Thursday, July 26, 2007

Invisible Ownership

Every culture has a tradition of naming, some simple, some complex. But one thing remains the same, people attach names to various creatures and objects: to themselves, to each other, to their gods, to their property, to the creatures they encounter, to the enemies they face, to concepts they’re aware of, to their greatest fear. Suffice to say, if you have a name for something, you acknowledge that that something exists.

Names are signs of power and they signify ownership. Why do people name their children? In a way, such practice reinforces the idea of the parent-child relationship, that we are the scions of our parents, that we are a part of them and to some extent, they have power over us. Who else has the right to name us? No one but our parents (they need not be our blood parents). And more often than not, we take a part of our parent’s names, such as their surname or family name or clan name.

But the power of naming isn’t restricted to our parents. We sometimes go by different names, different aliases. In some cases, we determine what we should be called. That’s one way we partition our “self”, where we set our ego boundaries. Similarly, we attach nicknames to our friends and colleagues and even acquaintances. By doing so, we acknowledge and establish a relationship with them, whether communal or antagonistic. When we call our friend Mike instead of Michael, we’re saying “I’m calling you Mike and you’re my friend.” In certain ways, we’re leaving our mark on them, a sort of possessive identifier. The said friend might go by different nicknames in his life but to you, it’s Mike, and when you call out to him, he also knows it’s you who’s calling. At best, this is your private language, your silent acknowledgement of each other’s relationship. A worst, this can be two forces clashing together, which is the case when bullies attach unkind nicknames to those under them. The bullied resents the nickname you attach to him and will try to discard that name. Every utterance of the disdained nickname however reminds you of the hold he or she has over you, whether powerful or weak. And so names can become silent power struggles.

Names, however, don’t always grow to become the way we expect them to be. Those who accept their names, from whoever gave it to them, can subvert it to their own uses. If you call me a murderer, I will become a murderer. If you call me successful, I will develop the courage and confidence to become successful. In many ways, names signify our different personas and our relationship with other people. When your father calls you son, he views you from the paradigm of a parent. You might call yourself Michael and that Michael is certainly different from the Michael that everyone perceives you to be. When your friend calls you Mike, he views you from the paradigm of a friend. Your girlfriend might call you Mikey and she views you from the perspective of a love interest. Taken to the extreme, this can be seen in people with different personalities—each persona has a different name (or psychiatrists attaches different names to them) and behave differently.

If there’s any doubt to the power of names, one merely needs to observe why people strive for titles and designations. There’s a certain respect when we call someone sir or ma’am (and various cultures will have various ways of deferring respect, whether po or opo in Filipino, -san and –sama in Japanese, etc.). Or simply in the work place, why we value being called a boss or supervisor instead of simply being a rank-and-file employee. Your duties might be the same but the designation makes all the differences, and people usually attribute a higher income the more important-sounding your company title is. Yet at the end of the day, it’s all names. A maintenance supervisor’s duty might not be any different from that of a janitor yet the former elicits a certain aura, a certain presence. Or you can call yourself the C.E.O. of the company even if you’re the only employee yet that makes all the difference in how people perceive you, especially when you hand out your business cards.

In at atmosphere like the work place, most people don’t realize that by allowing the company to give them designations, they’re giving a sense of power over to the company. You’re saying “This is the work I do, you have the power to demote or promote me according to your will.” And the same mentality extends to society, especially in the voting process. Your current president is just a regular man yet you give him power by naming him president. His authority is commensurate with his title, which is given to him by society rather than something he bestows upon himself. And while as the president, it might seem you wield such power, the truth of the matter is that the only reason you have power is because society owns you and gave you that title. By rejecting society, you are stripped of your powers. If society rejects you, you are similarly feeble and powerless.

A name might be such a simple thing yet it holds so much power. No acknowledged individual goes without a name and most likely, every person has lots of names, each one representing a different facet of their personality. It is through names that we establish relationships with people much like some animals pee on certain places and buildings to mark their territory. Without names, whether true or false, we would not view the world as we see it today. That’s why names are valued and why we are quick to label our enemies. With every word we utter, we not only hope they come true, but we define what kind of interaction we plan to have with that person. The entities we acknowledge but refuse to name belong to one of two categories: we either fear them the most (and why in Harry Potter, Voldemort is he-who-must-not-be-named), or are in awe of them (and why in Christianity, it is blasphemy to utter God’s real name).

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