We’re all familiar with He-who-must-not-be named, the evil Lord Vol—well, you know, and before him there was another “him who we do not name,” Sauron, and before those all the folklore and legends of a nameless evil from which these derive. No coincidence, either, that both take the title Dark Lord. Darkness conceals, hiding the true nature of things, which is why it has always been associated with evil, while the light, which reveals every detail, is the power of good. Evil is vague and shapeless, ever changing, resisting any solid definition. To give it a name feels like a lie, as though we are granting it too much cogency. Like drawing a monster out of the shadows, to name anything is to reckon with it, to admit that it is real. To know and to use a name is imply a relationship, the difference between a stranger and a friend. So we both struggle and fear to name evil, but nothing good cannot be named.
Nonetheless, it must be done. What the wizards of Hogwarts and the men of Gondor were trying to do was to hide. Though they daily struggled against the dark forces, they did not want to admit the true nature of what they fought, lest they call down its full wrath on themselves. But Harry, who knew too well the reality of his foe and had a personal relationship with him, never failed to call him by his name. For definition has its own power. We cannot understand or analyze or judge something until we first define it. Once we have a word, we can manipulate it, as an idea, in our minds, to break it into pieces, to see where it came from and guess where it is going, to argue for it or determine how to fight against it, and to share those thoughts with others. The process of converting the world into forms we can understand and control within our minds has been the whole project of science and philosophy and religion from the advent of language. It’s what gives humanity our unique strength.
Like every kind of power, we are proficient at its misuse. We are tempted not just to name the world around us but to make a name for ourselves. It’s not about fame but control. If we are allowed to define ourselves then we can control the way other people understand and interact with us. Tom Riddle changed his named to inspire fear, but we most often seek is legitimacy and acceptance. The corollary, then, is that if we allow anyone else to know us and define us, we will be exposed and rejected. The world is cruel and we are insufficient. Our hearts are full of prejudice and contempt. As an individual, it is dangerous to allow yourself to put into a category you can’t control, but there is the promise of strength in self-determination.
I wonder if that is what we are all seeking with the various identity movements of today. On the one hand, we refuse to be put into traditional categories. No one can dictate our gender or our sexual preferences or our religious denomination or our social class. We don’t want to be put in a box (or a drop-down menu). We prefer fill-in-the-blanks. On the other hand, we recognize the power of affiliation. We jockey for positions in minorities or elites, in parties or protests, in schools and clubs, and we toss our opponents into the ranks of the oppressors or the uneducated or the ungodly. The two hands are converging as we tighten our definitions and divide ourselves into smaller and smaller groups. Every difference and detail requires its own category and its unique recognition. It’s like the Protestant Reformation for sex and race and politics. Eventually we shall each inhabit our own denomination, seeking to maximize our own power. But it is a false power. The moment we each have our own unique definition is the moment definition becomes powerless. A definition that no one else shares is a vague and shapeless thing, subject to constant change, which no one can ever understand. To say you are Democrat is to tell others about your views. To say you are a member of your own personal political party is to say nothing of your politics at all.
It’s important to define what we see in the world and ourselves, even the Dark Lords and the disturbing trends. How can we understand or battle them if we don’t? Refusing to acknowledge prejudice or deviance or hatred won’t make them disappear any more than not diagnosing a cancer will make the tumor go away, but it must be undertaken with a desire for truth and understanding. The danger lies in the attempt to control how we are defined, which conceals the truth, inhibits understanding, and inspires fear and hatred on both sides of the equation. It’s a good and proper tradition that we are given our names and do not choose them ourselves. There’s a bit of Tom Riddle, and Lord Voldemort, in us all.