Sunday, July 16, 2017

The Tyranny of First Names

My sermon was on not misusing God's name this morning. Thinking about misusing names, I am reminded that I was taught in Linguistics in college that languages, even, if not especially, the most "primitive" use honorifics when people address each other. Even "primitive" societies can have very elaborate systems for doing this. It is how our species uses language to treat each other with respect, to negotiate social boundaries that make for peace, and social cohesion, and to show members of family and society that they are valued.

In English we have Mister, Missus, and other titles. First names and nicknames only are historically reserved for close intimates, siblings, cousins, and close personal friend. However, it is also used when addressing children, the lowest class of servants, and slaves, and is used among those groups when addressing each other. For instance, not long ago, Whites in the South, when addressing Blacks used first names (but not vice versa). Such groups of persons are either considered not to be responsible members of society, or, even worse, as in the case of slaves, non-persons.

The coarseness of our current language, and the fact that we use, even insist, on first names, tells me, not that we are suddenly on terms of close intimacy with the whole world, but that we are on close terms with no one—rather that we now see ourselves as having lost human respect, and indeed our right to be treated as persons. It is a sign of our common slavery to bureaucracy and ideology, to the state, large corporations, and the materialist ideology that seeks to dehumanize all of us.

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