Names have power. Our ability to specify how we should be addressed is especially precious to people who are systematically or situationally less privileged. There has been a long history of people with more power or more privilege using more familiar names or forms of address, like dropping titles, to create a sense of intimacy without the permission of the other person.
The power of names has been on my mind recently, both online and face-to-face, in part because I have had some encounters at the intersection of names and power. My partner is a member of the US armed forces, so I often go onto military bases where my ID is checked. Most of the time, an MP or a civilian security contractor simply looks at my ID and wishes me a good day. Usually the service members will address me as "ma'am," and the contractors don't use any form of address.
But there's always an exception. Recently, a contractor handed my ID back and said, "Thanks, [LegalFirstName]," in a tone and with a smile that were not-so-subtly sexual. At first, my gut churned with a familiar mix of fear and shame, but then a flare of anger leaped up. How dare he? I summoned up my iciest smile and thanked him in a voice that implied I wished he would satisfy his desires alone with a Brillo pad.
I was angry because the guard was in a position of power over me, and that exacerbated the fear and shame that I felt in response. Plus, he knew from the form of my ID that I am married to a service member. As I processed my reaction, I realized that the contractor had also made me feel uncomfortable in a situation where I usually felt relatively safe, including about names and forms of address.
The military has rules governing how people address each other, obviously. Even for people not in uniform, like spouses and children, it’s pretty easy to figure out their probable status, and most service members err on the side of caution with extra politeness just in case that’s actually an admiral in civvies. While those rules are based on a hierarchical power structure, their predictability gives me a certain amount of comfort. I realize that this is in itself a privilege, since my preferences largely track with the military system, but it’s comfort nonetheless.
The military system also puts a veneer of politeness over even awkward interactions. Elizabeth D. Samet, a civilian who wrote about her experiences teaching English at West Point, described how a simple response like “Yes ma’am” can carry emotional implications from joy to fury encoded in nuances as subtle as the scale in a tonal language. Nearly everyone who spends time in the system learns those implicit signals, but the veneer of politeness gives me the option of disregarding the emotional content if I need to.
Not all conventions of names in the military are dictated by explicit protocol, though. In the Air Force, nearly everyone has a “call sign,” a short nickname that is often a pun on the person's actual name (a Col. Colby had the call sign "Cheese") or has a hilarious story attached ("There I was, in a bar in Itaewon…..and that's why my call sign is TwoDogs."). In the AIr Force, even officers of widely differing ranks will often address each other by call sign. Especially for pilots, being addressed by their “real name” is actually an insult because it is disregarding an indication of a coveted status, much as calling a professor or a doctor “Mr.” or “Mrs.” is a slight.
None of this, though, explains away the sense of invasion that I had experienced with the contracted security person. When I mentioned my disturbing experience to LitSpouse, he pointed out that some people, especially women, may prefer their first names over being addressed as “Mrs. HisLastName.” I agreed, and said that the issue of defining our own names is an ongoing conversation. In this instance, though, with the sickeningly inappropriate mixture of sex and power, I was proud of myself for not succumbing to shame or fear and responding in a way that affirmed my own power.
Another example of the way men can use women’s names to imply or assert power over them popped up in a fictional context not too long after that. In an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, the Enterprise has encountered a planet where the gender roles are reversed: women are bigger, stronger, and it is regarded as simply natural for them to hold power in both public and private. The crew on the ship are coming down with an ailment, and eventually Lieutenant (junior grade) Geordie LaForge is left in command. When Lieutenant Tasha Yar calls up to the ship from the surface, she says, “Enterprise, this is Lt. Yar.” LaForge responds to her - his superior officer - by saying, “Yeah, Tasha, go ahead.”
It’s such a subtle thing! I had seen this episode a half-dozen times and never noticed it before. This was a much less difficult situation than the one I had been in; after all, LaForge’s tone is entirely congenial and we know that he and Yar get along well. Spouse pointed out that officers within one rank of each other can drop titles and address each other by first names, if the more senior one allows, although this varies by service culture. Since LaForge is technically in temporary command, he might even sort of outrank her.
But my point remains: Yar contacted the ship using standard protocols, and a male she outranks responded by publicly disregarding formality and using her first name - and only hers. I wouldn’t have minded if he had said, “Yeah, Tasha, this is Geordie, go ahead.” With the somewhat paradoxical rank/command situation going on, if he wants to ignore formality, it would be polite to use his first name as well, and really, he needs to identify himself anyway, since the away team doesn’t know why such a junior officer is in command. Using his own first name would put them on an even footing. Using hers only - and in public on the bridge - is a subtle power dynamic. That it occurred, probably unconsciously, in the midst of an episode devoted to questioning gender roles only goes to show how deep this issue runs.
In the real world, names can be about a lot more than rank or titles. This article gives more explicit examples of how a "real names only" policy on social networking sites has the potential to make those sites much less accessible to people who choose to use a created identity rather than their legal name. For people whose created identity is a form of protection, like those engaged in potentially dangerous social activism, further enforcement of these policies could force them to choose between the advantages of online communication and the very real risk of personal harm.
Names have power. I don’t have any easy answers to how we should address each other in public, but I do think that one of the ways we can use our increasingly technological web of communication to break down old patterns of privilege, rather than reinforcing them, is to allow the use of pseudonyms, especially for social networking. The civilian world is even more complex than the military in terms of how names and titles have meaning and power. In these settings, especially for less-privileged people, the ability to give only the names we choose is a precious right.
As I’ve grown more self-confident, I've made a practice of smiling gently at people in public situations, much more so than I used to do. I think of it as a way to mitigate the dehumanizing grind of urban crowdedness. For the most part, this has had very positive results: people smile back, and sometimes they even look a little relieved or pleasantly surprised at this recognition of shared humanity.
But there’s always an exception: one man smiled back at me and complimented me on my smile. I thanked him and turned away. He called after me, "What's your name?" with just a touch of insinuation in his voice. I kept walking. He tried to sound more plaintive but came across as more threatening when he called again, "Can I get a name?"
I didn't give it to him.
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