Finding the Right Names

Our crisis has taken another nose dive.  We are descending into name-calling and scapegoating on all sides.  We have to stop this, and it begins with each of us.

First, a framework:  A biblical story tells of Adam “naming” the animals. Interpretations of this story abound, but I think the story is about language.  The unique gift of human beings is expression of experience through language, in an immense range of communication. Indeed, there are many languages:  expression includes the arts, music, mathematics, and so on.

In that pure state of first creation, Adam was able to find the right the name for each animal. Like all the Edenic stories “before the fall,” this was an ideal.  After the expulsion from Eden, language went into exile. We want to express our experience – to name it and the world around us — accurately and elegantly. But instead we struggle to speak, and we “fall” into false communication.

This is an immense topic, but I want to concentrate on one thing:  labeling, which is a form of naming.  Labels are categorizing tools, shorthand techniques for managing information, as in the common practices of putting labels on folders, drawers, store aisles, maps.

But when it comes to labeling people, we run into problems. Grouping people can be helpful for certain functions. But as soon as we do it, our relationships become what Martin Buber called I-It relationships, instead of I-Thou. People become objects or representations of something else, instead of individuals.

A beautiful portrayal of the difference is in the film Loving, currently showing in theaters.  Loving vs. the State of Virginia was a famous court case that resulted in the Supreme Court ban of laws against “miscegenation,” that is, the mixing of races in marriage. The decision also affirmed marriage as an inherent right.

Not only is this a timely release of an old/new story on this issue; also, the title Loving presents exactly the quality of language that is paradoxical and amazing. “Loving” is the family name of the man in the case.  As a court case, “Loving” can refer to a category of civil rights cases. And, of course, “loving” is the subject of the story.  Richard and Mildred chose not to appear in court because he refused to hear the language that the defense would probably use, namely describing their children as “bastards.” When his attorney asked if he wanted him to say anything in the court on his behalf, he said: “Yes. Tell the judge that I love my wife.”

Loving is I-Thou.  Loving is seeing and sensing the other person as b’tzelem elokim, a vessel embodying the Divine image.

The recent election campaign and its aftermath have exploited labeling to a frightening degree. One side lumps whole groups into categories such as “rapists” and “liars,” the other chooses another set of categories such as “anti-Semites” and “racists.”  And the most frustrated lose it completely and descend into those forms of language that are intended to be gross and shocking, the four-letter words and their derivatives.

Our common talk long ago descended there. I’m old enough still to be shocked by hearing someone speak on the telephone in a public place, using words like f— and s— several times in one minute.  My father had to be really irritated to use even the word “damn” (ok, it could be angry at himself for a bad throw of the bowling ball). My mother only used it in my presence twice in her life, when she was virtually in a breakdown.  My parents weren’t college educated, they just knew: you don’t talk like that.

We’re way past that. But at a time of crisis, we can make an effort to rein in our language. Here’s how:

  • Don’t use what we used to call “cuss words.” When you slip into them, apologize and restate what you’re saying.
  • Be precise. Instead of labels, describe the other’s actions and your own experience.  Instead of “homophobic,” say, “this person made a statement about gay people that sounded degrading to me.” That combines a fact – you actually heard or read the statement – with how you interpreted it.
  • When you need to refer to a group, spell it out. Instead of “the establishment,” say, “the politicians who have controlled the Democratic party for most of the past 20 years.” Back up your description with specifics. “I mean people like Nancy Pelosi of California and Harry Reid of Nevada, who have taken positions on X, Y, and Z.”  It takes more work to educate yourself, but in the process you may find out something interesting – and your opinions will be more respected.

Unless we seek to find the right names, we simply throw ourselves into the name-calling ring, and then we get it back in our faces.  A current example is the attack on Steve Bannon, the new “chief strategist” for the president (an interesting label itself).  In shock at the election results, people fastened on a scapegoat. Epithets rained down.  Predictably, defenders came forward to deny the epithets.

And I’m not defending him – but this behavior completely avoids the problem. Do we actually think that getting him to resign or be fired will deal with the underlying causes?  Or will it just give us momentary relief from our moral trauma by scoring a victory? (Note: people who say “I’m not defending” are usually not believed, but there we go again. When we’re upset, fine lines are hard to draw.)

Alan Dershowitz, by the way, stands out as one of the few people who tried to sort this all out. Watch this video, which has been spread as a “defense of Bannon” (there we go again), even though Dershowitz is obviously advising us to use clear judgment.

Naming is a serious business.  We aren’t very good at it, ever since Adam screamed at God, “That woman you gave me…!!!”

But we can do better.  Lovingly.

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