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The Ethical Minefield of Baby Names: An Interview with Nolen Gertz

Philosopher Nolen Gertz on the ethics of baby names, drag queens, and A Boy Named Sue.

johnny cash at folsom prison

Nolen Gertz is Assistant Professor of Applied Philosophy at the University of Twente, Netherlands, Senior Researcher at the 4TU.Centre for Ethics of Technology, and the author of The Philosophy of War and Exile: From the Humanity of War to the Inhumanity of Peace (Palgrave 2014).

Describing himself as a continental philosopher trying to live in an analytic philosophy world”, Gertz’s career as a philosopher began at The George Washington University before he went on to complete his PhD at The New School for Social Research,  His philosophical interests include applied ethics, social and political philosophy, phenomenology, existentialism, and aesthetics. Amid his engagements as an ‘ethicist for hire’, he is currently focused on investigating the relationship between nihilism and technology.

David Maclean


 

DM: Why do baby names, particularly unusual ones, provoke such a strong reaction?

NG: I think it’s certainly something that stressed me out, both as a parent and as someone who has a somewhat unusual name. I’ve had the experience of people actually telling me that my name is spelt wrong. One of the first things people ask is what your name is, or thinking about those “Hello my name is…” stickers  we put a lot of stock in that information and we overdetermine that the name is somehow representative of the person’s character, lineage, future, etc. And thus you also get a sense of what the parents envisioned for the child, so this also reflects the parents’ character. I think that this idea that the name means something is very important for us. So I think that also part of it, from an existential perspective, is how important it is that we reduce things to their names, whether humans or objects.

 

DM: The existentialists would of course argue that while none of us choose to be born, none of have a say in what we’re called either. Do you think that when we name babies we are putting essence before existence?

NG: Well Søren Kierkegaard, for example, espoused the idea that to label me is to negate me. And this is especially true for someone like Kierkegaard who gave himself so many names. It was very important, this idea that you could, in a sense, recreate yourself by recreating your name – and yet because of socioeconomic and legal institutions you’re still tied to your name, you can’t escape it fully. Even if you legally change it, there’s still a record of it, and then, of course, the fact that you changed the name becomes more information that people compile about you. So I think that there’s this idea, like you said, that once I give you a name, you’re sort of locked into a certain path. There’s a great Seinfeld joke that illustrates this about the incomprehensibility of a hitman named Jeeves.

On the point about mapping out the future, if I named my child something obviously very unusual, this would raise a few eyebrows among people who would believe that I’m being very unethical in setting the child up for ridicule. However, the name I’ve chosen reflects the identity that I envision for my child.

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"When people ask you who you are, why do you give your name – as though that means something?
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DM: How would an ethicist respond to this conflict of interests?

NG: Well it’s interesting that the classic Johnny Cash song ‘A Boy Named Sue’ offers an answer to this in that it can possibly toughen up your child to give them a name destined to get them bullied. And this is something that I’ve actually thought a lot about – the idea that if you had something that you could point to, because you know children are always going to be cruel but you don’t know why they’re being cruel to you. But if the name was immediately something you could point to, would this then be a form of relief? They’re making fun of me just because of my name which is something from my parents so it’s really my parents’ fault, not mine. And again, because I could potentially change my name, then I’m being bullied over something I could escape from. So I could imagine an argument – though it’s not one I’m advocating – that there’s actually a benefit to having such a name.

 

DM: Is this something that philosophers have explored in detail? You cited the example of Kierkegaard, but how have others responded to this as an issue of applied ethics?

NG: I do think this is a topic that comes up often within both continental and analytic philosophy, such as Saul Kripke’s Naming and Necessity (1980). Kripke being a Wittgensteinian, the philosophical investigation points back to this idea of what the name represents, so that broadens the investigation and makes it important for discussions around philosophy of language. And again, in more continental circles, we can refer back to the existentialist movement and this idea that when people ask you who you are, why do you give your name – as though that means something? And it’s the inability to provide a satisfactory answer to the question beyond just pointing to oneself—and the name being another way of doing this—that reveals our anxieties about our existence and our identity that again goes back to objects as well as people. From the viewpoint of someone like Sartre, we give up the freedom to identify things as they are, as we want them to be, and to create the world in our own image, and instead flee from that freedom by accepting that things just are what they are and the name just is what it is. So there’s something interesting about the freedom of naming, the responsibility of naming, but also the burden and anxiety of naming.

 

DM: So would the likes of Sartre advocate for the kind of self-assertion that has been seen in the drag and trans community – choosing a name for oneself and self-defining what that entails, rather than having a name and identity imposed upon you?

NG: That’s right, and I think is why that you see in literature – with notable examples being Dostoevsky and Kafka – refusing the reader the relief of knowing the character’s name. In Notes from Underground, you don’t know who the character is and there’s this weird moment of reflection where you have to wonder ‘why do I want to know this character’s name, it’s a completely fictional character why does the name matter that much?’ And it’s the same feeling when Kafka just gives us a name likes K., or when Sartre in Nausea has a character whose name is never given but is referred to as the The Self-taught Man. So again it’s this idea of only being identified through what you do, not the name given to you. I think there’s this interesting idea of ‘I need to know your name; I’m desperate to know your name’, and this is very important when thinking about contemporary issues like cyberbullying or the act of doxxing. As you suggested, this comes up a lot with the trans community and this idea of being identified by the name you were born with as opposed to the name you give yourself, which is known as “deadnaming”. The issue of using the name the person doesn’t identify with also came up with Muhammad Ali when sports writers continued to refer to him as Cassius Clay. And there was something similar with Kareem Abdul-Jabar, so you have as well a racial element, and an Islamophobic element in naming. So it’s very important this idea—again, doxxing existed before the internet—in that if I get to name you, then I get to control you.

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"[There's this] anxiety that if you could change your identity, then you reveal that I have the freedom to change my identity. This then opens the door to questions that I might not want to ask, such as ‘Why don’t I change my name?’"
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DM: I’d like to follow on the point you raise about control. A few years ago Facebook imposed a ‘real names’ policy that disproportionately affected the LGBTQ community. Facebook’s argument was they wanted users to be open and sincere in their online presence, but the counterargument was that people had a right to anonymity and defining their own identity.

NG: It’s interesting that on the day that I gave my TEDx talk on nihilism and technology in Frankfurt, the speaker that followed was discussing the sharing economy and that the idea behind the whole enterprise is trust. But the way that trust is guaranteed is through rather authoritarian measures, like the example you mentioned: that I have to give you my name; that I have to give you identifying information so that, if not the site itself, the user can find me through other means like Google. Again it’s the idea that we’re nervous about the fluidity of identity and the ability to recreate yourself by renaming yourself. So anyone using an anonymous name is immediately arousing suspicion. An example from my own experience is when I got my verified account on Twitter, I had to change my account to my real name, and I even had to send them a scan of my passport. So once again you have this idea that anyone on the internet could just be a dog, but even the dog would still have to give a name that could be legally verified.

 

DM: Should we be afraid of this? Here in the UK we have recently heard Theresa May declaring that she wants to put an end to ‘safe spaces’ online, where people can protect their anonymity, under the auspices of combating extremist behavior.

NG: The first thought here is: why would anyone care what someone else calls themselves? You are free to choose your name and it has no bearing on me whatsoever. Putting this in philosophical terms, we might think of John Stuart Mill’s harm principle, reflecting the public and private distinction, a name being private. It’s your name; you can do with it as you wish, so why should I care? Well what’s interesting is that we do care, and, once again, it’s this sort of anxiety that if you could change your identity, then you reveal that I have the freedom to change my identity. This then opens the door to questions that I might not want to ask, such as ‘Why don’t I change my name?’, ‘Why don’t I change my identity?’, ‘Why am I so set in my ways?’, or ‘Why do I want to be who I have always been, why not be someone else?’ So on some level we feel that it’s very important to force people into the boxes that we’ve created for them, so that I don’t then have to question the boxes that I’ve created for myself.

 

DM: For any parents anxious about the consequences of naming their child or wringing their hands over the ethical weight of the decision, what advice would you have for them?

NG: I remember when my son was born—and he was premature, so we hadn’t actually come up with a name yet—we were still debating with the aid of whiteboards on which we were testing different names. It was very important for us that we could read the name, see the name, and hear the name; a very visceral experience. On top of all that, we also had in mind relatives who had passed and we wanted to honour – i.e. how do you choose who to honour and not honour; whether honouring one is to disrespect all the others. And then there was also the question of naming after a current relative rather than a dead relative. So I think it’s very important that one remembers that there is no right answer and there is no wrong answer, but that you’re willing to take responsibility for the choice you make.


 

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