In a recent live session, Heather Cox Richardson talked about the evolution of the “Dark Brandon” meme that’s been taking over various social media sites in the last few weeks. It’s got a curious history that will very likely be dropped by future historians because it is tied to a potentially transitory cultural moment that originated through a vulgar verbal attack, shifted to a positive superhero context by co-opting the original intent, and may shift again before it disappears into the ether forever. The details of this meme/cultural reference while curious aren’t unique. She illustrated the point further by recalling various sayings or items such as the meaning of red telephone on a desk that anybody over about age 55 or 60 would know immediately, but somebody under 40 probably wouldn’t. What was once known as “common knowledge” has become increasingly less widespread as our diversity increases, but thinking about the whole concept of common knowledge as it applies to cultural familiarity, I am reminded of an entertaining incident and subsequent informal study I conducted many years ago.
I was attending a contentious team meeting where we were trying to sort out the comments to a technical plan our department had to produce. The meeting had devolved into a hostile argument over the content (fortunately no personal attacks were made, but we had reached an impasse). The young engineer who owned the document and was leading the meeting was getting frustrated, and he finally shut everyone up by threatening to invoke Roberts Rules of Order if we didn’t stop arguing. While additional meetings were required to fully sort out the details, that particular meeting lowered in temperature, and some progress was finally achieved.
After the meeting, I went to talk with the document owner to offer my support, and I quipped that the meeting could have been worse, and at least it didn’t require The Marquess of Queensbury Rules to resolve our differences. The young engineer (twelve years my junior) just gave me a blank stare not understanding what I meant, so I explained what The Marquess of Queensbury Rules were and what they governed, but I was struck that he’d never heard of them.
Prior to that day, I had thought that those rules fell into what I considered common knowledge, and I was curious how widespread that knowledge really was. I started an informal tally on my whiteboard, casually asking a wide variety of colleagues if they knew what The Marquess of Queensbury Rules pertained to, though not necessarily what the actual rules were. The results shocked me. My sample was already skewed from the general population because I worked in a relatively insular environment where most everyone was college educated and citizenship was required. They also all had to have a strong command of the English language in both spoken and written form. There was a wide age range, and that was something that came across unexpectedly in my tally. As I started to get some data, I saw an interesting break point at around age 40. For those over 40, slightly over half of the people I asked had at least an inkling of what the rules pertained to. Of those under 40, only one colleague had heard of them. For those who were familiar with the rules, they also had additional knowledge in common in one or more of five specific areas which evidently were more widely known among those over the age of 40 at the time, around the year 2006. Those five areas included:
- The history of boxing and how its rules were first codified;
- The Sherlock Holmes stories;
- Romance novels (this one surprised me initially);
- The M*A*S*H TV series;
- The Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons, in particular Mr. Peabody and his boy Sherman and the fractured history lessons they provided.
To understand why one or more of these five areas was in play for all those who were familiar with the rules, we have to start with what those rules were for. They govern the gentlemanly art of fisticuffs, i.e., boxing. From that perspective, what may seem to be disparate bits of knowledge are more closely related than they might first appear.
Clearly somebody well-versed in the history of boxing and how its rules came to be should have heard of the historical rules at some point. Curiously, one person in my sample was a boxing aficionado who was both over 40 at the time and had never heard the term The Marquess of Queenbury Rules or even its more common shortened form, The Queensbury Rules. That one data point was a bit perplexing.
The Sherlock Holmes stories and romance novels are related in a way I hadn’t initially considered. They depict the same era, the mid-to-late 19th Century that included the timeframe when the rules came into being. The rules were initially coined by John Graham Chambers in 1867. He did so in collaboration with John Sholto Douglas, the 9th marquess of Queensbury – hence the designation of The Marquess of Queensbury Rules.
The television series M*A*S*H directly mentions the rules in passing in an early episode. The one person under age 40 in my sample who had heard of them was a huge M*A*S*H fan and could almost recite most of the episodes word-for-word.
Finally, there was an episode of Mr. Peabody where he and Sherman used the Wayback machine to meet John Chambers at the time he was working on the rules. Despite the humorous tangents, the basic facts of the history were included in the story.
In my own case, I can attest to fitting into four out of the five areas of commonality. Although I’ve never read a romance novel, I have read many of the Sherlock Holmes stories. I have seen every episode of Rocky and Bullwinkle along with their side stories like Mr. Peabody, Aesop’s Fables, Fractured Fairytales, etc. numerous times. I am familiar with some of the history of boxing because my grandfather had been a Golden Gloves champion in his youth, and I have seen every M*A*S*H episode more times than I can count.
This informal inquiry opened my eyes to how much general knowledge can shift depending on one’s environment, age, and tastes. I always understood that something requiring specific training would be less likely to be widely known, and it also made sense that age might come into play as many cultural morays often target specific demographic groups including those bounded by age. As the country has become far more diverse, the level of common knowledge across American society has decreased making it easier to divide and separate communities from one another. It also opens additional opportunities to expand and share more widely since far more overall knowledge is close at hand. Had I conducted my informal study fifteen years later, I suspect I may have seen an even starker division in the responses, but it would have also opened a lot more eyes in the process.