A few days ago, someone directed me to the Sarah Palin Baby Name Generator. I entered my name, giggled a bit, and moved on. Didn’t think much of it. Then, a listserv I’m on shared the link, and my inbox was flooded with people sharing their Palin names. At first, I was annoyed simply because my inbox was being flooded by this, but then I started to wonder about the politics behind this name generator. A few others raised concerns about various aspects of the generator, including that conservatives are be on the list and might be offended. This wasn’t really my concern. At the surface, this seems like a simple case of fun and games: Many people think the names of Palin’s children (or at least some of them) are ridiculous: Track, Trig, Bristol, Willow, and Piper.
Last week I was told the story of a teacher who ridiculed a student’s name in front of the class because it was foreign and hard to pronounce, and the student had a thick accent, which made it harder to understand for this teacher. I remember teaching middle school and how, in the teacher’s lounge, teachers would mock some students’ names, particularly those names that weren’t traditional names, names like Willow. I won’t share any of my students’ names for privacy sake, but I was uncomfortable â€” or, rather, I remember being uncomfortable. Perhaps I joked along with them. I can’t remember exactly.
When something is funny, I think it’s important to ask ourselves why it’s funny. This name generator is funny to lots of people (and, from what I’m told, it’s not a matter of political allegiance, either). Let’s look at a hypothetical. I wonder, what if, instead of Malia Ann and Natasha (Sasha), the Obama’s had named their children names coded as African American or even Muslim? I think Malia and Sasha are slightly coded as “other,” but perhaps Jai’breon and Quanesha? (I found these names here.) What would be the reaction by liberals to a website called the Obama Baby Name Generator? I think the website would offend liberal sensibilities surrounding race, and the site would be called xenophobic and racist. And, I think, rightly so.
So, why is it okay to make fun of a name like Trig or Track and not a name like Jai’breon? What sort of names are Trig and Track? Perhaps they are markers of class or location. In my experience, my students with names that weren’t “normal” “American” names were generally from the margins of society: white working class or working poor, African-American, hippie separatist parents. Of course, I can’t draw a real generalization from my own experience (that would be epistemologically flawed). But I wonder if the Palin names are coded for class or location. And while racism is rampant in this country, very few people want to appear to be explicitly racist, but are fine with being classist or regionalist (think about how frequently rural Appalachian names are mocked).
But, as I wonder about the possibilities of how these names are coded as “other,” I think there’s other routes for disagreeing with this type of site. I think the site has two effects: 1) the ridicule of children, which just seems cruel to me; and 2) an assault on Palin’s qualifications as a mother. To name a child an “odd” name in our country is read as poor parenting: you are setting your child up for ridicule and possible ostracizing. Of course, we never blame our culture for the ridicule and ostracizing â€”Â always the parents. I think to ridicule the Palins for their choices of children names is to state implicitly that they are poor parents, and, since parenting is so tied in with citizenship in this country, it is also to imply that they are poor citizens. At least, this is my hunch.
Ultimately, though, I think mocking a person’s name is just a poor way to treat another person. I’ll admit my own culpability: I’ve mocked plenty of names. I’ll probably do it again, when I’m not thinking about it.
I brought this critique up, though poorly worded and accidentally anonymous, at the Blogora, and in the comments Jim Aune brought up the excellent point that “Ridicule is a perfectly normal and occasionally helpful rhetorical tactic.” I absolutely agree with him, as I’ve ridiculed plenty of things and seen plenty of ridicule that seems really effective. An example of such ridicule, though not so effective, is The Barack Obama Quote Generator. It’s not so funny, but it’s an attempt at ridiculing the way so many of Obama’s speeches are filled with generalities rather than specifics â€” a rather poor attempt, in my opinion.
So, I’ll try to wrap up. We mock names that aren’t “normal,” which creates a small range of names considered okay. But why? In the comments to the Blogora post, Kristin asks, “How do you choose your childrens’ names? What do you consider “normal” and how was “normal” created? Is Palin on the cutting edge or did she miss the moose?” I don’t really know if I have answers to these questions. I wouldn’t say that Palin is on the cutting edge of naming children. How do people (by “you,” I hope Kristin meant “people” and not me) name children? I imagine they choose names that remind them of something or someone in a good way, or they like the sound of a name, or probably for a variety of reasons. But how should people name their children? I think the exact same ways they do (with the exception of those parents who are intentionally cruel by trying to name their children profanity).
It’s then a matter of accepting different names when we encounter them.
(Additionally, it’s worth mentioning that this website is the “Sarah Palin Baby Name Generator,” and not the “Todd Palin Baby Name Generator” or the “Palin Baby Name Generator”)
I’m not denying that the Sarah Palin Baby Name Generator is funny to a lot of people. Because of its unpredictability, it’s at least funnier than The Obama Name Generator, which simply gives you your first name, followed by “Hussein” with a strikethrough, and Obama as a last name. What I’m questioning is why it’s funny and if it should be funny. I also want to add that everything I’ve written above is up for revision, as I’m just thinking through this, and I’m not completely sure. Is it too hard-line to ask to not mock a child’s name ever? Is this too much of an ideal? Is it okay to ridicule the Palins as parents because they named their children Trig and Track? Is this really an issue of power for me, in that children have little to no power in public discourse, yet adults do? Is it okay to mock the name of someone with power? For example, I love the bumper sticker that says “The only Bush I trust is my own,” which borders on ridiculing a name (though probably not quite).
I’m curious what other folks think of this issue. Is it an ethical issue? If so, what are the ethics?