In the days before the Enlightenment, there was a concept common across human tribes, although it was not always implemented identically everywhere: Names have power. This often cashed out in a belief that knowing the True Name of being would allow you control of that being. This is not Actually True, but it does give some idea how humans think about these things.
That said, names do have power, and secret names have power. Just ask any trans person, what the feeling of being called by their deadname vs chosen name is like.
Beyond that, labels affect thinking, names are labels, and the effects are subtle and gross. In an interesting update to the study I meant to find for this post, the authors draw out the causes of nominative employment discrimination a bit further – while there appears to be less of a bias for traditionally nonwhite names, there is a meaningful one for names that convey low socioeconomic standing. If your name says your parents were poor, you’re going to have to work harder to get those interviews, at which point you can demonstrate your sterling qualities.
But you’re walking uphill to do so, and every little bit of difficulty adds on. Our lives are like the trajectories of spaceborne objects that way – small changes early on can cause huge shifts later, and many small adjustments, especially those that happen at optimal times can wildly alter paths.
Names are a fundamental part of first impressions, often going to work before we ever meet the person, priming that first impression. The example of this I have in my mind I heard some time ago – would John F. Kennedy have been president, with a different name? Rufus J. Kennedy, perhaps not. Melvin F. Kennedy? Seems unlikely to me. Not just because of how these names would have fallen on the ears of the voting public – I don’t think Rufus or Melvin would have ended up in a place to have their name heard in that context. Emotional Intelligence (review to come) talks about the effects of having social graces early, or not, and how this sets a pattern that can shape one’s entire life.
And yet, most people take their name for granted. As a society we tend to assume that first names, at least, almost never change. I think this kind of rigidity has left us collectively worse off. Being trans has given me a different perspective on this than most have, since changing my name was necessary; I spent years flinching inside every time someone wanted my attention.
Therefore, I did so, applying with the courts, posting in a local paper, and waiting weeks to see if I would be allowed to redub myself. Afterwards, I had years to think about the matter, and to wear many names in a variety of virtual environments. Even names that were just words, grouped together, tended to shape my behavior a bit – I acted differently as Tribalvirtue, as Runinterror, and as Perax. Tribal tended to lean more towards kindnesses for people on my side. Runinterror looked for opportunities to attack the enemy, especially ones that imposed that kind of sick, helpless dread. Perax mostly minded her own business, while being ready to help or harm anyone, as their actions dictated.
More recently, when I moved to Berkeley, I went by my legal name for a few weeks, but I noted two things – most people I knew, knew me by the name I’d carried since Wildstar (Ratheka), and I felt more comfortable with that as my designation. I updated to introducing myself as Ratheka, talked to the people I’d introduced myself to as Robyn, and got them to update, and have generally leaned into being the person I feel that name belongs to. It was part of an intentional effort to reshape my view of myself, and thus how I interacted with the world, and it with me. I’d picked up some memes regarding heroism common to my community, and I wanted every interaction to give me a little nudge towards being the hero I wanted to be.
Thus far, it’s gone pretty well. I don’t know that I wouldn’t have grown stronger and become the person I have under another name, but it doesn’t feel that way. If nothing else, I’m certainly unique. I’ve benefitted from changing my handle, and I don’t think the world would be better off had I not.
Where do I think we should go from here? I’m not sure where I picked up all of the pieces of this model, as it’s been a long time, but my current thinking is that parents should give their children a name that is not expected to last into adulthood. As the individual grows and begins to decide who they are and want to be, they should be free to redesignate themselves, and we should have legal and societal affordances for this. Additionally, I think that adults should also have this freedom – we are not the same people we were ten years ago, but a name set in stone is at least an anchor to the way things were – not impossible to overcome, but certainly harder, and often the difficulty is shaped by the anchor, and the ocean floor it is set in.
I’m not saying nominative determinism is real, but it’s more real than many things humans believe in.