‘So, your family’s from Greece then? When did you come to this country?’
‘Actually, we’ve traced our family back to the 1600’s in Wales so far, I’m not aware I’m from Greece at all.’
So goes the conversation year in year out wherever I find myself speaking to people for the first time. It’s a perfectly reasonable conversation given my surname, but it does demonstrate how we are marked out and determined by names.
Sometimes not for the good.
Names are descriptors, they describe someone or something, but they are not the thing or person – names are a mechanism by which we can understand, separate-out, prize and disown. As descriptors of people, names should uphold the dignity, beauty and sanctity of the person, utterly unique and precious before God:
‘I have called you by name, you are mine.’ (Isaiah 43. 1)
Unfortunately, in my line of work, I meet many people who have been called names and described by others in ways which belittle and harm. Tell someone for long enough that they’re stupid, or not liked, or not wanted, or perhaps forget to use their name at all, and they will begin to believe the projected identity on a deep and personally destructive level. They may carry the negative name or description in their hearts for the rest of their life.
When we look back at history and study some of the most destructive acts of human violence and aggression, what is scarily noticeable is that before the ‘act’ of physical violence takes place, there is an increase in the negative use of language and naming, sometimes for several years beforehand. Names and metaphors are used to single individuals out and then whole groups of peoples are listed and described by the same names. Then, when violence is committed against them, it is easier to justify because those committing the violence and those looking on, have become desensitized to the beauty of the individual through the aggressive and negative naming that has taken place.
Surely, we can’t let such a process happen in our country. The UN tells us that there are more displaced peoples around the world than at any other point in history, over 65 million. The numbers are staggering and the political solutions are complex and challenging. Xenophobia in Europe is increasing.
We must not become desensitized to the potential beauty of the person in each individual. People are not first and foremost migrants, immigrants, refugees; they have been called into being through the glory of God. We must all be very careful with the language we use.
Generalized and thoughtless, words can mask truth, corrode and poison; they become the allies of indifference and violence.
Carefully chosen and lovingly fashioned, words can be the guardians of dignity, grace and healing; they can shape and nurture the soul of an individual; of a nation.