Naming and the Art of Knowing (by David A. Zimmerman)
Mamas (and Papas), don’t let your babies grow up with gender-ambiguous names. Don’t let ‘em be Chrises or Krises or Pats; let ‘em be Kathryns and Tinas and Matts.
Seriously, though, these gender-ambiguous names keep getting me into trouble—mostly because these days so much of my professional and relational life is conducted online. A few years ago I traded e-mails with a youth pastor in Alaska named “Kris”; imagine my surprise when Kris walked up to me at a conference with his—not “her”—daughter in tow. As for the daughter in question, I don’t recall her name, but dollars to doughnuts it was “Mel” or “Dani”—or, given the current cultural climate for naming children, maybe it was “Doughnut.”
And then today I stepped in it when I referred to a literary agent named “Chris” as “he” even though “Chris” is a “she.” Trust me, I would have embarrassed myself eventually anyway, but I’d rather do so by demonstrating my professional incompetence than by challenging a new friend’s gender.
Gender ambiguity is a common trope in social anxiety. Anyone old enough to stay up late in the 1980s will recall the character “Pat” from Saturday Night Live, whose dubious chromosomal mix flummoxed any number of inquirers and was, to my knowledge, never finally resolved. (For the record, the actor playing “Pat”—Julia Sweeny—was [and presumably still is] a woman.) In the 1970s the Kinks made waves with a song of seduction called “Lola,” in which Lola turned out to be a transvestite; Aerosmith continued the tradition in 1987 with their far less subtle tune “Dude (Looks Like a Lady),” and offered what continues to be good advice (albeit clichéd from the start): “Never judge a book by its cover.”
That advice applies all the more urgently in an increasingly virtual culture. We no longer, in so many of our relationships, have even visual cues as to the gender of our correspondents. We trade e-mails, we subscribe to one another’s RSS feeds, we follow each other’s tweets, we “friend” one another—often without ever seeing each other’s faces. All we have to go on is a self-written biography and metadata: favorite movies, activities and interests, and recommendations made by presumably closer contacts. Gender—let alone other, similarly primal aspects of our identity—seems to have become so implicit as to be, often, indecipherable.
Meanwhile, gender identity is itself a matter of crisis. We hear about the fluidity of human sexuality and are introduced to people who feel alien to the skin they were born in. This is a curious enough development that it holds our attention, but the fact of it as a cultural phenomenon obscures the bigger issue underneath it: increasingly we don’t really know one another, and increasingly we don’t really know ourselves.
Generation Me—the post-Vietnam era as categorized by social psychologist Jean Twenge—has mastered the art of the first-person pronouns, to the point of nearly losing touch with the third person. The conversation that dominates, even in seemingly communal environments, is binary: “I” (the star) addressing “you” (the audience), or the royal “we” discussing the confederate “us,” with little input from “him” or “her.” By and large, third-person references are plural—the “them” that “we” have to deal with. But without an awareness of “them”—that conglomeration of “hims” and “hers” and “ones” that ought to inform our understanding—leaves us not only increasingly ignorant of others but less objective, less aware, of our true selves. The marginalization of that third dimension of conversation, which might otherwise ground our understanding in a tradition beyond ourselves, leaves us thinner and more ambiguous as people.
Mark Twain struggled to write an honest autobiography; he’s quoted in the new introduction to his first volume as lamenting that “the man has yet to be born who could write the truth about himself.” That was a hundred years ago, and yet I don’t think the situation has improved with time. When we can no longer identify even the gender of people we profess to know—when we find ourselves isolated from one another even more by our conversations than by our circumstances—we’re in trouble, folks.
So to all those parents-to-be out there, and to all of us who purport to know them, to be part of their lives, don’t let your babies grow up to be ambiguous; let them be seekers of truth and lovers of true community, which are two ways of saying the same thing.