What’s in a Name?

There is much that is good about names.  Mine identifies me as an individual; one with feelings, thoughts, talents, flaws; i.e. much like any other human being, yet different, unique.  When I am called Bob Thomas, I fall into a narrow range of individuals who happen to have the same name,
yet different, unique. True, there can be mistakes made; for example, I have been confused with another Rev. Bob Thomas, who happened to be serving the Presbyterian Church in Geelong, while I was in Belmont. Although we had the same title and name, we were very different people, with very different opinions, to the extent that if someone were, erroneously, to think I wrote a particular letter-to-the-editor of The Geelong Advertiser signed by the Rev. Bob Thomas, I would have been embarrassed (which did happen), and no doubt he would have had a similar reaction if it had happened the other way around.

With a little added information, such as a time, date and place of birth, I become an absolutely unique Bob Thomas, This is what is good about names; so good that they should never, ever give way to labels.

Of course, labels are very useful. We humans love to categorise.  It helps us understand similarities among things too innumerable to name individually, and gives us a sense of control over what otherwise would seem chaotic. But when labels become a substitute for names, we are in danger. As soon as my name is replaced by a label – and there are many that can be, and have been, used – I become something considerably less than unique, even something less than human.  Without a name, I become a Yank or a senior citizen or a preacher, no longer an individual with feelings, thoughts, talents and flaws.  It doesn’t matter if the label is accurate or flattering because, if the name is omitted, it still dehumanises, and when someone is dehumanised, it opens the door to unspeakable crimes that would be unthinkable otherwise.

Consider the inhuman acts committed against ‘Jews’ in World War II.  Do you think that an otherwise good, kind, friendly Sargent Heinrich Stumpert* would have murdered his good, kind, friendly neighbour, Amos Shimmerman*, because Amos was of Jewish descent?  I doubt it, because Sargent Stumpert would have known Mr. Shimmerman as a human being, just like him, with feelings, thoughts, talents and flaws, and it wouldn’t have occurred to him to think of Amos only as a Jew. But put Mr. Shimmerman in a concentration camp, where Sargent Stumpert was ‘processing’ Jews, and it is then no trouble for Heinrich to turn on the gas, because Mr. Shimmerman is no longer a good and kind human being in Sgt. Stumpert’s mind; he is merely a Jew with a number instead of a name.  Furthermore, good Christian German people allowed this to happen. They did not recognise that mass murder was being committed, because the victims were not human beings; they were ‘Jews’.

Ethnic cleansing was not invented by the Nazis; it has happened many times, in many places before and since.  Ironically, the Jews in modern Israel have taken the place of Nazis in this drama, in which Palestinians have become the new ‘Jews’.  What enables an otherwise good person to engage in an act of terrorism against good, innocent people, but that the victims are not perceived as individuals; rather they are ‘enemies’, ‘infidels’, ‘oppressors’ and the like.

And in Australia?  There were once people bearing the label ‘refugee’ who were welcomed,  given the opportunity to be known by name, and to add to Australian culture their thoughts, feelings, talents and flaws, even if they had to suffer the abuse caused by other labels that were given them first: wog, chink, curry muncher, coconut, kanaka, lebo, slope, et al.  Then some clever person in the government of the day decided, as it would be politically unwise to persecute ‘refugees’, to rename a certain group of refugees as ‘boat people’.  Since this was a new label, it was possible to associate it with other unpopular labels such as ‘queue-jumper’, ‘terrorist’ and ‘baby killer’, and thus make it politically possible to put them in concentration camps (a.k.a ‘detention centres’), without trial for indefinite periods of time.  Of course, this was hardly an original gambit, just as the use of ‘Jew’ by the WWII Germans was not original; dehumanisation by label is a long established practice.  And just as in Germany, the good, kind, friendly people of Australia stood back and allowed it to happen.

While the history of dehumanisation by label is long and terrible, my immediate concern is a developing tendency in the present of what used to be a fairly innocuous habit, but now seems to be rapidly changing into something much more dangerous.  I see it in the social media often: the demonisation of groups bearing the labels ‘liberal’, ‘conservative’, ‘progressive’, plus certain political party names.  These labels are used in ways which suggest they are dirty words, and the people to whom the labels are applied are spoken of as though they are the spawn of the devil. They have come to represent the extremities of the ugly polarisation that now affects religion, economics and  politics, making two-party democracies almost non-functional in places like the United States and, to a lesser extent, Australia. This is the kind of divide that was created with the words ‘Confederate’ and ‘Union’ in the American Civil War, where members of the same community were set against one another; where former friends and even members of the same family were, through the use of these labels, turned into enemies. 

There are already far too many factors which damage the fabric of community without adding to them by creating new ways to assist hating one’s neighbour.  In the most general sense, my theological views may be accurately described as ‘progressive’ or ‘liberal’, but this does not necessarily mean I take a liberal stance in areas outside theology or even on every aspect within theology.  When the label becomes a barrier to someone getting to know me, it becomes dehumanising, and when it becomes a pejorative term, indicating that I am, in some way, to be feared or hated, it becomes demonic, because it could conceivably justify sending me to a modern equivalent of the gas chambers of Auschwitz. I see such otherwise harmless terms being used today in just this way.

For example, a poll last year found that 47%, i.e. almost half, of liberal Democrats said that if a friend supported Donald Trump, the friendship would be strained.  As I look through the social media, I find that when someone is called a ‘liberal’ or a ‘progressive’, it often comes with words like dirty, criminal, stupid or some other demeaning term.  If the term ‘conservative’ is used, it is frequently associated with corrupt, uncaring, immoral, ignorant, etc.  Yet the terms originally were coined with no such bias; they were simply descriptive, never intended to be positive or negative, and certainly not adequate by the themselves to define a person.  Indeed the labels could be used with bad people or good people alike.Labels are lazy, because they are substitutes for taking the time to get to know people.  They are not always nasty; in fact, most are not, but when they dilute the uniqueness of the individual, they render the object of the label less than human. Labels are a cheap way to justify denying a person’s rights, not only in big things like the denial of freedom to ‘boat people’, but even in refusing simple courtesies that should be accorded to every human being every day. A simple rule: don’t label anyone until you have learned their name and something unique about them.  If this is not possible, then don’t use a label, even an unspoken one in your thoughts. Allow everyone to remain unique individuals, each with their feelings, thoughts, talents and flaws.

* The names used are fictional, and any similarity with real people is entirely accidental

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