Crisis of Names, Crisis of Identity and Meaning (Names Post 3 of 3)
One of the greatest tasks as a parent is choosing the name of a child. Most people will carry their birth name – a name that they did not choose – for the entirety of their lives. This name could even be memorialized on a tombstone for centuries after the person’s death. A name, as it turns out, is a really big deal!
We know people by their names and their faces. The very definition of a stranger is someone whose name we do not know and who we have never seen. Knowing a name is the doorway to relationship, and leads to shared life together. How odd it would be to share significant and intimate events with someone and never know his or her name!
Names also reflect culture and have their source in culture. John, Mary and Joseph are common names in the West because of the Judeo-Christian roots of Western Culture. Muhammad is a popular name in Islamic countries in the Middle East because of that culture’s religious foundations in Islam. Solidarity in naming is reflective of cultural cohesion and denotes a shared understanding of what is real and what is most important to its people.
Disturbingly in our own historical moment, there is less solidarity in naming than ever before. In 1950 the top 100 names constituted 58% of all names. By 2017, it would take nearly ten times as many names to reach a similar proportion, with the top 1000 names constituting 63% of all names.
Many may argue that this is a positive trend because it shows greater cultural diversity and greater individual freedom of expression. Being constituted of a wider array of racial, ethnic, religious, and cultural groups accounts for some of the increase in name variety. Other name variety originates from self-created names that have no family, religious, or cultural tradition attached to them, and go so far as being intended as a joke. The name of the Olympic skier Peekaboo Street comes to mind.
I am less optimistic that diversity of names is a positive trend, and believe it is a symptom of an existential crisis in meaning. The broad philosophical currents of the last centuries and the impact of the multiple epistemological shifts in thought that have shaped our post-modern, secular culture help us understand my concern.
I am going to paint with broad strokes here at risk of oversimplifying centuries worth of philosophy. My aim is surface-level, and I don’t mean to imply that each philosopher mentioned here is a predecessor or successor to others named. I only hope to show that a collection of small errors taken together over many years causes substantial rational drift and has resulted in the incoherent amalgamation of competing realities we presently face.
The first major break from Classical Greek Philosophy that had shaped the Church’s thinking in its first millennia reached its climax in the 13th and 14th Centuries with the philosophy of nominalism (or conceptualism). William of Ockham is perhaps the most known proponent of this thought. Nominalism taught that only particular things in space and time that could be named were real. I have heard stated that nominalism was a response to Islam’s reading of Aristotle and Classic Greek Philosophies that had been a bedrock of the Church Father’s understanding of God and the Incarnation. This shift opened a door for the thought of Rene Descartes in the 17th century with his attempt to attain mathematical certitude in philosophy, culminating in the famous phrase attributed to him – *Cogito ergo sum* (I think, therefore I am). Immanuel Kant followed a century later with his philosophy of idealism, and completed this move from the objective basis to the subjective basis of reality and nature. The turn inward to the rational subject as the foundation of reality was seized upon in a different way a century later by the thought of Friedrich Nietzsche, who emphasized the primacy of the will in determining reality. Since Nietzsche, the toothpaste has been out of the tube.
Post-modern secularism is driven by this notion that the individual person through the act of his will can shape his own personal, entirely autonomous reality, and thus can have ultimate control over his identity. Such radical autonomy has only one limit by the secular cultural architects – do not invade another person’s autonomous reality or identity.
But a major problem exists, since such a worldview does not demand rational coherency from one individual reality to another. So whose reality takes precedence when contradictory, competing claims come into conflict?
The diversity movement, the attempts at defining and regulating consent concerning sexual relations, intersectionality theory, and the dogmas of non-judgmentalism all try to reconcile interpersonal conflicts created by the entirely self-made realities of each individual. In short, there is no longer any such thing as objective nature to organize ourselves around now that reality exists entirely in the subjective mind and manifests itself in the individual will. I believe that the crisis in names is the most dangerous manifestation of our post-modern situation because it severs the ability of language to properly relate with one another.
If names are indeed born out of a shared culture, then a lack of common, shared names implies that we are more atomized and fractured on a cultural level. Instead of social cohesion, a new tribalism has emerged. The locus each “tribe” organizes around seems to be the level of permissiveness to the post-modern relativism and non-judgmentalism that are the highest priorities of Secularism. This cultural disintegration is being accelerated through the use of social media and mobile technology.
The end result is not new law but the reign of something older than old – the Law of Might Makes Right. Whose reality wins when individual realities come into conflict?
Transgenderism (soon to be the transhumanism?) is the ultimate form this crisis of names has taken. Does the transgendered person who has changed his given birth name from Robert to Sarah and demands to be referred to as her and she win? What happens to life-long, intimate family relationships when this happens? Either one must accept the claim that Robert is now Sarah and use feminine pronouns, or one must call the claim that Robert is now Sarah for what it is – a lie. This binary choice forces relationships into a corner. Deny reality – “my” reality or objective reality, it makes no difference – or end the ability to relate with that person.
And what is the limit to the trans movement? Why stop with gender? Why not ethnicity or even species? As I said, the toothpaste is out of the tube.
Joseph Pieper writes a marvelous booklet called Abuse of Language – Abuse of Power that is worth reading in full. He writes:
“Word and language form the medium that sustains the common existence of the human spirit as such. The reality of the word in eminent ways makes existential interaction happen. And so, if the word becomes corrupted, human existence itself will not remain unaffected and untainted….Human words and language accomplish a two-fold purpose….First, words convey reality. We speak in order to name and identify something that is real, to identify it for someone, of course – and this points to the second aspect in question, the interpersonal character of speech” (p. 15).
He continues to ask if a lie can be considered communication, which he answers no. Lying withholds a person’s share of reality from another, compromising communication and damaging the ability to properly relate to one another. He goes so far as to call the abuse of language violence and rape (p. 32)! Corrupting the word corrupts everything that follows from it.
And so we come full circle. “In the beginning was the Word,” is no cheap poetic verse, but the very foundation of reality. To properly name means to properly stand upon what is objectively true. Names, meaning, and language itself are under assault. The real danger is that communication is rendered impossible if the word itself is distorted. Such an opponent cannot be negotiated with, but must be defeated. If we lack natural weapons, let us together turn to the supernatural weapons of faith, hope and love available to us every time we pray the Rosary! There is power in the Name of Jesus to bring low these insidious evils and resurrect true culture once again!