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.