On names, naming and name-calling

So out of the ground the Lord God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. The man gave names to all cattle, and to the birds of the air, and to every animal of the field. — Genesis 2:19-20

I regularly visit Phil Plait’s Bad Astronomy blog in part because he frequently posts astonishing photographs of dazzlingly beautiful scenes from the cosmos. And, because Plait is an astronomer, he is also able to tell us what it is we’re looking at in those photos — the names and classifications of the strange objects or phenomena. Those names tell us what we’re seeing — what things are and what they do and how they came to be. For seeing, for thinking and for understanding, names matter.

Today, though, Plait posted this uncharacteristically terrestrial photo — of a scene in his own front yard. It is, in a different way, as awesome as those other pictures from space, but because ornithology is outside his particular area of expertise, he wasn’t able to tell us precisely what it is we’re seeing in this picture. It’s a hawk, yes, but what kind of hawk?

The Internet being the Internet, his commenters were quickly able to narrow it down a bit — this is either a Cooper’s hawk (Accipiter cooperii) or a sharp-shinned hawk (Accipiter striatus). The two are apparently pretty similar.

We don’t need that level of precision to admire this photo or this bird, or to appreciate its confirmation that, as Gary Larson said, “birds of prey know they’re cool.” But my point here is that such precision is inextricably bound up with the process of naming things.

“Jane has a dog” may be accurate, but it’s imprecise. Assuming that we all know Jane, we still haven’t got a good mental picture of her dog. “Jane has a small, black-and-brown dog” is a bit more descriptive, but still not quite enough. “Jane has a teacup Yorkshire terrier.” Ah, that gives us the picture we’re striving for. The name allows us to identify with more precision — to communicate and understand with more precision.

If we want to communicate and we want to understand, then names, naming and name-calling will be inevitable.

Or think of the field of medicine. We go to the doctor because we are sick. We don’t need the doctor to tell us we’re sick — we already know that much, that’s why we’re there. We need the doctor to diagnose precisely what kind of sickness we have. That diagnosis — that naming of our sickness — will determine the prognosis and the prescription. To get better, we have to know what’s wrong. And to know what’s wrong, we have to identify it’s name.

Now, not everything that we will be required to name is as adorable as a teacup Yorkie or as fearfully cool as a Cooper’s or sharpie. Sometimes that which we are called on to name, to diagnose or to identify with precision will be bad behavior. If we say no more than only that — “bad behavior” — then we will be limiting our ability to see, to understand and to communicate. We’re back in the territory of “Jane has a dog.” That limits our ability to communicate in just the same way as an artist would limit her ability to do so by refusing to use anything other than the eight-crayon box from Crayola.

We can do better than that. We can speak of bad behavior with greater precision and thus with greater understanding. We have at our disposal a vast spectrum of names and words and classifications for this very thing. Those terms and their subtle nuances of connotation and denotation provide a nomenclature of bad behavior as vast, systematic and precise as any system dreamed of by Linnaeus.

Some of these terms, alas, are mildly impolite. Others are extravagantly and enthusiastically impolite. That presents a dilemma. It raises the need to balance the precision and clarity that such terms can provide with their potential for distracting from that due to their impoliteness. They can also tend to ratchet up the temperature — signaling that one is the kind of conversation in which vehemence might count for more than the aforementioned precision and clarity. They show that your dander is up, and that tends to elevate others’ accordingly, and that can lead to a lot of yelling during which more lines may get blurred than delineated with care.

Those downsides are why it’s best to seek alternatives to such impolite terms if it’s possible to do so without sacrificing the needed precision. Those are good reasons to avoid such terms, when possible. But it’s not always possible.

Note that this has nothing to do with a common misunderstanding of ad hominem fallacies. Name-calling doesn’t substitute for an argument, but an argument ought to reach a conclusion at which point it will be appropriate and necessary to identify, classify and clarify by assigning a thing its proper name. “I don’t have to listen to you because you’re a snob” is a fallacious bit of circular reasoning. “You just behaved snobbishly, therefore I conclude based on that demonstrated snobbishness that you are a snob” is not. That’s just sound reasoning and diagnosis.

If we say, “You must never call anyone a snob,” then we will be unable to speak — unable to see, to understand or to communicate — when we encounter a snob. If you say, “Bob is a snob,” I may disagree, but my disagreement ought to be based on the meaning of the word and the aptness of its application — not on some foregone conclusion that the word is forbidden and that therefore we must never speak of or acknowledge the thing the word exists to name.

But there are still those distracting downsides.

At the end of the previous post, I observed behavior commensurate with an impolite designation and employed that designation to identify that behavior as precisely as I was able. The word was selected with care. It is used correctly and applied accurately, conveying not just a generic disapproval, but a very specific kind of disapproval of a very specific kind of bad behavior. I weighed the precision of the word against the potential distraction of those downsides and, unable to find a satisfactory alternative that retained all the necessary connotations, decided that, in this case, the impolite term was best. Feel free to disagree on that point, but please don’t think the word was employed by accident.

Again, if we want to communicate and we want to understand, then names, naming and name-calling will be inevitable.

  • Anonymous

    “And this school has sunk…well, certainly hundreds of thousands, if not millions of dollars into this case by now.”

    Probably not.  I have no specific knowledge of this case, but this sort of thing is typically picked up by an advocacy group of some sort.  The school probably too the case through the first round in the trial-level court.  At this point the advocacy group’s attention would be captured, and it would fund the appeals, and perhaps even supply its own lawyers.

    Note that I am neither condoning nor condemning this behavior.  An advocacy group can be advocating a good cause, or a bad one.  The strategy of picking up a legal appeal and running with it is itself neither good nor bad.

  • Anonymous

    “And this school has sunk…well, certainly hundreds of thousands, if not millions of dollars into this case by now.”

    Probably not.  I have no specific knowledge of this case, but this sort of thing is typically picked up by an advocacy group of some sort.  The school probably too the case through the first round in the trial-level court.  At this point the advocacy group’s attention would be captured, and it would fund the appeals, and perhaps even supply its own lawyers.

    Note that I am neither condoning nor condemning this behavior.  An advocacy group can be advocating a good cause, or a bad one.  The strategy of picking up a legal appeal and running with it is itself neither good nor bad.

  • http://deird1.dreamwidth.org Deird

    Well, not to be rude but-
     
    Someday, I’m going to witness someone say that and then ACTUALLY NOT BE RUDE immediately afterwards.

  • http://deird1.dreamwidth.org Deird

    Well, not to be rude but-
     
    Someday, I’m going to witness someone say that and then ACTUALLY NOT BE RUDE immediately afterwards.

  • http://deird1.dreamwidth.org Deird

    Well, not to be rude but-
     
    Someday, I’m going to witness someone say that and then ACTUALLY NOT BE RUDE immediately afterwards.

  • Matri

    Someday, I’m going to witness someone say that and then ACTUALLY NOT BE RUDE immediately afterwards.

    And I’m going to win the national lotteries from 7 different countries on the same day!

  • Matri

    Someday, I’m going to witness someone say that and then ACTUALLY NOT BE RUDE immediately afterwards.

    And I’m going to win the national lotteries from 7 different countries on the same day!

  • Matri

    Someday, I’m going to witness someone say that and then ACTUALLY NOT BE RUDE immediately afterwards.

    And I’m going to win the national lotteries from 7 different countries on the same day!

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    Ooh, you pissed off hapax!

    /gets popcorn

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    Ooh, you pissed off hapax!

    /gets popcorn

  • JohnK

    I am not a psychic, but I get this feeling that this thread is going to turn out like that other thread in which a libertarian tried to explain how deregulating everything would fix all sorts of different problems, despite demonstrably having no idea how any of the things he’s talking about actually work. And people are going to pile on him, explaining in excruciating detail how wrong he demonstrably is about all these different issues, pointing out his mistakes, his oversimplifications, and all his gaps in knowledge about (in this case) teaching and education.

    And it will have no effect.

  • FangsFirst

    Find me 100 teachers, you won’t find 5 who objectively fit that description, or I’ll eat my hat.

    I was about to say, “Ooh, I know one!”
    But then I remember one is less than five. And he was relegated to English 101. Which, inexplicably, he used to disseminate his political views…

    (wait, there was another, but I heard less direct relation of that one’s behaviour…just about having to appeal to his or her department head and doing so successfully.)

    TL;DR (really?): Uh, nevermind.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Charity-Brighton/100002974813787 Charity Brighton

    I suspect caryb may be calculating the 2 months in summer + ~2 weeks around Christmas + 1 week spring break, but even that doesn’t hit 4 months.

    That’s what you get when elitist professors try to push their own biased version of math on you, Invisible Neutrino. I remember one time in undergrad when some smug radical algebra prof kept trying to push the whole “2 + 2 +1 = 5″ canard on me, and I was all like, “That’s just your opinion, man” and then he threw me out of his class because he was afraid that my straight-talking truth would derail his indoctrination train.

  • Anonymous

    Eh. I’m also a student, and professors who have and share their beliefs are not necessarily professors who punish students for disagreeing– in two classes the semester before last, I repeatedly argued various points with my profs, after class and as part of a discussion, and did alright in both classes. And years ago, in highschool, I remember respecting most the teachers who treated us like adults, and weren’t terrified to say “Well, personally, I feel this way, but arguments opposing are X, Y, and Z, and if you can defend it in your paper, by all means do.”

    A class in which the professor drones on the same pre-prepared slideshow for two hours while the class silently takes notes is a class which I will probably fail, badly. A class in which the professor actually cares enough about their subject to have an opinion is a good class.

  • Anonymous

    Whoa, whoa, whoa. Hold on here.

    I *am* a teacher. I’m a high school teacher. I’ve jumped through all the hoops. I’ve got the certification. I know the pedagogy. I’ve never had a class of my own because I never found the job and honestly? I’m not cut out for it. I’ve seen the payscale. I’m a substitute teacher. I work in adult education as a professional education consultant. I have no idea what you’re talking about – getting into teaching for the money? You can’t be serious. There’s a school in Pennsylvania where the teachers aren’t getting paid at all to do their job, because the TEA bagger governor just carried out 9 million in state-wide cuts. They brought out sheep to mow their lawns because they can’t afford to actually mow them anymore. You do NOT get into this field if you want to get money. That’s the attitude that breeds the very same teachers you’re criticizing; especially when the Reality winds up with its stick and knocks you into the next zipcode.

    That 14 hours better be 14 hours *a day*, because that’s around what I worked as an intern. Up at 6:30, to school by 7, not out until 7:30 or even 8:00 on some days. And pay scale only improves as your education improves. So your summers are spent doing side jobs in addition to getting your Masters, while trying not to get overqualified.

    Oh, yeah, there’s also the fact that if you teach the wrong subject, parents will be howling for your blood. For instance, evolution. Or the fact that the earth is older than 6,000 years. I knew a geology teacher who was reviled by a population of parents, and who’s children would do nothing but make his life hell as a teacher because he refused to bend to their warped and ignorant beliefs. Which is to say nothing of the poor biology teacher and the shit SHE caught.

    Frankly, sir, you don’t have the first fucking clue what you’re talking about. Come back and join us here in the real world, rather than Libertopia, land of the conceited, I know-better-than-you, because unless you did your teaching in some golden-gated community, what you say will always undercut what you claim.

  • Anonymous

    My thoughts on this are that hopefully someone will come along who doesn’t quite understand, or maybe someone who hasn’t put much thought into it and they’re not leaning either way, and if they read all of the responses, they’ll see which line of thinking is the most productive for society. It’ll be one less person to side with the dangerous deregulatory line of thinking that Libertarians promote and one more to see their responsibility for living in a society, and live up to it.

    One of my favorite lines of all time, and the one that frames every debate I get into when it’s with someone who I know I can’t get through to, comes from “Thank You For Smoking,” ironically enough. In that movie, he explains to his son that he’s not trying to get through to his son in a debate. He points out at the other people and then says “I’m trying to get to them.”

    I don’t care if caryb gets what I’m saying. I’m interested in people who will wander in, not really having an opinion or who are confused. I’m writing this for them. It’s made all the better, IMO, because unlike the fellow from the movie, I give a damn about facts, and I give a damn about the truth. The only horse I have in this race is trying to keep society from backsliding into the late 1800s. It’s a pretty big horse, too.

  • Tom

    I love it when people who are anti-gay and who support the restricting of rights to gay people deny being homophobes.

    I always ask them what they think the word means – surely they should be arguing that being a homophobe is a good thing rather than a doomed denial that they aren’t one.

  • Ken

    The fun thing about studying history is that one of the things you learn is that it is, ah, far more subjective than one might think.

    “Perhaps, then, [time] cannot be deciphered by the living, which is why meaning is assigned retrospectively, by those who inhabit the future.  By historians.”

    “Who aren’t even a part of the events! Are future historians better placed to interpret [your life] than you are?  Of course not! But will their reading of your life make more sense than anything you can tell me now – or at any other point while you’re alive? Yes, almost certainly.”

    From Mark Hodder’s “Expedition to the Mountains of the Moon.”  Elsewhere he makes the point (which others have as well) that what we call history is really narrative, a story that tries to make sense of events and in the process gives them limits in both time and character – it began then and ended then, and these people were significant to what happened.  But would any of them have recognized that at the time?  Perhaps not.

  • Ken

    The fun thing about studying history is that one of the things you learn is that it is, ah, far more subjective than one might think.

    “Perhaps, then, [time] cannot be deciphered by the living, which is why meaning is assigned retrospectively, by those who inhabit the future.  By historians.”

    “Who aren’t even a part of the events! Are future historians better placed to interpret [your life] than you are?  Of course not! But will their reading of your life make more sense than anything you can tell me now – or at any other point while you’re alive? Yes, almost certainly.”

    From Mark Hodder’s “Expedition to the Mountains of the Moon.”  Elsewhere he makes the point (which others have as well) that what we call history is really narrative, a story that tries to make sense of events and in the process gives them limits in both time and character – it began then and ended then, and these people were significant to what happened.  But would any of them have recognized that at the time?  Perhaps not.

  • Ken

    Sorry about the double-post, I got a “Disqus system error” and other weird stuff.

  • ako

    A class in which the professor drones on the same pre-prepared
    slideshow for two hours while the class silently takes notes is a class
    which I will probably fail, badly. A class in which the professor
    actually cares enough about their subject to have an opinion is a good
    class.

    Yeah, most of my best classes had teachers who had enough of a passion for their subjects to form opinions, and weren’t afraid to let students know about them.  I had one great class on film where I completely disagreed with huge swaths of what the teacher said and let her know in detail.

    I ended up with an entirely fair A- (my big weakness was insufficient use of topic sentences in the writing assignments), and a great deal of knowledge of early twentieth century cinema. 

    One of the worst classes I had was with a teacher who taught math and never showed the slightest hint of personal opinion or preferences or interest in anything, just droned on for ages giving us the unadored objective information about the subject and occasionally boring students unconscious.  I can’t remember anything I actually learned in that class.

  • P J Evans

     I had a part-time job where one of the other part-timers was a substitute teacher. It’s not an easy job: you have to be ready to work every day, and the school principals would, some of them, rather not have you around, so they’ll deliberately call too late for you to make the scheduled time and then blame it on you; the clerks who handle your paycheck don’t have any reason to get it done on the same schedule as regular teachers, so you may or may not get paid when you should. And there is no one you can really take it to; the teachers’ union is not that interested in subs.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Charity-Brighton/100002974813787 Charity Brighton

    You’re only a homophobe if you are literally a member of the Westboro Baptist Church. Or a Ugandan legislator proposing anti-gay legislation. Anything that isn’t those specific things is ‘religious freedom’ or ‘values’.

  • http://dpolicar.livejournal.com/ Dave

    Some homophobes reject the connotations of “phobic” — that is, they reject the idea that what they have is an irrational or otherwise
    unjustified fear. Which is not incoherent.

    They ought to stand up and cheer behind the “heteronormative” banner, though.

  • Anonymous

    In my (anecdotal) experience, having a strong opinion on your subject has no effect on how good of a teacher you are. I’ve had fabulous classes and terrible classes by people with a big stake in the subject at hand, and some of my most memorable ones were from teachers who didn’t particularly care about the class but were just interesting people I could learn from in general.

    I read Julian of Norwich in two classes that didn’t believe a word she was saying – one from a militant atheist, one from a radical feminist. One of those classes was about three times as helpful, informative and inspiring as the other.

  • FangsFirst

    “Antigay” should also be a fair label for the way a lot of groups (maybe somewhere in the middle of that spectrum, though, before Westboro but after some others). Yes, strangely, they seem to dislike that nomenclature as well.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Charity-Brighton/100002974813787 Charity Brighton

    I think they don’t want their entire religion and identity to be boiled down single-minded fanatic hatred of innocent strangers, but they don’t want to give up the psychological benefits of having an enemy to despise and the fundraising opportunities of their political advocacy.

  • Hawker40

    Many years ago, before I left the Navy, I looked into teaching.
    I talked to a history instructor at a community college, which is about where you have to start to become a college professor.
    She made $35 an hour.  That’s excellent.
    She “worked” 12 hours a week.  Mondays, she started a Palomar, in North County San Diego from 12-3pm, then she drove to Chula Vista in South San Diego (about a hour drive) where she taught from 6pm-9pm.  So that was six hours, Monday and Wednesday.
    Tuesdays and Thursdays, she was in downtown San Diego in the morning, and El Cajon in the afternoon.  But that’s only a half hour drive.
    She was required to spend a additional 2 hours per class holding “office hours”.  These hours were unpaid.
    Since she was ‘part time’, she didn’t get any benefits.
    On Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays she worked as a Fencing instructor.
    $35 an hour… for 12 hours, plus another 8 hours unpaid, plus driving time (uncompensated)… and if she did this long enough, hopefully a opening would be given to her at a university, then she could work on becoming a associate professor, then full proffessor, then tenure…
    You don’t go into teaching for the big bucks.  And you don’t try to start in your mid-40′s with a family to support.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_NR2MMC4EJXJWJMLH6IF457XL64 Alex B

    Too late! According to a this email I got from Nigeria yesterday I already did that!

  • FangsFirst

    It could be a single adjective! “We are anti-gay Christians, as we should be!” or what have you.

    Though sadly I think that overly cynical elaboration of yours definitely covers plenty of real people :

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Jeff-Lipton/100001171828568 Jeff Lipton

    I got one from Qaddafi’s Finance Minister a few days after he died.  I had to salute their timeliness at least!

  • http://dpolicar.livejournal.com/ Dave

    > strangely, they seem to dislike that (“Antigay” ) nomenclature as well.

    That one is less strange to me, at least in principle.

    By way of analogy: I can imagine, hypothetically, believing that the love of money is the root of all evil, and that the “wealthy lifestyle” tends to corrupt those who embrace it, and that it’s a bad idea for schools to be run by devoted capitalists who teach our children to set aside other important values in the pursuit of wealth, or for our courts to be influenced by an undue consideration for the preferences of the wealthy, etc. … without necessarily wanting to be labelled, nor thinking of myself as, “antirich.”

    My objection to that label in that hypothetical situation would be, roughly, that it frames me as opposing individuals on the basis of a particular property, which is not at all the case… actually, many close friends of mine are rich. 


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