Sorry, Shakespeare: the Power of Naming

“What’s in a name?”  Bemoaning her inability to be with her beloved Romeo simply because he is a Montague, in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Juliet famously argues that names are meaningless, claiming that “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”

While the teenage lover’s sentiment was sweet, something tells me that Professors Duarte and Belarde-Lewis, the authors of “Imagining: Creating Spaces for Indigenous Ontologies,” would disagree with her.  They argue that names, particularly those used by researchers when organizing indigenous knowledge, are much more than arbitrary titles.  Rather, naming is a form of power, an effective means by which the majority imprison marginalized groups within a perpetual cycle of colonialism  (681-2).  By stripping indigenous individuals of their tribal titles, forcing them all instead beneath deceptively homogeneous labels such as “Native American,” database organizers simultaneously enact colonization: symbolically assimilating indigenous peoples into American culture, overshadowing their diversity, and misrepresenting their knowledge systems (682).

Intrigued by, but initially skeptical of, the rhetorical force which Duarte and Belarde-Lewis attribute to names, I began to wonder if this power extended beyond academia and into my daily life.  Do I unconsciously judge or infer information about things and others based simply on what they are called?  Returning to Juliet’s balcony, if the flowers gifted by the dozen every Valentine’s Day were called “boses” instead of “roses,” would they still smell as sweet?  I looked to my old (questionably trusty?) friend Google to find out.

It turns out that the argument put forth by Duarte and Belarde-Lewis is supported by the scientific community, as well.  In his article “The Power of Names” published online by The New Yorker in 2013, NYU professor Alter presents several examples of studies in which names were shown to matter much more than Shakespeare seemed to believe.  He cites an experiment performed nearly a century ago by Kohler, a psychologist, in which participants were provided with two images and two words to use as labels for the drawings.  You can follow the link below to see whether or not you’re thinking like one of Kohler’s 1920s participants.  The majority assigned each of these terms to the same squiggles, suggesting that yes, our brains do read more into words than we might think, generating a list of connotations that influence our decisions.  And Alter explains that these decisions aren’t just trivial, providing the startling fact that women lawyers with more ambiguously gendered names are more likely than those with distinctly female names to be appointed judges.

Therefore, it’s clear that–sorry, Shakespeare–names do matter, and that their rhetoric has the power to affect the world in very tangible, significant ways.  Thus, returning to our focus on digital documentation of history, it is essential that we keep Duarte and Belarde-Lewis’ article in mind as we organize data with the creation of titles, tags, and other metadata.  Now that we are conscious of the power which we hold, we must make sure that we use it responsibly, furthering the democratization of knowledge rather than colonial oppression.



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