Let’s begin with a related observation: The now widely accepted method of expressing disagreement with a point of view that varies from leftist (now, now, I use the term with love!) cant is to set out to destroy the point of view’s owner: after all, eliminate or intimidate all the dissenters and adversaries, and progressives no longer have to win arguments on logic and merit. I know of what I speak: I am increasingly the target of social justice warriors (fascist division), who make formal complaints to my clients or administrative bodies when my ethical guidance doesn’t jibe with the world view their professors indoctrinated them with, thus precluding an open mind.
Thus I sympathize with “Dear Abby,” actually Daughter of Dear Abby Jeanne Phillips (also the niece of Ann Landers), who is now facing the progressive Twitter mob because she dared to opine that naming one’s baby Ifeoma, Bodhi or Laszlo might not be in the child’s long-term interests. “Not only can foreign names be difficult to pronounce and spell, but they can also cause a child to be teased unmercifully,” wrote Phillips. “Sometimes the name can be a problematic word in the English language. And one that sounds beautiful in a foreign language can be grating in English.”
The Horror. Now she is being called racist, and if her syndicate has the backbone and integrity of most organizations these days, which is to say none, she will probably be toast in a matter of weeks if not days. Writer Anand Giridharadas was among those interviewed for a Times story about Abby’s Outrage. “The reality is that a lot of this has to do not with names but with whiteness,” he said. “There are a lot of complicated names from Polish and Russian and Italian and German backgrounds that have become second nature to Americans.”
No, the issue is not “whiteness.” The questions in the ethical equation are…
Are you naming a child for your amusement, self-aggrandizement or political agenda, of for the child?
Is conduct consistent with cultural norms wise and respectful, or is it preferable to announce one’s defiance?
If data and experience shows that odd and unusual names create problems later in life, should responsible parents take that into consideration?
Is it fair and ethical to hang an unnecessary handicap on a child without that child’s approval?
What Phillips said is true. It’s that simple. People don’t like that it’s true, so they are condemning her.
Having an unusual name can have all sorts of unanticipated consequences, desirable as well as unfortunate. Parents who are tempted to choose such names for their children should mke the choice with their eyes open, understanding the factors involved. In Germany, it is illegal to name one’s son Hitler, whatever the motive. That’s a breach of individual rights here, but it is just an extreme example of parental naming arrogance, turning a child into a lifetime billboard or bumper sticker. One of the Kantian ethics principles I believe should always be considered is the philosopher’s absolutist condemnation of using other human beings as a means to an end. You want to celebrate your cultural origins? Fine: do it without interfering with your child’s life and making him or her cope with being seen and treated as “special” from the age of four.
Personally, I like unusual names, perhaps because my own name caused me to be harassed by teachers through most of elementary school. Not only was I the only “Jack,” I was told outright, more than once, that it wasn’t a “real name.” (Catholics. At least none of them tried to molest me….). Well, you know me; I was rather defiant about the matter, and refused to respond when I was called “John.” No, I don’t regret being named “Jack,” which has become a very popular name, starting with Jack Kennedy, though he was really a John. My father was named Jack, and he was an ornery iconoclast too.
People with unusual names sometimes develop a sense of separation from the crowd which can make them leaders or send them into therapy. Five Presidents-to-be named Hiram, Stephen, Thomas, John and David deliberately switched their first and middle names to be more unusual, becoming Ulysses, Grover, Woodrow, Calvin and Dwight. [ Note: In the original post, I forgot about John Calvin Coolidge. Thanks to A.M Golden for the correction.] Other Presidents had less-than-common names like Millard, Rutherford, and Jimmy, or rarish names like Abraham, Zachary, Theodore and Calvin. It didn’t hurt them any. On the other side of the ledger, I had a college room mate whose creative father had named “Worldman.” Worldman said that he had been teased and harassed over the name all of his life, and felt like it placed a crushing burden on him to achieve great things. He also felt that changing his name would insult his father.
Worldman committed suicide before he was 30. It wasn’t the name, of course, but I often wonder what might have happened if he were named “Bob.” Worldman’s problem came to mind when I wrote this post, about parents who decided to name their child “Messiah” and were blocked by an incompetent judge.
I have written about namiung ethics a couple of times, notably about the man named Alkapone Cruz-Balles, who, amazingly enough, turned to a life of crime. Of his parents I wrote,
“There’s nothing like pointing your son toward the cell block when he’s barely out of the womb. I don’t know why any parents would name a child “Alkapone,” much less why they would voluntarily adopt the surname “Cruz-Balls,” which sounds like a weapon in a Sci-Fi porno film. I do know that any parent who would do so are a pare of unethical jerks”
I would not go so far as to similarly label parents who name babies less risible but equally unusual names to celebrate the culture they are no longer in. I do feel that such parents need to understand the potential consequences of their choices, which is all “Dear Abby” was trying to explain.