Law: What’s in a Name?

March 5, 2008

Recently I joined a facebook group called “1 Million strong against Barack Hussein Obama.”  My intention was to join a group opposing the election of a person that I think wants to set the country on the wrong path (and particularly a path that I belive leaves my life worse off). 

Anyway, within hours of joining, I had a handful of people send me messeges basically saying “dude thats shitty.”  At first, my reaction was to investigate the group I joined.  After a five minute look, it seemed to me like the group was just a standard anti-Obama group.  I still largely stand by this judgment.  After a few more messeges, I decided that if people saw this as so incorrect that it was worth complaining about, I should leave, not because I had an issue with what I thought the group stood for (opposing the election of a man that would not make a good president in our judgment) but because I didn’t want people to think my policy a qualification based opposition was motivated in some way by fear or racism.

 Then I got to thinking so more….. what does this reaction say? Is this a sign that our nation is becoming more accepting?  Does this mean that we have moved to a place where voters think its childish to rely on fear and childish posturing to boost/attack a candidate?  Then I read CNN and it appears that isn’t the case, fear and image are still significantly more important than policy and past experience.   Oh well, perhaps eventually.

So why am I writing? Well, first of all, I don’t think that your middle name (or your first name) should matter in any context.  That said, it is fun to play devil’s advocate some, so I’m going to play with this idea with the very clear disclaimer that I DONT THINK SOMEBODY’S NAME SHOULD MATTER IN ELECTING THEM PRESIDENT BUT I DO THINK THAT MANY MANY PEOPLE THAT ARE UPSET OVER THE USE OF HIS MIDDLE NAME ARE BEING SOMEWHAT TWO FACED.

First of all, if you take the stance that I take, which is, names don’t matter, only policies, then you have to take it across the board.  You don’t get to say (well this is America so you CAN say whatever you want, but you don’t get to say without looking like a hypocrit) that some names shouldn’t be the target of attack and others should.  This idea of names mattering isn’t unheard of.  In Germany, certain names that relate to unpleasant parts of the nations past are forbidden.  I can honestly say I would elect any president I thought qualified regardless of their name, but I think a lot of Obama supporters cannot agree.  I would bet a significant majority of supporters would have a hard time election “Adolf Hilter Jones, ” or “Dwayne Jonathan Gasey” (thats a serial killers name written as the full name with the first and middle name switched for those of you that said you did not get the reference) to be our nation’s president.  Its sad but its true.  I offer this example only to say, if you take that view, you have to take it always.  I’m ready to do that, but are you?

Sometimes your name tells us something about you.  How can these two things be true?  How can your name not matter, but also tell us something about you?  Well, your name doesn’t INFLUENCE YOU, but sometimes something that influences you may also influence your name.   Think the difference between asserting a causal relationship (name influences you) in statistics and having two things be counfounded variables together (same thing influencing you and your name).  Here is an example:  Ted Kennedy.  If Ted Kennedy was Ted Jackson, he almost certainly would not be considered the same way.  The last name Kennedy carries a lot of weight in the US, and especially in the Northeast.  Ted Kennedy’s name makes him desireable to some, not because they like or don’t like the sound, but because the name means he has a certain background.  Richard Daley (Chicago Mayor) is a similar example.  Jeb Bush couldn’t run for President and succeed today largely because of his last name.  When names carry a common meaning, they may be an interesting proxy for something.  How does that apply here?  Well, the little truth that nobody seems to want to talk about is that Obama isn’t your typical clear-cut African American Christian.  Obama was raised with a significant Muslim influence in his life (though not always in the form of his father).  I’m not saying his name matters (it doesn’t) but it is interesting that this whole debate ignores the fact that the secondary connection (to Islam and not to any terrible Muslim individual) is a truth about Obama and his life that has remained out of the campaign. 

Should this matter?  In my opinion that’s an open question.  When Romney was running and getting attacked, people were debating what impact his religion should have on the race.  I’m not sure.  I would like to say it shouldn’t matter, but I know if you told me “here is a Scientologist” or “here is somebody that is a Branch Dividian” I would hold it against them, so I’m going to pass on this question.  Either way, it is something that I think matters to some part of the electorate on an educated non-fear based level, and it is interesting that references to it get shunned quickly as “unfair”and “out of place.”

Similarly, the fact that Mr. Obama has a non-traditional middle name is also somewhat related to another truth people seem to never talk about it.  He isn’t our first viable completely black presidential candidate.  He is part African American.  I’m not going to get into the semantics of how you define somebody’s race, but I will say that in terms of his family history, he is as Black as Tiger Woods is Asian.  Thats a fact, not a blind assertion.  Now, if you want to make a sociological argument about how your race and ethinicity are whatever you self-define as, thats fine.  If you want to say that your ethnicity is whatever you were raised most like, then it appears Obama is about as black as I am, but I’m not going there.  All I’m saying is, although a name shouldn’t matter, sometimes names carry with them certain backgrounds and facts that DO matter.

So, how do I put this together?  Why leave the group?  In the end, I saw it as a balancing act.  First, to my friends, the group seemed to overshadow my legitimate policy based issues with the man, so I wanted to distance myself from it.

On another level, there is a balancing yest.  Yes the name provides us with information about his ackground that may be useful, but it is also prejudicial.  I see this as similar to letting certain evidence in during a jury trial.  Yes the evidence has some value in illuminating a certain fact, but if that value is small relative to its prejudicial damange, then it will not be allowed into evidence.  The name carries significant “scare” weight, so I don’t think it should be used.  I still think any group opposing him on policy grounds (as that group appears to have done) should be fair game.

Interestingly, Obama somewhat created this issue on his own.  Obama almost blatantly and openly has campaigned not on policy but on hope and change.  Unlike past elections (especially past Democratic elections) Obama isn’t hoping to get elected by standing for some policies or ideals, he wants you go believe in him, and vote for him, and trust that in doing that, you will create hope and change (though it is unclear what the priorities for that change are beyond the war). 

In conclusion, names don’t make people.  I for one am willing to yell that from the rooftop.  With that said, I also think we need to be more honest with ourselves about the fact that even though names don’t make people, they can certainly stem from factors that do influence people and more importantly, names impact our preceptions of people more than we want to admitt. 

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One Response to “Law: What’s in a Name?”

  1. mommadona said

    Stick to medicine.

    You ramble and are incoherent.

    On second thought, don’t go into medicine.

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