What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. — Juliet in “Romeo and Juliet,” by William Shakespeare.
A name is a word or term used for identification.
A name is arbitrary. Whether my parents called me Brandon or Brendan or Brayden or Romeo, I likely would be the same man I am today.
But what if they named me Abdul? Ah, then things change because of the meaning we attach to the word. Abdul is symbolic of something — a darker skin tone, a certain religion, another geographic region.
Visual symbols themselves are also arbitrary, until they are not. If the Nazis used the “peace” symbol, then today that would be seen by many as the mark of evil.
There is a lot of talk and controversy in the U.S. these days about names and symbols and the need to change them. Let’s start with a couple of recent examples:
On Aug. 30, the federal government ordered that Mount McKinley’s name be changed to Denali. Denali is the term used by the Native Americans in that region. So what’s the big deal? Well, besides the cost to change all the place names on maps and souvenirs, and besides any claims that the process by which it was changed skirted the rules, to most in America tradition may be the biggest hurdle to acceptance, as Mount McKinley is how they’ve always known the mountain. Meanwhile some Ohioans are sore because the name held special meaning for them since it honored their native son, President William McKinley.
Closer to home, changing the name of the University of North Dakota’s college hockey team, the Fighting Sioux, has been an issue and battle for years. This name has had meaning to the Grand Forks hockey fans who’ve been cheering the squad for generations. More significant, many of the local Sioux wanted to keep the name. But another Sioux tribe didn’t, and their desires won out with the added leverage of the NCAA. Interestingly, the college is trying to find a replacement name, and the plurality of local fans don’t want a nickname at all, opting for “UND/North Dakota.”
In the end, of course, renaming the mountain or the hockey team isn’t that big of a deal. Humans have renamed cities and countries. Is it Myanmar or Burma? The Southeast Asian nation still goes by both names depending on whom you ask. To the Burmese government, it’s Myanmar; to the ethnic Karenni minority from there, it’s Burma. To outsiders like me, either word works because both sounds refer to that chunk of land. Without symbolic meaning, the name is arbitrary.
It’s important to understand what a name truly conjures up in people’s minds, because inconsideration or inaccuracy in this regard can lead us to waste time and resources. If there’s an argument to be made to replace a mountain name with a Native word, and to remove a Native word from a college mascot, for the sake of respecting the desires of present-day Native Americans, that seems reasonable.
But then we have the lake in Minneapolis named after a man with racist ideas …
Lake Calhoun is that large, round, iconic body of water in Minneapolis around which people jog, bike, and play volleyball in the summer; and on which they ice fish in the winter. The idea that the word “Calhoun” in Minneapolis conjures up anything other than these and similar images/thoughts — that it is indeed named after a politician, let alone one who was racist — is held by practically no one. This truth is important in arguing for the significance of making a name change, because if no one knows the name’s origin, if no one holds this association, then changing the name changes nothing regarding symbolic matters of race relations, because “Calhoun” symbolizes only the lake it labels. To virtually everyone in Minneapolis, changing the name would serve only to confuse.
Removing the symbol of the confederate flag makes more sense, because it has been used by people in conjunction with their racist beliefs. Yet even here, America has fallen susceptible to symbolic simplification.
It’s socially appropriate to equate the confederate flag with racism just as most of America does with the swastika. But just a modest amount of global cultural awareness reveals that the swastika is not defined by this one, Western-centric association.
Before the Nazis used the swastika, Native American peoples had — including the Sioux — as a symbol for the sun, the four directions, or the four seasons. And long before the Nazis, Asian peoples had used it in Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism as a sacred symbol of future success. Hundreds of millions from India to Korea still do.
As demonstrated by the swastika, a symbol’s meaning can change. And a symbol can hold unique — even opposing — meanings concurrently. The Charleston church shooter, Dylan Roof, used the confederate flag to symbolize his racist ideals. To country music band Alabama, the confederate flag held no such connotation.
After the tragedy in Charleston, the response has approached zero tolerance for the confederate flag, even to disallow historical video games about the Civil War. Similarly, there’s little room in America for Eastern interpretations of the swastika as evidenced by New York City ordering a Korean shopkeeper that he can’t sell his swastika-designed earrings.
Still, as symbols for hatred and death, it’s easy to understand why people want to stomp them out.
Somewhere in our species’ history, we evolved the ability to attach meaning to an object, picture, and eventually, a word. But more than the word “ball” identifies that bouncy sphere we play with, the ability to symbolize allows small things likes words and logos to encapsulate more meaning than meets the eye or ear. It’s efficient that one arbitrary design or sound can illicit so much. A symbol has the power to make us cheer, cry, or yell. It’s great to feel strongly. Philosopher Joseph Campbell argued this to be the purpose of life.
It’s also important, though, to not forget that symbols by themselves are nothing — and that our emotional placement into, and magnification from, them can lead us to dangerous places. Unconscious of a symbol’s effect leaves us susceptible to being led astray — from the benign (brand loyalty), to the severe (fueling our hate). And when used maliciously, words and symbols can help to destroy.
It’s tempting, then, to turn around and symbolize the confederate flag and the swastika as convenient containers for racism. This way, if we get rid of them, we can watch racism follow. Symbols can serve as proxy (symbolic) battles of actual social problems.
For this, we need to find the middle ground.
There is good reason to want to see a reduction in the visibility of the confederate flag, and I think it’s reasonable to suggest that those who use the flag or the swastika in unmalicious ways can temper their use in light of these cultural sensitivities.
But no one is hurting anyone in the name of Lake Calhoun.
In this trend to attack the titles and symbols that represent and cause social ills, we should be careful not to let these symbolic battles replace the ones that matter more and even have us see symbols that aren’t there. Otherwise, we miss taking action to help the ill we hope to improve.
Brandon Ferdig is a writer living in Minneapolis. He writes about social issues, the human condition, and about where (and how) life has taken him where it has — living on three continents. He shares his articles on his blog ThePeriphery.com, paragraphs on Facebook /bferdig, and sentences on Twitter @brandonferdig. You can also reach him at brandon@theperiphery.
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