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The power of naming

March 4, 2013

“So out of the ground the LORD God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the heavens and brought them to the man to see what he would call them. And whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name.”
–Genesis 2:19, English Standard Version translation

For a long time I’ve been interested in the idea that the ability to name things gives the person doing the naming a subtle form of power. When you study some field that has a lot of jargon associated with it, you can feel in your bones that the jargon subtly shapes your outlook. Part of it is that you’re joining a club: the club of people who can speak the specialized jargon of some field or other. But it runs deeper than that also. Ideas that have names take on an importance that unnamed ideas don’t have. If we aren’t careful we can easily start to believe that named ideas are “Real,” and unnamed ones are unreal.

I’ve read that in the 1960’s and 70’s, the departments of organizations that hired people were named “Staffing”. Their job was to staff the organization. But somehow the name of that department was changed, and it’s now referred to as “Human Resources”. Subtly, without much discussion of the issue (as far as I know), employees have become human resources. The process of managing employees is becoming Human Resource Management. I don’t understand the details of how that was made to happen, but it’s been done quite effectively.

In psychiatry, the mechanism for naming and renaming things is more visible. There’s a group called the American Psychiatric Association, and it publishes what is (really) a book of names. It tells psychiatrists how to diagnose things like Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and many other disorders. Occasionally updates to the psychiatric manual come out; occasionally, disorders change, and new ones appear, and old ones disappear. ADHD didn’t exist 50 years ago, I suppose, but now that it’s been named it does exist (for a lot of people). Maybe someday it’s nature will be redefined by the American Psychiatric Association, and some people who used to suffer from ADHD won’t suffer from it anymore, and people who used to be healthy will become ADHD sufferers. Voila naming.

When I studied international relations theory in university, the names given to different political outlooks disturbed me very much. People who believe that “If you want peace, you should prepare for war” were referred to in all our textbooks as Realists. People who would oppose spending so much money on weapons were given names like Idealists, Marxists, or Liberals. That’s part of the jargon of international relations theory, as tought in colleges and universities throughout the “western world”. (And beyond as well, so far as I know.) Arguing for a large military is being realistic; by extension, people who oppose large military budgets are unrealistic.

In my economics courses, things were as heavy-handed or worse. Things like pollution are referred to as externalities — they are external to economics, and therefore not fit topics for economists to consider. People are consumers, and people are also human capital. Aside from that we don’t exist — or perhaps, our other characteristics are externalities which the economist ought to ignore. So a particular field has been named economics, and it is about making decisions that effect everyone’s lives much more than who gets elected next year; and the people who manage the economy use language like human capital, human resources, efficiency… but all art, all environmental concerns, the children and the elderly, and really everything that makes us people instead of machines, isn’t given any names in their field and so is almost completely ignored.

The scariest part, I think, is that through ‘education’ people might someday accept this kind of worldview as ordinary. Right now it’s mainly in higher education that you learn you’re a consuming machine that exists to be trained and exploited. But we could eventually have kids in kindergarten who think of themselves as resources, if we don’t already. If they experience sadness about being a resource instead of a person, they may accept the idea that they suffer from depression and need medication. In short, we might become the nightmare creatures that we depict ourselves to be in our ‘higher’ studies.

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