Secular names: how and why?

In this post I want to look a little more closely at how some Indian secular activists – that is, proponents of secularism who belong to rationalist, humanist, and atheist organisations – have been experimenting with strategies to scramble and mix up the automatic separation and labeling function of personal names, and also why they might want to do this.

Interestingly, some secular names carry a kind of educational message – which is to say that part of their purpose, in being given as names, is to encourage people to reflect on them, and their operation. Names that withhold the information usually associated with them, in a sense, call attention to themselves, possibly provoking reflection (on the part of the person encountering them) on the arbitrariness, changeability, and role of names in forming the very community distinctions they signify.

But is not to say they always succeed in this, but rather to suggest that this is where some users of such names locate the value in them. I employ the term ‘meta-name’ to call attention to this educational function of the name in certain instances of secular experiments with names.

I suggest that there are two main strategies used by secular activists to create ‘secular names’: (1) purification of the caste and religious connotations of names, and (2) multiplication of those connotations in the giving of boundary-crossing names. (Though we’ll see in later weeks that the strategies can sometimes overlap). What both strategies seek to do is to break the association between name and pigeonholed identity.

Before going any further it is important to note that the association between personal name and demographic background wasn’t always there. Historians and anthropologists of India have shown how group boundaries were solidified both by their interactions with the state and with various kinds of reform movements, caste associations, and other mechanisms for removing any ambiguity with regard to the straightforward identification of name with the social group.

One way of thinking about what has been occurring is this: if prior state and reformist separation of communities used a kind of logic of either/or, the two strategies pursued by activists operate according to logics of, one the one hand, both/and (boundary-crossing names), and on the other, neither/nor (purified names). Certainly, not all or even a majority of activists engage in such experimentation, but every rationalist is able to point to examples from within their circle of 
activism, and there are rationalist associations where naming innovations are absolutely normal and indeed required. For Punjab’s dynamic and influential Tarksheel organisation, for instance, dropping one’s caste surname is a condition of membership.

Let us now consider why they are experimenting in these ways.

I suggest there are three principal reasons.

First, activists take up a position that sees the obvious associations and the automatic separation and labeling function of personal names as leading to the restriction of human flourishing. For the French sociologist and anthropologist Pierre Bourdieu, names ‘inaugurate the actor’s identity and inform him in an authoritative manner of what he is and what he must be,’ and this can equally describe the rationalists’ view. Rationalist activists seek to avoid the ought self imposed on a person by their name; to release themselves and others from its contraints.

Second, activists need to show consistency. Anti-caste activism is part of the Indian rationalist worldview. Activists conduct high-profile anti-superstition and miracle demonstration campaigns, and many activists describe caste as the biggest superstition of all. Keeping for themselves a caste surname leaves activists open to being labeled hypocrites (similar to the recent accusations levelled at novelist and human rights activist Arundhati Roy who, after the publication of her new introduction to B.R. Ambedkar’s The Annihilation of Caste, was challenged on her own continued use of a caste surname).

Third, and most important, is activists’ awareness of the role of names in enabling discrimination.

In 2004 the economists Bertrand and Mullainathan published a pioneering study which revealed how employers in Boston and Chicago discriminate against equally qualified candidates based solely on whether their names are considered to be typically ‘white’ or ‘black’. A few years later, in 2010, Bertrand and Mullainathan’s study was replicated in Indian contexts to very revealing effect. What Thorat and Attewell did was to respond to private sector job adverts with CVs demonstrating equal qualifications, but with names indicating different caste and religious backgrounds, finding that applicants with obviously Dalit, low caste or Muslim-sounding names were far less likely than those with high caste ones to hear back from employers. Since caste and religious discrimination is an everyday reality for millions of Indians, the findings are not that much of a surprise. But the research is nonetheless very valuable for vividly displaying the socio-economic stakes of personal names in the region, and for showing how deluded much of the rhetoric is that celebrates the supposed ‘post-caste’ egalitarianism of the liberalised Indian economy. The demographic baggage of names evidently plays a key role in everyday discrimination, from the notorious difficulties faced by people with low-caste or Islamic names in finding properties for rent, to obtaining jobs, and so on.

So we can see that secular activists’ naming experiments address a particular social problem. In future posts on this website I want to unpack in greater detail the differing strategies employed by activists to response to the problem of the automatic separation and labeling function of personal names. It is not all plain sailing for secular activists. Acts of renaming, and ‘unusual’ names as such, can be and are contested. Ordinary language philosopher J. L. Austin noted of performative utterances that, if they are not enacted in ordinary circumstances but, for instance, on the stage, out of earshot, or in a language the hearer does not understand, will be simply ‘hollow or void’. Secular naming practices by their very nature are extraordinary—this is how they gain their power but it also leaves them open to being ignored, ridiculed or classed as illegitimate, especially by those who seek to preserve community boundaries. Such a focus on debates and criticisms both within and outside the movement about the worth and validity of particular naming strategies is key for clarifying what is at stake in the domain of secular naming practices, for instance in seeking to work out whether naming innovations can directly challenge inequality and discrimination or the opposite.