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Say My Name (Not My Title): Understanding Each Other

by Louise Kuo Habakus

Can we bear to listen to the talking heads? It’s one credentialed, decorated, famous, uniformed, partisan, affiliated, (en)titled, expert-hired gun-spokesperson-representative talking at another, without even lip service paid to a show of respect or understanding. This is mirrored in our worlds, too. How many people glared at each other across Thanksgiving tables, muttering that it’s best to just talk about something else? 

Talking about the things that matter

The list of taboo topics is growing. Energy policy. Health care. GMOs and vaccines. Cancer. Globalism. Immigration. Feminism. Education. We were so tired of the election and couldn’t wait for it to be over. Did we contemplate what would take its place? It’s a lot more of the same. We’ve dug in and taken sides. Not my president. Not my news outlet. Not my science. It has become so difficult to talk with each other about the things that matter. What does it mean for our society?

It’s time to stop hiding behind titles and labels, wrapping ourselves in the cloaks of — and bludgeoning each other with — our degrees and professions and smugness. We’re all on the same team, people! It’s called Team Humanity. What would happen if we started to listen to those who have been silenced by power?

(If you’re ready to stop here, please scroll down to the two short letters at the end of the post. They’re brilliant and will take you less than a minute to read.)

You may notice at Fearless Parent that we prefer to be on a first name basis with our writers, radio hosts, and guests. We have deep respect for our experts and colleagues, but find that the use of honorifics and titles can create emotional and intellectual distance. Radio, in particular, is an intimate medium. We value professional expertise; however, we also seek the honest exchange of ideas between thoughtful individuals whose authority is not purely a function of the titles they may (or may not) possess. Most of all, we aspire to shared understanding and to making connections based on our essential humanity.

I’ve recently been moved to explain a bit more.

Say my name and sat nam

Like our theme song? (Thank you, Alison MacNeil!) The English indie rock band, Florence + the Machine, sings Say My Name. I’m blown away each time I listen to her powerful lyrics. I can’t profess to know what Florence Welch was thinking when she penned it, but I suspect that it is profound. For me, it’s an anthem about being finding my community, being fearless, loving deeply, leaning into the pain, and speaking my truth.

I find a meaningful analogy in kundalini yoga. The kundalini mantra of awareness is sat nam, which is variously used as a greeting, in many kriyas and meditations, and as a closing to class. Sat means truth and nam means name. In this case, “truth” is far more than human reality or ideas of right and wrong; and “name” is far more than an appellation. Sat nam can mean: truth is my identity; I love and seek truth; I acknowledge the great mystery of life; the essence of who I am honors the essence of who you are; we are one; and I see the divinity in you. 

I find this incredibly beautiful.

Names are important to us

Names are important. Although Shakespeare’s Juliet begged to differ…

What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.

… we know better. In every culture, the giving and receiving and taking of names are accompanied by meaningful acts of initiation, ritual, and ceremony. There are often strict rules and guidelines; a keen sense of ancestry; the belonging to and joining of a family tree; the honoring of a loved one; the cleansing and reclaiming of a soul; the coming of age; and the granting of an identity and a place in society. 

Remember Daniel Day Lewis’s John Proctor in the movie adaptation of Arthur Miller’s play, The Crucible? He refused to allow his name to be shown in the village as proof that he confessed:

Because it is my name! Because I cannot have another in my life. Because I am not worth the dust on the feet of them that hang! How may I live without my name? I have given you my soul, leave me my name!

Proctor powerfully chooses a martyr’s death to redeem his name.

Names are important and names are important to us. Maybe this is why we bristle so when someone mispronounces, misspells, or just plain misses our name.

Titles create distance

What happens when we add a title to our name? Doctor. Professor. Judge. King. Or an honorific? Esteemed. Honorable. Mr. Lady. Sir. I’ve often reflected about the ways that titles, honorifics, and polite language serve to create social and psychological reserve. 

I lived in Tokyo for six years and studied Japanese in high school and college. The Japanese are masters at this. Japanese sonkeigo “subject honorifics” are used when addressing or describing the actions of someone who possesses superior social status. It requires the use of special suffixes and complex verb conjugations.

Lest we think that sonkeigo is sufficient to convey our deepest respect, no such luck! The Japanese also use kenjougo or “humble language.” As we are lifting someone up, there’s a special deferential vocabulary to bring ourselves down. Every time we meet a new person, it’s imperative, not only that we know where we stand, but that we clearly show the other person that we know. And don’t mess up, because it’s a sign that we’re poorly educated (gasp). I will admit that this doesn’t come naturally to me.

I truly love the Japanese people and culture. There are many things we can learn from them. And if I could get past my Fukushima concerns, I would jump at the opportunity to live there again. But I do want to make this important point — their courtesy and manners are exquisite, and they are also exhausting and distancing. The formality serves to keep things ceremonial and proper. Close social and professional relationships are built slowly and carefully, over time. 

When I learned that I had enough credits to take a foreign language as a second major, I chose French for a handful of reasons. Umberto Eco just gave me another one.

Yes, Umberto Eco and Carlo Martini

I was greatly inspired by the moving correspondence between (Professor) Umberto Eco and (Cardinal) Carlo Maria Martini as published in their book Belief or Nonbelief? and share an excerpt below [pp. 17-18, 27]. All bolded text is my emphasis.

From Eco to Martini:

Dear Carlo Maria Martini,

I hope you won’t think me disrespectful for addressing you by the name you bear, without reference to the robe you wear. Take it as an act of homage and prudence. Homage, because I’ve always been struck by the way the French avoid using reductive designations such as Doctor, Your Eminence, or Minister when they interview a writer, an artist, a political figure. There are people whose intellectual capital comes from the name they sign their ideas with. This is how the French address someone whose own name is his principal title: “Dites-moi, Jacques Maritain”; “Dites-moi Claude Levi-Strauss.” Using a person’s name is a way of acknowledging an authority that he would have had even if he had not become an ambassador or a member of the French Academy… 

Act of prudence, I also said. Indeed, what has been asked of the two of us could prove awkward — an exchange of opinions between a layman and a cardinal. It might appear that the point is for the layman to solicit opinions from the cardinal in his role as a prince of the Church and a shepherd of souls.  Such a thing would constitute an injustice, to the one appealed to as well as to his listener. Better that we carry out this dialogue… an exchange of ideas between free men. What’s more, by addressing you this way. I mean to underscore the fact that you are considered a leader of intellectual and moral life, even by those readers who are not committed to any belief or teaching other than that of reason

Umberto Eco

From Martini to Eco

Dear Umberto Eco,

I am in complete agreement. You address me by my birth name and I shall do likewise. The Gospels are not altogether benevolent where titles are concerned. (“But you are not to be called rabbi… And call no man your father on earth… And you are not to be called masters.” Matthew 23:8-10.) As you say, this way it is even clearer that ours is an exchange of ideas made freely, without plaster casts and role involvements. To be fruitful, it is important that our exchange be frank as we focus on common concerns and clarify differences, getting to the substance of what truly distinguishes us from each other…

Every tiny step toward understanding the great simple things means progress toward sharing the reasons why we hope

Carlo Maria Martini


I couldn’t say it better. Here’s to addressing each other with substance not false formality; to the great simple things; and to progress toward sharing the reasons why we hope. Amen. Sat nam. 


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