On February 12, 2019, a lengthy naming dispute was ended between what is now called the Republic of North Macedonia and the Republic of Greece over the naming of the country. For almost three decades the two countries have been in a state of serious disagreement over the name of a small and poor and landlocked country that gained its independence in the general collapse of Yugoslavia. The area itself has been fought over by many peoples and not only consists of a large number of Macedonians (themselves a South Slavic people, at least linguistically) and Albanians, but was also one of the causes of wars in the 19th and early 20th century in which the Macedonians were considered by Bulgaria to be their own ethnic kindred and a legitimate part of their own nation and in the 20th century received an identity of their own and finally a nation-state of their own. No longer do we have to watch international scenes like the Olympics where this nation is called by the awkward acrynom FYROM in order to appease the interests of Greeks who refused to let the republic be called simply Macedonia. Now the fact that the nation is called North Macedonia will lead to the obvious question of where South Macedonia is, and the answer is that it is in Northern Greece.
It may be of some surprise that the unity (or lack thereof) of the territory of Macdonia has been an international incident. The ancient Greekish kingdom of Macedon itself was a somewhat peripheral realm to the Greeks, seen as not fully Greek and not fully civilized, and its rise in the fourth century had dramatic consequences for the rest of the civilized world thanks to the military exploits of first Philip of Macedon and then his son Alexander. Later on, during the rise of the Roman Empire, Macedon was eventually conquered in the second century BC by the Roman Republic and it was proposed to split up Macedonia into four provinces, which prompted a futile rebellion by the people who insisted on being put together as one province. And so they were. In our times, Greek and Slav can be at peace only if the area of Macedonia is viewed as sundered between the two linguistic and cultural regions and not unified under the rule of a small and obscure state. Each age must find its own way to navigate concerns of identity and peace between quarreling parties.
It is not only in areas of international diplomacy where the issue of deadnames is particularly important. Identity can be a serious issue. Organizations and companies regularly change their names when their old name has suffered disrepute and they no longer want the baggage associated with that previous name. In June of 2018, pharmaceutical giant Bayer purchased Monsanto and informed the world that they were going to drop the company’s infamous name, which has become associated with bullying tactics as well as a general lack of legitimacy in its aims and goals to pervert creation for their own corporate profit. Let us note in many cases that the change of names does not signal that the company plans on behaving differently in the future, only that it wishes for a clean slate and not to be judged for the sins of its past. The claiming of a new name tends to carry with it the desire to obliterate the past and to consign it to oblivion, and those who have changed their names and claimed a new identity are often hostile to being reminded of the past, and do not have a willingness to own up to that past.
So it is no surprise that our culture’s obsession with identity politics has led to problems regarding the naming of people. In some areas it is considered a criminal offense to call someone by a previous name. Before he gave himself the name of Muhammad Ali, the boxer was known as Cassius Clay. Is it wrong to acknowledge him by the name he was given at birth? Do parents have a right to name their children and have that name be a permanently valid identity, or is an identity only valid that is accepted and chosen for oneself? In the realm of countries, we have seen that even sovereign nations do not possess unilateral names to call themselves what they wish, but those names must be recognized and negotiated over. The fact that companies may want to dodge an acknowledgement of past wrongs by changing their corporation names is something that is such a disreputable concept that it was made fun of by one of the lamest songs of the 1980’s (Starship’s “We Built This City”, for the record). It should be noted, appropriately enough, that the band Starship was itself the third iteration of a complex family of bands that had originally been known as Jefferson Airship and then Jefferson Starship.
In practice, therefore, the question of deadnames is something that requires a great deal of negotiation, not something that our current generation of identity politics-obsessed people is well-equipped to handle. If who we are is to have any sort of stability over time, and if our identity is to have any legitimacy, then that identity must itself recognize the past as well as the present and future. We may be better than we once we. We may have faced various struggles and difficulties, and done things that we may not feel very well about now, but if we are to be acknowledged as people of honor and decency and worth, we must acknowledge not only who we are at present and what we want to be and do in the future, but the whole course of our existence. To cast aside the past as a deadname that is not be referred to on pain of civil and criminal damages is deeply unjust to the cause of the truth. This is true whether the party that wishes to bury the past is someone who claims to be transgender or a company that does not want to acknowledge or address past wrongs that besmirched its reputation.
This is, admittedly, a very tough-minded view. Yet let us consider that the desire to escape the deeds of the past and the acquisition of new identities is not only a desire of the present generation. Those who might be unhappy about being asked to accept their full past behavior, including behavior they currently regret, can be comforted by the example of the apostle Paul. In Acts 26, we find Paul having to answer for what must have seemed the billionth time his own past life as a persecutor of Christians, which he greatly regretted after having had his Damascus conversion to Christianity, after which he became a very persuasive spokesman for the faith. We find him addressing his unpleasant past in Acts 26:2-11: ““I think myself happy, King Agrippa, because today I shall answer for myself before you concerning all the things of which I am accused by the Jews, especially because you are expert in all customs and questions which have to do with the Jews. Therefore I beg you to hear me patiently. My manner of life from my youth, which was spent from the beginning among my own nation at Jerusalem, all the Jews know. They knew me from the first, if they were willing to testify, that according to the strictest sect of our religion I lived a Pharisee. And now I stand and am judged for the hope of the promise made by God to our fathers. To this promise our twelve tribes, earnestly serving God night and day, hope to attain. For this hope’s sake, King Agrippa, I am accused by the Jews. Why should it be thought incredible by you that God raises the dead? “Indeed, I myself thought I must do many things contrary to the name of Jesus of Nazareth. This I also did in Jerusalem, and many of the saints I shut up in prison, having received authority from the chief priests; and when they were put to death, I cast my vote against them. And I punished them often in every synagogue and compelled them to blaspheme; and being exceedingly enraged against them, I persecuted them even to foreign cities.” Paul goes on to explain his conversion and the change of life it entailed. But let us note that Paul did not seek to hide his previous identity or the deeds he did, nor did he show himself angry when he had to repeatedly discuss his past life and how he changed from the past to the present.
After all, genuine conversion of any kind requires a drastic change from the past to the present. Who we are now can only properly be seen from the context of the journey we have traveled from the beginning of life, from the experiences we have had, from the trials and struggles we have overcome, from the backgrounds we have either followed in or rejected, from the places we have known and how they have shaped us for better or worse. If we are people of honesty and integrity, we will acknowledge the full extent of that course of life, even those parts which are less than flattering to ourselves, as part of the acknowledgement of what has shaped us to help form who we are today. We cannot trust the identity of someone who has placed a great deal of their lives in secret and pronounced it a crime to investigate and uncover that past. If people or institutions wish to be viewed with respect, that respect is earned through candor and openness about the past, including past identities and past identity commitments. To hide a past identity is to admit that we are not people worth trusting with hearts and reputations and honor. Rather, the identities we claim for ourselves must be negotiated in a world where not everyone is going to be favorable to our claims. That is as much a fact of reality as any deadnames we or Monsanto might want to leave behind.