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Naming Names

April 4 2002

In Lewis Carroll’s classic Through the Looking Glass, the Gnat inquires of Alice “What sort of insects do you rejoice in where you come from?”

She replies, “I don't rejoice in insects at all because I'm rather afraid of them…But I can tell you the names of some of them.”

He considers this, then asks if the insects answer to her names. Alice is forced to admit that they do not.

“What's the use of their having names if they won't answer to them?” asks the Gnat.

“No use to them,” Alice replies. “But it's useful to the people who name them, I suppose.”

And so it is on this side of the down staircase. When minds accustomed to running in the ruts of prevailing opinion encounter a divergent course of thought, the impulse is to find a familiar name. The more fearsome the idea, the faster a label is affixed.

Suggest that women are as suited to combat as fish are to bicycles. Sexist. Venture that traditional families best incubate child development. Homophobe. Oppose policies that privilege certain colors. Racist. Question trade policies that bankrupt domestic industry. Protectionist. Observe that mass immigration precludes assimilation. Xenophobe. Consider that history has dealt unkindly with empires stretched thin. Isolationist.

For those who draw them, the utility of these caricatures is that with sufficient repetition, the cartoon replaces reality in the public mind. Exaggerated features supplant thoughtful nuance, stripping the argument of its finer points. Debunking it then becomes theater, for the opponent wars not against an idea, but against a stand-in of his own design.

Boxing a contrarian beneath a label offers another benefit. Libel your enemy and he’s left defending his character rather than making his case. If tainted by prejudice, his arguments will naturally fold under the weight of their own error. Thus his personal predilections are irrelevant. But if his debating skills are stronger or his opinion is valid, only Elbert Hubbard’s old prescription remains: “If you can't answer a man's argument, all is not lost; you can still call him vile names.”

Lately, current events have brought a pair of old labels back into vogue.

In the wake of September 11, flags bloomed from porches and lapels. A new generation of children learned that the closing line of the national anthem is not “Play Ball!” and the President’s approval edged close to unanimity. But beneath the patriotic gloss, a few dared questions. How do we declare war on “terror” when it’s practiced by individuals rather than populations? How do we know when we’ve won? Did something more than hatred of democracy propel the hijackers? Are the boundaries of this war constitutionally constrained?

The answers came swift, and had nothing to do with the questions. A New York Times ad paid for by the neo-con cabal, Americans for Victory Over Terrorism, warned, “There are groups and states that want to attack the United States; internal in that there are those who are attempting to use this opportunity to promulgate their agenda of ‘blame America first.’” The authors of American independence would never have equated debate with treason, reserving that charge for suppression of the same. But today, merely opening discussion is branded anti-American, unpatriotic, sympathetic to our enemies.

The rising tide of violence in the Mideast has dusted off another name. Question the feasibility of claiming alliance with one disputant while boasting honest broker’s credentials. Entertain the possibility that Israeli and American interests may not be synonymous. Regardless of your conclusions, airing the thought will sentence you to a future of proving you don’t have a soft spot for Hitler.

Truth is, few thinkers of any influence are so intellectually sloppy as to hate an entire group, country, or gender. A brush that broad forecloses too many possibilities for a curious mind. If hate belongs to anyone, it is the name-callers who have been outdebated. They would probably much prefer to say they dislike their opponent more than they disagree with his views. But so doing would admit a personal deficit, and on this side of the rabbit hole, it’s just not polite to screech “Off with his head.”

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