True Names and Labels

True Names and Labels
Photo by Lisa Baker / Unsplash

Epistemic Status: Thinking out loud.

This is a time full of the best sort of uncertainty. Reality is a lot more of a general mish-mash than it is a meaningful set of divided concepts. There are places where the lines between realities blur, and then thinly dissolve.

Changing roles is part of this. We can choose to define our own existence in a million different ways. The old tales have truth in them when they say that there is power in a true name.

By naming a thing, we assign a role to it. Naming someone "Leader" makes them become more of a leader. Naming someone "Prophet" makes them prophesy.

There is a sense in which naming is an act of recognition. "Messiah," "Christ," "Dalai Lama," and "Son of Horus" are calling out (alleged) preexisting attributes.

But for those who are in the more common role of not being labeled as having preexisting attributes, a different role is in play for names. They are not labeling innate attributes. Rather, they are setting expectations. This is interesting because you are signalling that you are carving reality in a particular way, to reify an aspect of yourself, or another person.

Most people are not single-purpose monoliths. But there is a power law drop-off for the complexity that people perceive you with. A lover or a close friend could write pages about how you are different from human society as a whole.

A colleague could write paragraphs. A relative stranger could write a handful of words. By naming yourself to them ("King," "Artist," "Engineer", "Preacher"), you are not directly changing your reality. However, you are changing their subjective reality, and the interface that they use when interacting with you.

Labels are everything for shallow relationships. For deep ones, they are mostly irrelevant.

The interior of who you are hasn't changed if you use a different label. You can be a surgeon in one context, and an emo band member in another. But it's important to recognize that simply by choosing to label yourself in one way or another, your behaviour in that context changes. In a similar way, changing your label changes the behaviour of those around you. People who won't hesitate to weave profanities into their speech alongside someone with the label of "Actor" might hesitate to use a well-placed "fuck" around someone they only know as the label of "Pastor."

It may be more helpful to view this on a different pair of axes.

In this view of looking at things, the more important a label is to someone's mental model of you, the more it changes their behaviour around you.

If this was interesting to you, let me know. This concept is still mulling in my head, and I'll probably change it up a bit and refine it as time goes on.

Subscribe to

Don’t miss out on the latest issues. Sign up now to get access to the library of members-only issues.