How to respond when a name becomes a disparaging epithet

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, July 31, 2014

“It is better to … take back those names as being honourable.”
Reg Harbeck, IT consultant

From time to time I run a guest column by each of our two sons, Reg and James. This week’s is by our older son, Reg, an IT (information technology) philosopher.

Picking up on the theme of the past two weeks’ columns on our tendency to label one another, he makes a sharp distinction between labels and identities, and then goes one step further.


As someone who works with computing security and has met people from many different backgrounds around the world, I have some thoughts about identity and names to share with you.

Before I look at what makes a name a label, I’d like to make a distinction between a label and an identity. This is important in an era of “identity theft” where people can misappropriate identifying information in order to illegitimately gain access to what belongs to someone else.

The thing is, this identifying information is not my identity, but it is treated by government and business as if it were. My credit card number and PIN are not me: they don’t look like me, act like me, or think like me. They are just a way for me to tell the bank whom they’re dealing with. If you misappropriate all of my account numbers, account names and passwords, you still aren’t me – I am my identity, and you can’t change that by stealing these and pretending to be me.

That said, during our lives, each of us is referred to by various names and labels. We are normally given a name as an infant which we may keep or change later in our lives. And it is normal to work hard to protect our “good name” from negative associations. If it is a unique name, we may have a particularly strong sense of connection between this name and our identity. If it is a name that many people have, we likely have additional ways we see ourselves that give us a more specific sense of unique identity.

So, if everyone named Bob Smith will forgive me for using their name as an example, one such person might say, “I’m the Bob Smith who is a doctor and lives in Calgary” while another might say, “I’m the Bob Smith who is half African, one-quarter Chinese and one-quarter European.”

That’s denotation – specific reference to a particular individual. But people, and groups of people, have personalities and histories that lead us to form associations and impressions about them – connotations.

So, I might have known a Bob Smith since we were kids, had a shared history with him, and consider him to be “my friend Bob Smith.” But there might be another one whom I associate with trouble, and think of as “that Bob Smith.”

Sometimes these associations are hurtful and come from a bad experience, or even someone else’s agenda to mar the reputation of a group or individual. There are many groups of people with a common ethnic background who have been poorly treated over the past few centuries – think of the Chinese who played such an important role in the building of our railroads and were then shunned and mistreated for decades afterwards; or of First Nations peoples who already lived on the lands that European immigrants wanted to take for themselves. The names that refer to these groups soon became terms of derision as part of an agenda to justify mistreating them and taking away their rights and property.

And yet, there’s another group of people that I think make an excellent example of how not to flee from a label that is being used as an epithet: the Jews.

Over the millennia, the Jews have been persecuted, displaced, and treated about as awfully as any human has treated another human. Their group name has been dragged through the mud throughout history. Yet they don’t flee from being called Jews or asking that people call them “Semitically gifted” or some such thing instead. They hold to their name and stand up for their identity, not shrinking from its misuse but continuing to live counter-examples of contributing to humanity, history, science, etc., that show their name to be one to be proud of.

So, while I agree that when a word begins as a put-down and is then applied to one or more people, it should not be used; and while I agree that calling someone a name that belongs to someone else is a misappropriation akin to identity theft, still, I think it is better to own the names we are given, and not shrink from them when they are misused as epithets, but rather to stand up and take back those names as being honourable.

Which is why I have always been glad to be called a nerd, even when it was a put-down, and even more so now that the world is seeing how much good we nerds can do.


© 2014 Warren Harbeck

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