Tuesday, December 18, 2012

"What's in a name?” Everything. Or almost everything.

Ah, poor Juliet. She really thought that if Romeo just "denied [his] father and refused [his] name" their romance would be able to transcend any and all obstacles. The trouble is: names that have become recognized labels are profoundly difficult to overcome. They operate as a kind of shorthand for all sorts of epistemological assumptions and value judgments. People hear certain names and think they know all there is to know about the phenomenon associated with that name. Therefore, those in the naming business who would like to shape the way others “understand” certain phenomena give serious thought to the name they select—be it for a baby, a new cosmetic product, the way a party is identified in a court document, or a social policy.
Juliet could hardly be faulted for her naïve longing to transcend “names,” though. She was, after all, not yet 14 when she got broadsided by her first (and alas only) encounter with romantic passion. And she just thought it would be nice if she and Romeo could be something separate and apart from “Montagues” and “Capulets.”
But the rest of us should know better. On one hand, we should take care in deciding what names/labels to attach to things. Lawyers, for instance, know that the act of naming something is an opportunity to persuade that shouldn’t be wasted. On the other hand, we should approach the names/labels that others apply to things with some healthy skepticism instead of just blindly agreeing to play along.
For instance, when I hear about the waitress who expresses outrage over “the death tax” she thinks she will have to pay upon expiring or the blue collar workers who think that the concept of a “right to work” state is something they should rally around—well, I get a tad irritated. Unless that waitress wins a multi-million-dollar lottery and then has so little sense to hire herself a competent estate planner, neither she nor her kin will ever have to trouble themselves about any so-called “death tax.” Likewise, the “right to work” agendas that involve stripping labor unions of the ability to require dues as a condition of membership is not about giving people a “right to work” but about crippling an interest group that tends to promote better working conditions for those engaged in certain kinds of demanding work and that tends to use some of the dues they collect from members to back politicians who will protect their right to engage in collective bargaining and so forth.
Most of the contemporary examples of effective, if somewhat deceptive, public-policy-related branding that I can think of emanates from the right side of the aisle.
One has to wonder why Conservatives are so much better than Liberals at the name game, why the former have such a finer sense of how to shape perceptions through labels. I doubt very seriously that Conservatives are former English majors or even Marketing & Design majors in vastly greater numbers than Libs. So I wonder if the lawyers—a professional class of wordsmiths with vast appreciation for nuance, connotation, and arguments-by-analogy—who end up working on behalf of Conservative causes are just better than their Liberal counterparts. And if so, why? Is it because lawyers who are politically conservative are more comfortable with the implicit cynicism involved in this language game? What I mean is, does a conservative perspective make a person more likely to be comfortable embracing the notion that language can be used to manipulate perception? And the fact that language will ultimately shape perception even if one does not consciously try to control the resulting perception?  Does a liberal perspective incline people to believe that “facts are just facts”? Are liberals qua liberals more uncomfortable with the idea that words can and do alter the way we look at facts—and thus, in a sense, alter facts themselves? Or is this a peculiarly American kind of liberalism?
I don’t know. But Juliet’s longing—for a world in which she and her Romeo could get beyond their names and simply BE who they truly were—it may be a liberal longing. Certainly a naïve longing. But, perhaps, a nice longing nevertheless.

1 comment:

  1. It's interesting that political slogans aren't just catchy turns of phrase, but little metaphoric narratives. For example, take "pro choice" vs. "pro life." To be pro choice is to be the kind of person who values the freedom to make choices, a freedom that has a slightly humanist, post-Enlightenment sense to it. By way of contrast, to be pro life is to be the kind of person who honors the "sanctity" of life, with "sanctity's" strong overtones of "holiness" or "Godliness;" in other words, the kind of person who is uncomfortable with the world that the Enlightenment has created.

    To borrow from Lakoff and Johnson, political slogan smiths create "metaphors we live by." I think that the party that best taps into what most people want to see themselves as, as opposed to what they really are, has a leg up.