The Power & Tragedy of Names

by SocratesDissatisfied7 min read6th Nov 20204 comments

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Philosophy of LanguageWorld Modeling
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“To change this rock into a jewel, you must change its name”
- Ursula K. Le Guin, A Wizard of Earthsea

TLDR: names (and labels more generally) have an outsized influence on the public perception of the movements they are applied to. This encourages individuals to overuse and misuse persuasively powerful names. But doing so depletes the persuasive power of those names, by altering their meaning, and numbing through familiarity. Whilst the benefit of name usage accrues to the individual user, the costs are spread widely across society. The use of potent names is therefore a classic tragedy of the commons situation. 

The Power

The name of a thing can be exceptionally important in determining how it is perceived. A few notable examples are as follows: 

  1. The Mensheviks & the Bolsheviks: Lenin was initially outnumbered by his opponents within the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party. However when he (through dubious procedural wrangling) obtained a temporary majority on the party’s central committee, he seized a branding opportunity – labelling his minority faction “the Majority” (Russian: “Bolsheviks”) and his opponents “the Minority” (Russian: “Mensheviks”). When the Mensheviks had the poor judgment to accept this framing, they laid themselves open to potent charges of factionalism; they were a “minority” undermining the unity and strength of the “majority”, after all.
  2. The USA PATRIOT Act and friends: the attention paid by legislators to giving their acts names with comically positive connotations, indicates their belief in the persuasive importance of those names. In the US alone, acts with names clearly selected for persuasive potency have included the “Dream Act”, the “Disclose Act”, the “HOPE Act”, the “LIFE Act, the “Affordable Care act” and the “America Competes (for America Creating Opportunities to Meaningfully Promote Excellence in Technology, Education and Science)”, amongst many others. 
  3. Antifa & Black Lives Matter: in the aftermath of this year’s anti-police violence protests, there have been numerous arguments, often from prominent media figures, to the effect that opposition to Antifa entailed support for fascism, and opposition to BLM entailed a belief that black lives did not matter. Whatever one may think of Antifa or BLM, this is an obvious confusion. If the KKK renamed themselves the Anti-Racism League, they would not cease to be bigots; and just because you call yourself something, doesn’t mean you are that thing. Despite the transparency of the error, it was believed and amplified across social media, significantly influencing the public conversation surrounding these pressure groups.

Looking at some of the examples above, we can see that names are especially persuasively potent where the named entity is novel, or otherwise little known. Here the name constitutes a disproportionate amount of the information individuals possess about the name bearer. Legislators know that the public are unlikely to trawl through hundreds of pages of legalese when assessing the quality of their novel bills. Likewise, Antifa is a novel social movement, which the average individual did not know anything about, prior to its rise to prominence over the Summer of 2020.  

The Tragedy

The power of a name is an incitement to use; not only in clear cut cases where a name obviously applies, but also in edge cases, where it probably ought not apply, but where its meaning can be stretched to rhetorical advantage. If this happens often enough, however, it can undermine the power of a name through two mechanisms: 

The first and most pertinent is associational drift. A name gains potency from the associations attached to it, where such associations are determined by the set of instances in which an individual experiences the name being used. When a name is deployed in edge cases, those edge cases will come, over time, to comprise an ever-larger proportion of that set of instances. Edge cases, by definition, involve circumstances atypical to the initial set of instances determining a name's associations. As the set of instances associated with a name change, so too will its associational character: its meaning. Real examples of words undergoing dramatic associational drift include “literally” (which now also means “metaphorically”) and “awesome” (which used to describe the terrible power of the Gods, but now can be applied to a fashionable pair of trousers). 

The second means by which usage undermines power is through familiarity. Whilst rare terms can shock, surprise and spur curiosity; familiar terms cannot. A notable difference between associational drift and familiarity is that, whilst the latter can operate whenever a word is overused, even if it is overused accurately; the former is limited to cases where a word (is perceived to be) misused. 

Use of a name can sap its power, but society may have good reason to want its potency  to be preserved. Where the loss of potency is due to associational drift, this consideration can be based on accuracy. The more quickly the meaning of a term shifts over time, the more likely different people are to associate different meanings with it, and be confused by one another’s usage. More pertinently, society may wish to preserve the persuasive force of a term for when it is better needed, and could be better used (as illustrated by the boy who cried wolf). 

With these pieces in place, the form of the tragedy becomes clear. Individuals’ receive sizeable benefits for misusing and overusing potent names. The community may receive sizeable costs from them doing so. But these costs are spread across the community at large, and the proportion of them accruing to any given individual is minute. The equilibrium position in society, therefore, is one where potent names are overused. 

A pleasingly symmetrical example of the Tragedy can be seen in the following cases: 

  • The use of “socialism” and “communism” by Republicans against moderate, socially democratic candidates such as Obama, Clinton and Biden, appears to have leeched much of the sting from this charge. Notably, since 2010 Democrats’ support for socialism has climbed 15 points, whilst Independents’ support for it has increased by 5 points over the same period [https://news.gallup.com/poll/268295/support-government-inches-not-socialism.aspx]. It of course should be noted that other factors may be at play here, including Democratic activists and leaders rising adoption of the term, and increasing American support for governmental programmes generally.
  • The use of "fascism" by Democrats to describe Donald Trump’s fairly mild social conservatism and populism (versus the murderous militarist totalitarianism of the early twentieth century), also seems to have reduced the impact of the term. Though only a lunatic fringe would identify themselves as fascists, Republicans in particular treat the accusations of fascism levelled against their party with a shrug, when they deign to notice them at all.

In both the above scenarios, society at large has arguably suffered from both losses in communicative accuracy and the depletion of a valuable rhetorical resource. It is now harder to know whether a “socialist” politician is a social democrat or a communist, and whether a “fascist” is a conservative, a white supremacist, or even a classical liberal. It is also harder to see how future politicians can sound the alarm if and when a genuinely fascistic threat to American democracy arises. 

The Limits of Tragedy

How is it that the tragedy of names can be averted, if at all? 

The answer may lie at both ends of the spectrum of individual information. Lower information or misinformed individuals, may be unaware that a name is being introduced into contexts which differ broadly from its original usage. In this case, they may not realise that a misused term is being applied to a situation whose associations differ from those they currently identify with that term. Those new associations will then fail to influence the meaning of the term misused. In this way a conspiracy theorist may become convinced all Democrats are communists, without changing the core associations he holds around “communism”.

Optimistically, higher information individuals may come to index the meaning of names by the identity of the person employing them; for instance, by recognising that Tucker Carlson is likely to use "communism" in a very different manner to Mitt Romney. Understanding the (mis)usage patterns of name-users, and the different associations those name-users attach to terms, cuts at the tragedy in two directions: it prevents limited overuse of a term from contaminating the observers’ broader understanding of it; and it more closely reflects the cost of misuse back to individual misusers (who will suffer a disproportionate loss to the potency of their rhetorical arsenals). 

The Upshot

To understand the Power and Tragedy of Names is to know two things: 

First, that if you are involved in any kind of movement or organisation aiming at public popularity, you must be extremely careful with the language you use to describe yourself, and especially extremely careful with your name. 

Second, that if you are considering using a potent name in an edge category, you should think twice. Does society need that name more than you do? 

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4 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 12:33 AM
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Thanks for the post! It's closely adjacent to an idea I've had floating around for years but haven't yet put into words. Also, stylistically, I appreciate the concision and the clear structure. It made it really easy to read.

Nitpick: You said 'the average individual could not have known anything about BLM until their rise to prominence over the Summer of 2020', but BLM has been a thing since 2014. I was in college at the time and as far as I could tell the BLM protests were fairly well-known in the mainstream.

Appreciate the feedback - and have edited that section accordingly to refer to Antifa only, versus BLM. 

My impression with them is that they have deeper historical roots than BLM, though their emergence into public consciousness is probably much more recent. 

Tell this to the people who named GIMP.