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December 16, 2004

Why it is wrong to change your name

Posted by Digby Anderson

There is an increasing fashion for people to change their names. It is a fashion that Digby Anderson abhors - changing your name is an attempt to escape who you are: "Of course people can change - for the better and for the worse - but the recognition that they are the same persons is crucial for identity, responsibility and public reputation". Knowing who the people one dealt with in daily life were - of which their name and permanence of identity was a central part - offered true security. Government identity cards will never be able to replace the security offered by the knowledge of your neighbours' identity.

There's been a fellow in the news recently called Mahmoud Abbas. He is tipped to be the next king-pin of the Palestinians. There is some doubt about this - not his going to become king-pin but his being Mahmoud Abbas. The BBC painstakingly refers to him as Mahmoud Abbas also-known-as or previously-known-as or sometimes-known-as Abu Marzen. I find this particularly annoying and have been trying to work out why. I have nothing against Mahmoud Abbas-also-known-as Abu Marzen (Well, I might have but it has nothing to do with this double name business). Good luck to him if he wants to try and have two sets of names when everyone else has to be content with one. What is irritating is the BBC's collusion. Lots of chaps don't care for their name and try new ones. But a name is a social sort of thing. Whether you get away with a new one depends on whether others agree to let you do so. Generally society should not let people get away with changing their names. It should hold them to their names. For their name is something to do with their identity and a vehicle for portraying and continuing their reputation.

A sure sign of a dodgy character in the novels of Margery Allingham, Agatha Christie and Ngaio Marsh was when a person was found to be using an alias. He usually turned out to be a bigamist too which was shocking in those days. The point is that villains used aliases not because of any attraction they felt to the new name but to escape the associations and identity of the old one. In a novel of the same genre by, I think, Katherine Ferrar, a policeman points out the futility of a raid on a gypsy encampment where there might be a suspect. His gist was that everyone there will claim to have the same name, Smith. Social order requires that, ideally, there is one name, or group of names, per person and that everyone sticks to it. Changing a name is fine if one really is becoming a new person. Thus those entering religious orders take a new name. The widespread Anglicization of names by immigrant Jews may also have been sensible since it arguably strengthened cohesion into the host society rather than disrupted it. I am less sure about the Africanization of names by prominent black Americans not least because of the phantastic and self-indulgent character of many of these names.

But my point, regardless of the rights and wrongs of individual cases, is that society should generally be suspicious of re-naming. There is no reason for it to cooperate in using such self-awarded names as Madonna. It did not have to obediently start calling Wedgewood-Benn, Tony Benn just because he wanted to be Tony Benn. It would have been better not to weaken and repeat the self-identification of that curious quartet known as Bill Haley and His Comets. It was better when, in the Fifties celebrities being reported as charged with offences were at least referred to by their real name and it was emphasized, "So and so was charged with an offence of public indecency under his real name of - -". It is even possible that the constant, inane re-branding of products and companies could be sabotaged by the simple measure of the media continuing to use the old, "real" name.

There are at least three sorts of name change which have happened recently which are especially dangerous. The first and worst is when someone in search of "feeling good about themselves" renounces either their name or their past identity, not in the sense of overcoming it but in the sense of getting out of it and its responsibilities; "Oh, that, I'm not into that any more".

The second, very popular in the feminist Seventies, was the replacement of women's family and Christian names with cross-sexual, non-familial grunt names such as "Mo" and "Dee": "I am not a member of a family anymore, not a wife, not even person with a past, just whatever I currently feel about myself".

The third is when a man is divorced and marries a second or third and much younger wife and she renames him in an operation publicly to establish new ownership. Say he has always been Mike, known as Mike to family and friends, she'll announce that now he is Michael. Or she will make him use his previously never used middle name, Denzil. He who used to smoke and drink will now take up jogging and change his friends. What's going on is that someone with an identity, a name, commitments to people and causes is still the same person but is denying his continuing identity and the obligations associated with it - or having them denied for him by the new wife.

The Greeks recognized that "permanence of character" was the basis of the virtuous life. Of course people can change - for the better and for the worse - but the recognition that they are the same persons is crucial for identity, responsibility and public reputation. It is this, of course, which demolishes the current enthusiasm for keeping a public figure's professional reputation separate from his private life. They cannot be separated because he is the same person. If he cheats on his wife, he may well cheat on his country. There is one person, one character, the same person, the same character both at home and at work. Once Christianity explained and maintained this truth that each person was just that, a person, the same person throughout his life and to the Judgement and beyond. Just as each was separately loved by God, so each was integral, not an empty box through which interests, fashions, ideals and loyalties passed but a unity. The life of such a person was not a pile of affairs, idealistic attachments, and hobbies but a biography.

This was central to the moral and societal order of Christendom. Both the Christian name and family name furnished a way to anchor moral responsibility and public reputation to the person. It no longer holds. Once everyone in a community knew who everyone else was through his name or at least knew him as a No-Name, a stranger. Even the French boy was known as, "that foreigner, Eyetie or something staying with the Richardsons in Green Avenue". The loss of that sort of identity means a loss in the sort of security it helped established. It is no use this Government whose modernization project has so undermined this true security, thinking it can be re-established by "cards of identity". As for the BBC, the phrase it wants is, "the so-called Mahmoud Abbas".

Digby Anderson retired as Director of the Social Affairs Unit earlier this year.

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The Internet allows one, very easily, to assume someone else's identity, simply by creating a webmail account with their name. And think of all those Nigerian email scammers, adopting the identities of widows/sons/lovers of vaguely famous dictators. The gradual erosion of mutual social trust by such means is another example of this phenomenon that I describe in my excellent article. Read it again!

Posted by: Digby Anderson at December 16, 2004 06:54 PM

Very droll last comment - and illustrates the real Digby Anderson's point very well about how confusing name changes can be.

Posted by: Jim Johnson at December 17, 2004 11:42 AM

Digby Anderson seems to miss one central point about name changes - that there is a group which has always had to change its name, especially in the type of society Dr Anderson eulogises - namely women. Permanence of identity is all well and good - but why should it only apply to men?

Posted by: Jane at December 17, 2004 12:00 PM

During the 1979-1989 war, many of my Afghan friends had to assume noms-de-guerre in order to protect their families from Soviet reprisals, so Palestinians may have a similar need -- I am not certain.

Also in some cultures people take new names when they come of age, formally or informally, optionally or required. In most of those cases, again seen with some South Asian Muslims, they live in a rather close community so there is no question of anyone hiding his past. It is hardly the same, but then again perhaps not completely different than in PG Wodehouse, where the Foreign Minister's classmates (a tightly knit community) call him Stinker or Fishpaste.

Posted by: s j masty at December 19, 2004 09:44 PM

In what way is this name-changing person presumed to have some sort of anonymity? If one moves from, say, Manchester to Edinburgh, it doesn't matter whether one reatains one's name, or changes it. The people's opinions of you are still going to be changed by who you are, and what you tell them about your past - not by the connotations of your name. (Unless, of course, people do some deep digging. But if they're that determined they'll probably find out the 'truth' regardless of whether your name has changed or not.)

Secondly; names are passed on from family, at least here in the West. What if one desires to entirely reject their familiy, as I do? I can't imagine having a child whose name bears any connection to the scum who betrayed me; it would be an insult to them to be tarred with that brush.

With regards to the "three sorts of name change which have happened recently which are especially dangerous.", the first is not one which can be judged by anyone other than a close acquaintance - maybe the person really has changed and maybe they have not, but I doubt many people outside their immediate circle of confidants would have the qualifications to make that judgement. The second is a personal choice. Whilst one may infer whatever they wish from such a choice, there is hardly any danger in it. (Unless, of course, a feminist is dangerous not because of radical ideas they espouse but rather because of how one addresses them.) And in the third instance, I again fail to see the danger to or indeed the justification for interest of outside parties. If a man and woman make such a claim, that is their business; let them keep it in their relationship, not drag it out for all to see because a relationship is found distasteful.

I honestly can see no danger whatsoever in any of those cases. Using the kind of almost comic-book villainy found in detective novels hardly makes a point either. It seems to me as though Digby Anderson is making a mountain out of what is, at best, a small and very weathered molehill.

Posted by: H. V. Hobbes at April 12, 2005 01:16 PM

The only reason someone could object to people changing their name would be if they suffered from paranoia. There is no reason to assume that if someone changes their name they are looking to escape or evade some kind of past mis-deed.
The examples given reveal more about the author's mind than that of people who change their name. Really this is a mute point. People can and do change their names and will continue to do so.
It seems to me that Digby Anderson has had a personal experience of someone close to them changing their name and this is why this objection has been rasied.

Posted by: Chris at May 20, 2005 02:14 PM

Madonna is her real (birth) name.

Posted by: Melanie Adams at August 7, 2007 12:11 AM

Is the quote from the begining a quote from Digby Anderson??
I am writing a speech for a speech contest on celebrities changing their names and how it is wrong and i want to use this quote and i need to know the speaker of it.

Thanks alot,

Posted by: Amy at January 16, 2008 10:37 PM
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