Tag Archives: names

Naming Nature

Naming the world around us can have some very unhelpful effects on humans. It can reinforce a feeling that we’re superior and in control and that nature is something we own. It can be a manifestation of power-over, and affirms the idea that we know what’s going on and what everything is and does. In practice, much of nature remains a mystery to us, and while we can subjugate and destroy great swathes of it, this is a form of power that can only destroy us as well in time.

The other side of this is that we don’t tend to pay as much attention to things we can’t name. There’s a lot of experiential difference between seeing trees, and seeing individual trees of named species. When we use names as a way of sorting and storing information, it can be the basis of forming a more complex relationship with the world around us.

It can be easy to lose sight of the way that human naming systems are just that, and not some kind of ultimate truth. Even when we decide to give creatures complex Latin names that claim to say something about the family tree of their species, we can be very wrong. Nature does not exist to be put in tidy categories by humans, and over time we’ve become more aware that superficial similarities don’t always mean things are closely related. Having divided the world into plant and animal kingdoms (now, there’s a word whose implications stand considering!) we’re still at a bit of a loss to know what to make of fungi.

The names we give things are not a truth in their own right, they’re just part of a story we’re trying to tell ourselves in order to make sense of what we encounter.


Of Facebook and real names

While I’m unlikely to have any problems personally with Facebook’s current exercise in enforcing ‘real names’ (I’m using two thirds of my real name) I have a lot of problem with it conceptually. In most aspects of life we are free to use whatever names we want. As a writer or performer you can quite legitimately have more than one name. So long as there is no criminal application, call yourself as you please, so the demand for ‘real names’ is an infringement of a right we otherwise have.

Names have a cultural component. This whole ‘real name’ malarkey is already showing signs of impacting on people who do not conform to white western name standards. It doesn’t matter whether you can prove it’s your ‘real’ name, it is not ok that you get asked just because of cultural difference. Facebook is already flirting with racism on this issue, from what I’ve seen online.

Apparently the use of ‘real names’ reduces risk of online bullying. However, Facebook is not requiring all of us to prove who we say we are, it’s only if a name seems suspect to someone’s mind, that it will be questioned. So you sign up as John Smith, Alice Jones, or the like, and it looks like a regular ‘real name’ giving you all the cover you need to spew hate. This, incidentally is the same Facebook that couldn’t see any problem with a ‘sexy little girls’ page a while back and took some considerable persuading to close it down, doesn’t mind images of violence against animals or pictures of murdered girls hanging from trees. This is the Facebook that finds breastfeeding offensive but won’t shut down hate speech against women. It has some very interesting variations in standards.

Yes, predators use fake names. So do victims who are in hiding. So do people exploring their identities, people with unsafe living arrangements or a need for privacy. “Someone might use it to do a bad thing” is an approach the does not let any of us own anything harder or heavier than latex. You could kidnap someone and tape their mouth over with duct tape, so we’d better not have any more duct tape. It is not the anonymity of a false name that enables trolls online. It is the anonymity of being a tiny irrelevance in a big place, one in a thousand Lisas from Essex, or one of the innumerable Bobs and Daves from the Midlands. Anonymous because we are many, and the net huge. Some people use fake names to do bad things. Some people use guns to kill people (it’s not like they have a vast array of applications). Facebook takes no issue with pro-gun material. Some of us claim more interesting names as a way of standing out – and why the hell not?

Of course Facebook isn’t the only show in town. The power it has at present stems from being as close as we get to ubiquitous. However, that only holds up while it is a place everyone can use. Start drawing rigid lines and making demands, and there are other places to go. I also have a presence on Twitter, Linkedin and google+ and if Facebook becomes too aggressive, unreasonable and demanding I will use other spaces. I won’t be the only one. No one is obliged to show up there, and it is worth pausing to remember myspace, and before that, the yahoo groups. Nothing is forever, not even Facebook.

The right to express yourself is important. It includes the right to use whatever name you wish. It is the oldest trick in the book to bring in controlling laws on the basis that they are for your own good and to protect you. We don’t have to co-operate with that, on Facebook or anywhere else. You can stand around demanding real names, and wait for Rumplestiltskin to run off with your baby – or in this case, your supply of people on which the whole thing depends. People are the key resource here, not the website, and Facebook (like a good many governments around the world) would do well to bear that in mind.

Pagan Titles

As regular readers will know, I’m not that keen on authority or power structures. Titles that are all about seeming important make me edgy. However, not all titles are simply self-given manifestations of self-importance. They also function, at least in theory, as meaningful labels that allow people to better understand what we do. “Celebrant” announces a willingness to take bookings for rites of passage. If you’re calling yourself a wise elder, you’d better have a grey hair or two to back that up with, and so forth.

A label can be a statement of intent. There’s a fab blog post on this very subject here – http://www.roundtheherne.blogspot.co.uk/2013/05/the-name.html

Quite often what happens though is not that we wake up one morning and glue a shiny title to ourselves, but that it comes in from outside. You get labelled as a teacher the moment someone asks that you teach them and you don’t run away. You become a ritual leader the first time you step into a circle to run it, and a grove mother, or father, at the point of there being a grove. Sometimes that’s chosen, sometimes it happens.

There’s an interesting thing about naming. On the landscape history side, the names given by outsiders are considered more useful than those given by locals, in the past. If you live round here (wherever here is) there’s The pub, The church, The fields. If you live somewhere else, and look at it from the outside, there’s that really good pub, the particularly badly built church, the very muddy field. Old names, given by outsiders, often say more about a place than what the inhabitants called it. Let’s not ask what happened to Chipping Sodbury. (Although Chipping means market and bury implies Saxon fortification, so I’ve just foiled my own gag. Never mind, we move on…)

The names people give us may be better indicators of us, than the titles we would choose for ourselves. I find it hugely reassuring that other people are willing to call me ‘Druid’ and ‘author’. Mind you, I’ve also recently been called a filthy urchin, which is not wholly lacking in appropriateness. The titles we give people can be reflections of respect, or derision. One only has to look at politics to see the difference between the titles they give themselves, and the titles others bestow upon them. Can I mention swivel eyed loons now?

Masks, guises, self creation and the interweb

It is very easy to create a whole new person online. An email address, a facebook presence, maybe a blog. A casual glance reveals hosts of Mistletoe Ravenchild, Dancing Butterfly, Merlin the seer, and their many friends. Online, we have space to be the people we want to imagine we are, without the same limitations of reality, especially with a name to hide behind. There are a number of consequences. It can be empowering and liberating, a chance to free a previously crushed inner self. It can also be easy to hide behind the façade and abuse people in way you would never think of doing publically. The internet costumes we don can hide all manner of intentions, for good and ill.

As the people who know me personally can testify, I’ve been through a few names and identities on the way. The changes mark marriages, primarily, and also shifts in my writing identity. My previous incarnation was an erotica author, my current one is doing druidry and dark fantasy fic, and I have no idea what else. But for anyone with too much time on their hands, it’s possible to find out, or figure out who I have been, and where I came from. The names were never about hiding my ‘true’ self, only creating a focus for what I’m doing. I know a lot of people doing similar things, using the internet to smooth the transition from one life stage to another. I believe Native American people have a tradition of changing names as life stages call for it. I think there’s a lot of merit in that. Who we are, changes, and sometimes the name shift helps recognise that process.

I find the ways in which people utilise internet identity fascinating. It can be the perfect stalker tool, masquerading as someone else to keep up with the object of obsession, inventing a life to back up the name in hopes of getting attention. So many online relationships begin with a few carefully chosen lies, and crumble when reality threatens to intrude. It’s as if, the virtualness of the space enables us to imagine that what we do here doesn’t matter in the same way. An online ‘affair’ is not a real affair. Online abuse is not the same as shouting in someone’s face. But the effects are the same. The emotional impact of the worlds we create online can be just as powerful as anything in the physical realms.

My feeling is that no part of life should be assumed to be less inherently real than another, where we are engaging with other beings. Part of the problem with the net is that we are talking through computers. I don’t think computer games are entirely real, and I can spot the lines between fantasy and reality, but the nature of the internet is to blur this. I can put my fantasy here. I can claim to be anyone, anything, and you only have my word for it, and what common sense tells you.

However, I’ve never compartmentalised my life. What I do in ‘unreal’ situations has, for the most part, been what I would do ‘for real’. I find that the easiest way to keep track of things and avoid awkward ethical wrangles. Honour is part of my druidry. If I am dishonourable online, then I am dishonourable, as I see it. The online bit makes no difference. In just the same way that I would not act dishonourably in a pretend game (not that I play much of anything). There is an exception though, and that’s the writing. If I only told stories about well meaning, honourable people, we wouldn’t get much plot. If I subscribed to the belief that what we think is as real as what we do, this would cause me some problems. But, I am a writer first and a druid second, if I’m honest. There’s not much in it, in terms of essentialness to my sense of self, but I cannot function without writing, and therefore I cannot afford to have a philosophy that makes writing a villain as bad as being one. One of my beliefs is that beliefs can be consciously and deliberately chosen for specific reasons.

Who I am online is not who I am in person. But I try to get it as close as possible. Online I can proof and edit what I say, and I don’t have to bother about what my body language looks like. You don’t get my scruffy clothes and broad Gloucestershire accent. So while I am constructing my online persona, you are also constructing me, from what I say and what you know, what you imagine and what you want me to be. And I am doing the same with you. Who we want the other person to be can be as important a part of that, as who we want others to think we are. It’s so easy to find what you are looking for – be that love, an ego boost, proof that the one we hate is indeed truly evil, or some other blend of self service and self delusion. The internet can make it very easy to be dishonest with ourselves, but can also be a powerful space for sharing truth and voicing things that would be too hard in person. Like most tools, it comes down to how we choose to use it, and that has everything to do with who we are, and who we want to be.