Growing up, I listened to a lot of different music: rock, pop, jazz, classical etc. I remember a quirky piece of music that caught my attention, a song that I thought was out of character for the artist, “A Boy Named Sue” by Johnny Cash. The song was popular in 1969; it was written by the poet Shel Silverstein and debuted by Cash in a concert at San Quentin State Prison.
It was a long song that told a story of a tortured young man who was “misnamed” and the effect the name had on his life. After naming his son Sue, Sue’s father leaves home, leaving the boy to grow up getting teased about his name and having countless fights over the years to defend his honor. To avenge this injustice, the young man decides to track down his father, eventually finding him in a bar in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Upon greeting one another, they have a tremendous fight which ends with father and son pulling guns on each other. The son beats his father to the draw and then the father explains why he called his son Sue: “if a man’s gonna make it, he’s gotta be tough, and I knew I wouldn’t be there to help ya along, so I give ya that name and I said goodbye, I knew you’d have to get tough or die, and it’s the name that helped to make you strong.” The son accepts the explanation and does not kill his father but he is still not happy about being Sue, and vows that if he ever has a son he will call him “Bill or George! Anything but Sue! I still hate that name!”
Describing this song makes me think about the effect that labels can have on people. Pastor Labberton* writes that labels help us “manage the world around us. We name what we see in terms that reflect value, meaning, position, relationship, affinity” . Sue’s father may have had a plan in mind when he gave his son a female name but the father’s label shaped the way others saw the son. Communication research on labels states that names not only shape the way others see us, but they also impact how we act. Adler and Procter** write that people with unusual names “suffer everything from psychological and emotions disturbance to failure in college….Names are one way to shape and reinforce a child’s personal identity.”
Of course names are usually bestowed on children by parents but it doesn’t stop there. All of us “name” people in our world; we have to find words to share experiences so we are all in the business of labeling people, places and things in our world. Problems arise in misnaming or the use of negative labels. We should be very careful about the words we use but often we are not.
Pastor Labberton points to the labels we use as a chief reason that Christians don’t get involved with issues that really need our attention. For example, we hear endless statistics about children being sold into sex trafficking each year. These words don’t seem to be getting a reaction from the Christian community.
Maybe we should hear the words “commodity”, “transaction” or “slave” applied to the children who are trafficked. Would that elicit a response? Maybe not if you don’t have any way to relate to the people who are being trafficked.
How about Mitali?
Mitali is a thirteen year-old who now belongs to her pimp. She has a mother but she hated living with her. One day she felt she could not stand her life anymore so she ran away and started trying to live on the street. With no marketable skill to earn a living and absolutely no support from any family member, a sex trafficker was her only way to stay alive. She became a commodity, a transaction, a slave.
Of course in the opening story about “Sue,” his life is made more difficult because of a label but Labberton thinks the labels we use spur us on to learn more about a problem that needs to be fixed or they repel us and we create distance between us and a serious need. Are the words we use bridges or barriers?
We have to use words; they contain our thoughts. They convey our messages. Yes, they can inspire us to do what needs to be done to change the world or maybe words can be used to distance us from problems that need our serious attention.
Think about it. When we hear words about people who need our help…
Are the words that you hear bridges to action; do we want to get to know the people with problems and do we want to know what we can do to help them?
Or are the words barriers to action; we distance ourselves from people with needs by using vague language? We shrink from their presence and their problems. The words allow us to be apathetic. Here is how it works. We use words so that responsibility is passed on to nameless others.
“Someone should do something for them.”
That someone is not me…
*Author of The Dangerous Act of Loving Your Neighbor
**Authors of Looking Out, Looking In