Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Identity Crisis

So what's in a name, anyway?

By Margaret Renkl

NOVEMBER 9, 1998:  Ever since I quit my job as a high-school teacher, I've had a hard time coming up with a shorthand definition of myself. There's something very solid about a word like teacher; it's a word that comforts people. When you utter the phrase, "I am a teacher," people believe they know how to think about you. They may not think very highly of your intelligence or your ambition, but a label like teacher causes no difficulty in translation, no blank looks at cocktail parties. A lot of people are puzzled when someone announces, "I'm a computer-systems analyst" or "I trade futures." As a statement of identity, "I am a teacher," by contrast, is clear as bottled water.

Only I'm not a teacher anymore. I'm a stay-at-home mother, I guess, since I stay at home with my children and manage the endless tasks of running a home: the shopping, cooking, washing, folding, cleaning, reading, singing, wiping, bandaging, kissing, carrying, and driving, driving, driving. But since I also employ a part-time baby-sitter while I write for newspapers and magazines, I'm a working mother too. Sometimes my work becomes more full-than part-time, and my husband has to spend evenings and weekends doing my job as a stay-at-home mom so I can finish something for my other job as a freelance writer.

This combination of roles and responsibilities is neither tidy nor clear. But I prefer the confusion to any seemingly plainer label worn like a placard for people to see and think they understand. Professional and political categories are supposed to be clarifying, a social shorthand that ostensibly conveys the crucial facts about a new acquaintance. "Didn't change her name when she got married, must be a feminist," a person being introduced at a party might think rapidly to himself: "Gotta stay away from family values and lesbian light bulb jokes."

But such terms rarely clarify anything. Besides the fact that real people often deviate from opinions presumed of those in a particular category, most people wear more than one label, and those labels can exist in diametric opposition to each other. I am, for example, a Southern, married, liberal, middle-aged, white, Catholic, feminist, stay-at-home mother of three who makes a living as a freelance writer. Many of these terms imply contradictory opinions, but since none of them alone reflects me in sum, I'm stuck with them all.

Which role I play depends partly upon which stage I happen to be standing on. And yet this shape-shifting identity, this lack of a fixed pole by which to locate myself, causes me no real anxiety because the part of me called into being by each context is usually clear. At my son's school, for instance, I am called by my married name, but my professional by-lines carry the name I was born with. In meetings at church, I keep my opinion about fertility issues to myself; among liberal academic friends, I see no reason to bring up my prayer life. Some people would call this hypocrisy. I call it reality.

We have a name for people who willingly wear only one label. The political world is full of them--Christian conservatives, feminists, environmentalists--ideologues who worry and nudge the same worn topic over and over like a cat with a half-dead chipmunk. People who do not alter their behavior according to context, who cavil and carp about their own pet topics no matter whether they're a guest in someone's home, sitting with colleagues at the company canteen, or waiting in the hook-up line at their children's school--we commonly call such people bores.

"A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds," Ralph Waldo Emerson famously indited, and here at the end of the 20th century his words ring particularly true. Unfortunately, though, ideologues these days are often far worse than mere bores. If he were writing in today's political climate, Emerson might have felt compelled to omit the word foolish and substitute dangerous instead.

Today we can turn on the television and watch as an entire congregation of small-minded people, crouching behind their chosen tag Christian, picket bewildered mourners at the funeral of a young gay man beaten to death by a vicious sociopath. Today we can open the paper and read that someone wearing a right-to-life label has murdered an ob/gyn, whose practice included abortion, because his family values were allegedly insufficient. Never mind that the doctor and his wife had just returned from services at their synagogue; never mind that his own four children were present for his execution.

A lot of people right now are energetically castigating the president of the United States because he was unfaithful to his wife and lied about it to anyone who asked. "At least I'm honest,"we're thinking to ourselves, "not like Bill Clinton." But when we emblazon a scarlet "A" (for adulterer) or an "L" (for liar) across Bill Clinton's chest and proudly wear an "H" (for honest) across our own, how honest are we really being? Even the worst scolds have to admit when pressed that it's hard to imagine a person who's entirely honest. Instead, we each decide which contexts we'll be honest in and which we won't, and we tell ourselves that our own brand of dishonesty is OK.

This is not glib semantics, another crime the president stands accused of. I'm not arguing there's no difference between acts of dishonesty; I'm merely pointing out that we aren't likely to come up with a national consensus about how to rank one kind of dishonesty over another. It's just a fact that people don't define abstract terms in exactly the same way. I know very honest people who think nothing of taking home a box of paper clips from the office supply closet, others who write off social dinners as business expenses, and still others who neglect to declare incidental earnings on their tax returns.

Honesty is honesty, you would think, no matter the context. According to this logic, honest people are good, and dishonest people lack character (to borrow a term from recent election ads). In fact it's not that easy, despite what politicians and media commentators want us to believe. Conservatives aren't necessarily patriarchal racists, nor feminists always man-hating baby-killers. Reality simply won't give way to handy labels.

"You're a silly goose," I said once to my teasing little boy.

"No," he said, "I'm not a goose. I'm a human." In the end, that may be the only label that ever truly fits.

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