My Word's

an occasional column by
Marylaine Block
vol. 6, #5,
February 25, 2001


One of the things that makes me despair of the Democratic party is that its leaders don't understand why our own issues are always discussed on terms set by Republicans. They simply do not grasp the power of naming: those who name a problem define it, claim it, own it. It's because Republicans have been very good at naming issues that we are now talking about the "death tax" rather than the estate tax. Since the Republicans also have an uncanny ability to get there first with a catchy name for any issue, and to get all their members to use that name and spout the party line, they constantly force Democratic leaders to react to Republican definitions rather than to define their own issues.

They haven't grasped the fact that the name game can be played by more than one side. The bill to abolish the estate tax" could just as easily be the "Billionaires' Children Protection Act." "Social Security Privatization" would be a far different issue if it was called the "Retirement Income Crapshoot Act," or the "Enrichment of Stockbrokers Act." (Hasn't anybody thought about the effect of all that lovely money flooding into Wall Street at once, or about all the con artists who would be attracted by it?)

Some topics may be a little too complex to lend themselves to a short name, but the talking points can still be condensed into catchy bumper sticker size slogans. The real issue of minimum wage -- that a full-time worker making less than $11,000 a year cannot possibly support a family -- could be addressed as "Raise the minimum wage to the poverty level," or even "Aspire to be poor."

The power of naming applies to our day-to-day lives as well. Think about how we teach young children to name their pain. We show them by word and deed that some kinds of pain are "no big deal," or even funny ("Aw, did baby faw down?"), that other kinds of pain are a useful lesson ("I told you not to pull the kitty's tail"), and that a few kinds are legitimate and worth hollering about. We may even teach them that girls may cry about it but boys may not.

How well we deal with conflicts in our relationships depends on the names we give our problems. It makes a difference whether we're annoyed because he forgot our anniversary, or angry because he's an inconsiderate, insensitive clod. It makes a difference whether we're irritated at finding no clean socks and underwear, or burning with rage because she's a lazy slut.

When we're responding to incidents, we can judge each one individually, and find reasonable cause for forgiveness -- perhaps she was unusually busy and didn't have time to do laundry. But if we name the incidents as patterns of behavior, what makes all the difference is the name we give that pattern. If we define it as "no big deal," it's not a problem at all. If we define it as an amusing quirk, it's not a problem -- by saying "He's so forgetful he wouldn't remember to change his socks unless it was on his calendar," we not only forgive him, we give ourselves one possible solution to the problem.

The power to name, or refrain from naming, gives us more control over our lives than many of us understand. We may not be able to control the things that happen to us, but we CAN control our attitudes toward them. In a song by the Nields a girl reflects on a man who was supposed to meet her on Jeremy Newborn Street; she showed up, and he didn't. She could have seethed and stewed and mentally filed his mistake with all the other times he screwed up, putting an ugly name on the file folder. Instead, she chose to notice that it was a beautiful day on her favorite street, which freed her to enjoy watching the people passing by and helping a confused woman "who looks just like my mother."

Sometimes, though, naming is so automatic that we don't even realize we HAVE assigned names to the situation, let alone that we have the power to change those names if we want to. When a relationship is spiraling downwards, we may never step outside it long enough to say, "Wait a minute, do I really want to lose this person?" If we don't, we can choose to change the names we're assigning to each other's actions, and to see the behavior and character traits as they appeared to us when we were first in love. A staid man married to an effervescent woman whose constant "upness" is now setting him nuts needs to remember how "refreshing" and "joyous" he found that quality when he first met her, just as she needs to remind herself that she once valued his "uptightness" as "security" and "stability." Change the names, change the attitude.

The name game can -- and maybe should -- be applied to any aspect of our lives, because names are what allow us to assume things have to be the way they are. We need to re-examine the names we ourselves have assigned to things and the consequences. If we assume politics are corrupt, we don't bother to get involved, which means government will remain in the hands of people who relish power and influence. If we assume, as I did for so long, that "retirement" occurs at the age of 65, we don't see that security and stodginess are two different ways of naming the same thing, and that those who think of life without a steady paycheck as a risk behave differently from those who think of life without a paycheck as an opportunity and a challenge.

But we also need to re-examine the names other people have assigned to things, because if we've allowed somebody else to name a situation, we've guaranteed that the game will be played on their turf by their rules.

So if you don't like what's happening in your life and in your world, maybe you should try looking at the names. Choose the names and change your life.

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