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By Saying Their Names, We Honor Others As Individuals

Columns appearing on the service and this webpage represent the views of the authors, not of The University of Texas at Austin.

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Late spring and early summer are a busy time for cycle events. We celebrate weddings and graduations, and we remember those who gave their lives for our country. These milestones often include saying the names of those whom we honor or celebrate. At birth and death, too, we mark the arrival or departure of a unique human being by using their full name.

Life cycle events remind us of the importance and the power of names. One of the most basic forms of respect that we can offer to another person is to call them by their name. Our fellow human beings deserve this respect from us all the time, not just on special occasions.

Some names take longer to say than others. And our names can communicate individual characteristics, such as our parentage, our gender, or our ethnicity. But beyond those differences, there is a deep and powerful sameness. When we say someone’s name, we say to that person: “You are here. You matter. This moment would not be the same without you.”

It’s true that saying the name of each member of a large group can seem tedious, as in graduations for hundreds or even thousands of students. It is overwhelming in a different way to encounter the endless rows of headstones stretching across a military cemetery.

At one level, every graduate blurs into every other graduate. But a unique human experience belongs to each person walking across the graduation stage. So too, every couple has a different story that led them to a marriage ceremony. And a group, whether a graduating class or a military company, is shaped by the individuals and the human stories within it. For the individual participants in a life cycle celebration, it is a unique and meaningful moment in their lives.

Saying someone’s name is especially important precisely when it is easiest to lose sight of the individuals within a larger group. When we say someone’s full name, we invite everyone present to focus on that person as an individual. Every graduate deserves the opportunity to walk across the stage and be celebrated, and every fallen service member the honor of a named memorial.

When we participate in these ceremonies, we honor every participant with the same attention and respect. Using someone’s name when they move from one stage of life to another ensures that we honor them both as an individual and as a member of a larger group.

Life cycle events may also involve changes to our names. Perhaps we take on a new title when we graduate from school or finish a professional training program. Many people change their last name when they get married. Others change their first name for a variety of reasons.

Anyone who has watched a graduation official meticulously enunciate every syllable of hundreds of students’ names knows how much people care if we get their names right at important events. But it also matters in day-to-day life. When we use someone’s name, and we pronounce it correctly, we show our respect and recognition of them.

On the other hand, if we refuse to use the name that someone has asked us to use, we deprive that person of their self-determination. Of their freedom to be who they are.

When we give someone a nickname rather than try to pronounce an unfamiliar name, or call our trans neighbor by their former name, we decide who those people are.

No one has that right.

We do not have to agree with someone’s choices about their identity. But we cannot make those choices for another person.

At many life cycle events, we honor people as individuals by saying their names. Everyone deserves that recognition every single day.

Deborah Beck is an associate professor of classics and a provost’s teaching fellow at The University of Texas at Austin.

A version of this op-ed appeared in the Austin American-Statesman and the Waco Tribune Herald.

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Texas Perspectives is a wire-style service produced by The University of Texas at Austin that is intended to provide media outlets with meaningful and thoughtful opinion columns (op-eds) on a variety of topics and current events. Authors are faculty members and staffers at UT Austin who work with University Communications to craft columns that adhere to journalistic best practices and Associated Press style guidelines. The University of Texas at Austin offers these opinion articles for publication at no charge. Columns appearing on the service and this webpage represent the views of the authors, not of The University of Texas at Austin.

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