Aaron R. Davis
Sometimes I actually end up thinking about all of the little ways we’re mean to one another and wonder what they mean. Why do we do them? What do we get out of it? And what is it meant to signify to others?
Lately I’ve been thinking about names. Not calling someone a name, but specifically not calling someone by their own name.
Your name is obviously important to you. It’s what you’re identified by. Don’t you get a little miffed inside when someone calls you the wrong name by accident, or makes an assumption about the way it’s spelled? Worse, have you ever had someone actually try to correct you about the way you say your name, insisting that you’re wrong because your way is improper?
Denying the correct usage of someone’s name is a subtle way of denying that person a piece of their identity. And even when you don’t think you’re doing it maliciously, you are.
You know who gets this a lot? My mother. Her name is Nina. Now, probably most of you looked at that and read it as “Neena,” its original Spanish pronunciation. But my mom pronounces it like the number nine: “Nine-uh.” That’s the way my grandmother pronounced it, and that’s apparently the way other people pronounced it, because my grandmother named Nina after one of her childhood friends. I have actually heard my mother argue with people on the phone about how it’s pronounced. She gets people all the time calling for “Neena,” and she corrects them, but every so often there’s that one discourteous person who just can’t get over it and insists that, no, she’s quite wrong about that. As a kid, I was always hoping she’d just snap “I know how to pronounce my own name.”
You don’t argue with someone over how they say their name. What could possibly be the reason to do that, other than that old human ridiculousness of getting off on feeling smarter than someone?
My best friend, whose wedding I participated in last month, was tormented in high school by bullies who intentionally called him by the wrong name. I won’t even say what it is, out of respect. I can’t remember exactly how it started, but I think a teacher accidentally got his name wrong at the start of the school year and everyone else started doing it when they saw it bothered him.
What sucks is that I never saw what the big deal was and why it should bug him so much. And I should have, because I had a teacher who kept calling me “Adam” instead of “Aaron” for about a month, no matter how much I corrected him, and that bothered the hell out of me. I was annoyed and even a little offended that it didn’t seem like a big deal to him to get my name right. How could I not be sensitive to someone else when it was being done to him on purpose?
I see it most often now in the same place that I see examples of personal rudeness most often: on the Internet. I see it in two ways, actually.
The first is the most evil way, to me, which is when you see racists referring to, say, Hispanic-Americans as “Jose.” That’s just one example, and I hate using it, because it makes me feel slimy even pointing it out. But let’s be honest: assholes do that as a not-so-subtle way of saying “I don’t care about who you are because I don’t see you as anything more than just another member of a specific group that I look down on.” That’s scummy. That’s purposely dehumanizing.
The second way is just bizarre to me, and that’s when people use names to express annoyance with celebrities. I see that a lot. Lady Gag-Gag, Miley Virus, Asston Kutcher, Asslee Simpson, Tammy Cruise, M. Night Shyamalanadingdong. I don’t really get that, I have to admit. And I also have to admit that I’m doing that as a person who has been guilty of this behavior without thinking about how mean and stupid it really was.
When it comes to a celebrity, I don’t really get what the point is, because it’s not like some celebrity is going to come out of the woodwork and see your idiot comment and then feel bad about themselves and reevaluate the direction of their lives. I have this picture in my head of someone typing out “I can’t stand Kim Kartrashian!” on a message board and then sitting back, smiling to themselves smugly, certain that this was the one thing that would finally put a stop to the unrelenting fame of someone whose fame has absolutely zero measurable effect on their lives.
What do you get out of making fun of celebrity baby names other than that second of feeling like you’re a better person than someone you’re never going to have any interaction with whatsoever? You’re not better. You know how I know? You’re making fun of someone’s baby!
We use names that way just for the cheap succor of having a tiny bit of power over someone else for a fraction of a second. We deny them their identities because it makes us feel smarter or stronger or more valuable as a human being. The people who still insist on calling Chelsea Manning by the name Bradley are doing so to make themselves feel better about something they don’t want to understand. We do this because we think our own feelings matter more than allowing someone else the basic dignity of their identity.
Remember at the Oscars when some entertainment flack told Quvenzhane Wallis she was going to call her “Annie” because she couldn’t immediately pronounce her name? That young lady said, in no uncertain terms, “No, you’re going to call me by my name.” She had the right idea. You don’t get to change someone’s name for your own comfort, or to make yourself feel better, or to make someone else feel small.
Everyone in the world has the right to be called by the name they want to be called by. And you don’t get to decide whether or not you’ll accept it, because no one is asking for your permission. They’re asking for an ounce of basic respect.
If it makes you feel better about yourself to deny that to a person, I really hope no one has put you in a position with any power, because you get off on degrading another person in a way that gives you the most insignificant thrill.
Aaron R. Davis lives in a cave at the bottom of the ocean with his eyes shut tight and his fingers in his ears. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.