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What's In a Name? Identity in the Age of Self-Branding

A Personal Perspective: Obsessions with pronouns and self-labeling is a problem.

Key points

  • Our growing obsession with pronouns, labels, and identity-politics is a personal and social disaster.
  • Your name does not define you; in fact, it promotes ignorance and attachment to appearances.
  • Being overly attached to our own 'brand' creates insecurity, division, and inauthenticity.

Recently, two of my dearest friends changed their names without any warning.

Free of their old labels, they feel liberated from their past identities, they say. They describe cutting the cord finally between the bullied, abandoned, violated kids they were and the happy, evolved sixty-somethings they are today.

We who have known them for decades were assured that we were free to call them whatever we wanted. They’d done this for themselves, they insisted; others' responses were not their business.

But it was our business, at least in part, since we shared half a lifetime of history as well as a connection to this old character they were now pretending no longer existed.

"I feel no connection to that person whatsoever," X told me of her pre-name change self.

But X would always be X to me. It was hard to address her by this new name and sound sincere. Mostly, I opted for ‘Hey you,’ when we were in person and tried to sound natural, to cover my discomfort. Then one day, in the midst of a conversation, I made the mistake of calling her by her old name and she cut me short immediately.

“That’s not who I am," X corrected, looking testy and a tad aggressive. “I don’t know who you’re speaking to.”

I apologized and promised not to do it again. Afterward, it made me angry. I’d believed her when he said that she was doing this for herself and that others could call her whatever they wanted. I hadn’t deliberately misaddressed her, but old habits die hard and my memory is not what it used to be.

That moment got me thinking about what is in a name, really. In this gender-non-specific age of pronouns wars and identity politics (“it’s not she, it’s they," a friend’s teenage daughter upbraided her recently), with more people retooling their identities, the nature of identity itself is changing. It's hardening, narrowing, become too specific, too fixated on labels. As if a name, pronoun, or gender silo could actually define who one is, which it can't.

While changing our story can be helpful, the idea is not to create a more perfect story to grow unhealthily attached to but to realize that the story isn’t you. You are the storyteller, not the story. You can change your name but the primary benefit of doing so isn't to find a more perfect label, or singular brand, but to clearly see that no name can ever contain you; that what you think of as your identity is a suit of clothes, a manner of being, not the essence of who you are.

When we're lost in labeled reality, we imagine that things like names, clothes, pronouns, tribes, faiths, professions, races, and sexual persuasions, are far more important than they actually are.

Despite advances made through identity culture— civil rights legislation, community building, preserving cultural traditions, helping oppressed populations transcend shame and anger —it is also superficial, tribal, and nitpicking. It shares a common relative (righteousness) with political correctness. Worst of all, identity politics is divisive. It's all about the trees and to hell with the forest. It says look at me, I’m very special, and every adjective I use to delineate myself is hugely important.

This obsession with names and labels tips easily into victimization and an us-versus-them perspective. Since these make-believe label-cocoons are so fragile and self-conscious, they demand vigilant protection at all times lest they be knocked off the bough of magical thinking.

Ignorance, in spiritual terms, is not the opposite of intelligence or learnedness. To be ignorant means to ignore your true nature, that essential, universal dimension of yourself that will forever remain nameless. Ignorance means mistaking the wave for the sea, believing that a descriptor can begin to capture the impenetrable mystery of a human being, or any sentient being for that matter.

Over-focusing on our uniqueness, we think more about rebranding than transformation. The obsession with self-labeling leads to shallowness and self-absorption, in a culture more interested in form than content, or image, appearance, and social currency more than self-realization.

"Know thyself," said Socrates. Don’t mistake yourself for your moniker or become trapped on an identity mouse wheel designed to keep you insecure and starved for approval.

Shakespeare knew well that our names for things are not the things themselves. “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” says Romeo of his beloved. “For Juliet were she not Juliet called would maintain that dear perfection, which she owns without that title.”

The same goes for all of us. We need not brand ourselves like avatars inhabiting a semi-virtual world, confusing the label with the human. When your time comes to leave this world, you will do so as nakedly as you entered it, namelessly, clique-free, without a pronoun in sight.

I'll do my best to remember my friends’ new names. But they'll never quite be those new labels to me. Their souls have nothing to do with their surnames. And their souls are what I value the most.

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