Friday, April 9, 2010

When we change something's name, does the object itself become different?



"What's in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet."
Romeo and Juliet (II, ii, 1-2)

I was going to blog about the death of Malcolm Mcleran, the loss of whom I feel more than I would have guessed. What I wasn't going to blog about was the retirement of the UND Fighting Sioux nickname and logo. For those of you who don't know, for several decades the university team logo and name have been under attack for being racist and divisive. The NCAA calls them "hostile and abusive," and the ND State Board of Higher Education finally retired both yesterday. It's a VERY big deal here in Grand Forks (there has been a run on Sioux merchandise at the bookstore, Scheel's, and the hockey arena), but there isn't much I can add. Frankly, at this point all there is is yelling and I intended to stay away from it all.

But then I got a nice note from a blog reader:

"People seem to be thinking of the logo as an essential part of UND athletics, rather than an accidental quality.  Does changing the name change the essence of UND?  Or could it be a "rose by any other name" situation, where the name is just an accidental quality that doesn't change the essence at all?"

This, I think is a tremendously useful question. How much does the name of an object affect the object itself, and if we change that name, does the object itself change? Obviously, 'pencil' remains the same whether it is 'lápiz', 'der Bleistift', قلم رصاص, or עפרון. Does it then follow that Barack Obama's heritage is different if we name his racial composition black or mixed-race? How about if we name my being Jewish as being non-white (this is not an argument about race but one about being othered, see the fabulous novel The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz). Everything has a name, whether it is to signify identity or simply to distinguish one characteristic from another. Names do something, the question here is how much.

Names do mean something important. Hillary Rodham Clinton is most certainly different from Hillary Clinton in some important sense, just as Winona Ryder is different from Winona Laura Horowitz. In philosophy, we might therefore ask how much a signifier affects the signified or about the relationship is between sense and reference

Commonly, victims of sexual abuse change their names when they want to move to the next chapter in their lives and reassert their agency. The change is more than just symbolic to them. And, of course, people change their names when they marry, returning to their earlier names if that relationship ends. In fact, I think this last example is particularly relevant because to me, the retiring of the logo seems more like a divorce than anything else -- a divorce that one party does not want, certainly, but a divorce nonetheless. There will be rejoicing, grieving, relief, regret, uncertainty, rebirth, and a whole host of other feelings, but most of these will pass and with time. The UND community will eventually embrace the new name and sports will continue to wield tremendous power in people’s lives that it does now. As many of you know, I have used this blog to ask about the role of sports in people's lives before; this controversy is just an extreme example.

So, the philosophical question before us is, once again, not whether retiring the logo was the right or wrong thing to do, but whether the essence of the UND sports teams will remain unchanged. Is there something intrinsic to their identity that will now different because of the new name, or is a rose simply a rose by any other name?Thank you Elizabeth for framing the question in such a subtle and important way.

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9 comments:

  1. I think for alumni who have spread out across the US, the change in nickname may indeed change the essence of the school's identity for them. Many possibly grew up in Grand Forks or elsewhere in North Dakota, but even for those who didn't, the college experience here no doubt involved a great awareness of UND Athletics, under the Sioux nickname, whether it meant participating in sports as a fan, athlete, band member, and so on.

    For those individuals, losing the Sioux nickname might sever an important part of their identity with UND. Watching UND sports online or on television now, with whatever new name is selected, may not be the same for them.

    For those currently in school and members of the local community, I don't know how much will really change in the long run. I certainly don't think it will affect the quality of the hockey program, for example. As you said, there will be a difficult period of transition, but ultimately the real essence of the school and its athletics program will be unchanged.

    I think those people who are no longer here will feel the change the hardest, and they might feel that something essential about the school has changed. Sure, watching UND hockey is still watching UND hockey, but the sense of tradition and history might be lost for many.

    Dan Lindsey, UND Class of 2009

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  2. The question in particular does shed a different view point of the situation as a whole and one that I hadn't necessarily thought of before. I have often thought of the notion of having to change my name upon getting married and how the whole concept of that seems quite silly. Not because I think I will lose my identity as most people think but moreso because people know me by the name in which I tell them and until they know me beyond that, I am just a regular person with a regular name, a first, a middle, a last, just like everyone else. To those who already knew me, my name change would not be changing my identity therefore there's very little detriment in changing it to something else. I am still who I am to those who know me and my name is only a supporting character.

    I would like to say the UND Nickname could be the same because it is only a method of association and having known it is what makes it an important association. Not knowing it has very little affect at all. What makes it different is the fact that it would be completely unacceptable for a governing group to look upon an individual and change their name, their association, their identity and now expect that individual and those who know them to now embrace the change when it wasn't a change they had desired themselves.

    A name is a name by association to that name. So I am "North Dakotan", I am "American", I am "German", I am "Sioux", I am "Catholic", I am "Katie", have meaning to those who know it because there is value in the association it lends itself to.

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  3. A pencil is a pencil until it is an it.

    Words carry associations, especially nouns, even more especially proper nouns. In the most recent American Scholar, Jessica Love summarizes a recent psycholinguistic theory on pronouns like this:

    "Words [...] are loaded, and pronouns may be a way of accessing a representation of the proper name that avoids the pitfalls of the proper name itself. It’s a way to maneuver (literally, it appears) around some of the association-juggling that language processing involves, to head straight for a placeholder instead" ("They Get to Me").... See More

    The linguistic trouble of proper nouns, the research and theory shows, is that they draw in more associations than speakers want. The example Love gives is of Emily Dickinson, repeated over and over again, which might cause the listener's brain to image either the "poet" or a friend named "Emily" or any number of other memories. To avoid this, speakers use pronouns.

    Just some things to add to your discussion.

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  4. Years ago as part of my own personal path with Judaism, I changed my legal first name from Leslie to Hannah - my Jewish name. To me it was a personal 'matching' of my inner and outer selves. I got a variety of reactions from the suspicious, "Are they making you do that?", "Are you hiding something from your past?" to the critical, "Thats just ... See moreweird!" or "You are being disrespectful to your parents who gave you that name!" to the amused laughter, to the defensive, "I"M not calling you that!" to the more positive. Usually the more more positive ones were from the people who talked to me about it and asked questions. I was surprised by all the strong opinions about MY name. Why did they care? I am exactly the same person whether I'm Hannah or Leslie or X. I think because people are basically creatures of routine and habit and their comfort zone/tradition got tilted in just a tiny, minute way. I imagine the comfort zone/tradition of people who wanted to keep the old UND nickname is a much bigger deal on a much larger scale...but a similar theory. Change - even positive change - will have its growing pains. And now, people call me Hannah and I'm Hannah. Sometimes I get called Leslie by family member or even "Le..Hannah" People became comfortable with it and moved on to more important issues. I hope the UND nickname change will be the same. There are SOOOOO many more important issues out there to spend our resources on!

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  5. I'm really glad readers are as interested in this question as I am. Many people seem to think something about their experience at UND has been stolen from them because the name is changing, but that doesn't need to be the case. This doesn't mean the name didn't matter, because the nickname affected the tone of sporting events and school chants. Changing the name will alter these aspects of UND, but the essence of UND will remain the same.

    Changing the name will be more like taking off makeup or getting a tattoo than cutting off your head. Changing accidental qualities doesn't change the essential qualities. As long as UND excels at academics and athletics, it will continue to be the same institution.

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  6. While I try to imagine what this situation would feel like as someone who grew up in North Dakota loving the Fighting Sioux nickname, I just can't see why that history alone, should be enough to keep the name, when it hasn't for any other group in history that I can think of, off the top of my head.

    In fact, I almost didn't choose UND because I was ashamed to have say that I was a Fighting Sioux. If I went to UND, I had to be a Fighting Sioux, and that just didn't seem fair. This is the reverse of the second comment above about the gov't stepping in and changing things for people. I wanted to go to a school with Forensic Science, why should I HAVE to be a Sioux to do it?

    Luckily, I didn't choose a college based on it's athletic team, or based on it's logo.

    If I reverse it, and if I had chosen a college based on it's logo, I suppose I would be upset, but is college really a choice that should be based on a "nickname"? I think I would be more upset with myself for relying on a logo to define my education.

    Granted, athletes, who are looking to go pro, perhaps regard college as a hoop to jump through while they try to get recruited, and do look for a college based on it's athletic team, but the name doesn't "make" the team, it's an accident, the athletes and coaches and fans make the team, the "spirit" makes the team.

    I was able to get over having to be a Sioux fairly easily, as I wanted this particular education, why wouldn't it be the same for those who wanted to be a Sioux and now can't, if an education is what they're here for?

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  7. I have to weigh in on the incredibly limited notion of "essence" in a name. Certainly we can agree that there is an inviolable contingency in the name Fighting Sioux: how do we adjudicate the legitimate reaction to a word? Are there Sioux who find it a proud reference? I'd bet money. Can we find others whose minds have changed to see it as troubling? I'd also cover that bet. But essence is never a helpful way to decide whose relationship with the term is more authentic, right, correct, healthy, etc.

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  8. This is actually something I have struggled with lately. I am getting married and I have had anxiety about changing my last name. Realistically I know I could call myself anything I wanted and I would still be me. I’m not sure if a new last name will change my identity or if it’s getting married that will facilitate a change. Among the other words I use to describe myself (student, daughter, sister, friend etc.) I will be adding a new word: “wife”. Doesn’t this addition change my identity somewhat? Doesn’t it indicate a new direction or a reorganization of priorities? If so, does a new name symbolize this change? I have come to believe that this is so. I will still be me, but in a way I won’t be. I will be different because I will have joined my solitary path with another’s path to make a new one. The challenges and experiences I face will make me a different person.
    Is it necessary to change one’s name? No I don’t believe so. For me it seems more symbolic than necessary. But in the case of the Fighting Sioux, a name change is necessary. The reason for this necessity is not something I feel qualified to discuss at this time. I just wanted to share something that was brought to my attention recently. Somewhere in the past couple years, the logo/nickname and the university have started to separate. “The Fighting Sioux” is more associated with the athletic department rather than the institution. “UND” is associated with the actual college. I can’t help but think that maybe it’s good that we have the opportunity now to unite these two areas of the university. Maybe this will lead to a stronger sense of who we are as a campus community. The students and faculty here are exceptional and we can make this good if we decide to. We are a strong community. We are also a community that doesn’t like change. But times change, and so must we.

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  9. Just to clarify for one of the other commenters, "essence" is being used as a technical philosophy term in this discussion to mean the essential parts of something.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Essence

    If the name is an essential part of UND, it cannot be changed without changing UND's essence. If it is not essential, and is instead accidental, then UND's essence will remain the same.

    Similarly, the word "rose" is not an essential part of a rose, but petals might be. Is the name "Fighting Sioux" more like the word "rose" or the physical petals?

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