—that is, lets a distant sniper know who the officer is, which makes it more likely he’ll be killed. REAL officers earn the respect of their men, and gain not submission, but recognition of authority and skill.
I’ve been a mediator for over 8 years. I have engaged in the resolution of more disputes than I can remember. And never have I had to resort to any such cheap tricks or tactics to shore up my authority or keep order. In fact, such tricks would prove counter-productive to the process, and would serve only to undermine my position. And I would put my record up against that of any judge, to compare the level of satisfaction, truth, and justice achieved by our actions.
Now I’ve been in court a number of times over the years. And I have rendered the same respect I do anyone. And I know to many, the removal of a hat in court seems like a petty issue to start a fight over. Many folks will say: “Hey, it’s just a hat! Just take the damned thing off and get through the proceedings as easily as possible!”
But it’s not just a hat. It’s a principle. Or rather, it is the visible sign of a principle: On the one hand, the individual says “I am an individual, free and equal before the law.” On the other, the judge says (by his actions): “You are below me, and will submit to me. Submission is more important than the Law, Truth, or Justice. There is no Equality—you are subservient to me, and you will demonstrate to all that you know your place, or you will be forced into captivity until such time as you submit, or until I demonstrate my “mercy” and allow you your freedom.”
I know it seems a silly hill to choose upon which to die, but this has become a religious belief to me. I am the moral equal of any man, and I will not submit arbitrarily to anyone. And no government has the authority to change that. They may well have the ability to enforce their will on me—through the use of superior numbers and armed force; but never will they have the moral authority to do so.